The time for action is now. So said Ted Stanley of the Dukes County charter study commission last week.
“Everyone is caught up with the process,” he said of his fellow commission members. “People are getting impatient with the process and we need to start thinking out of the box here.”
Mr. Stanley, who owns and operates a charter flight business, is in his second stint studying the county charter. He last served in the early 1990s at a time when three part-time commissioners led the county. He is the only member of the 23-person Dukes County charter study commission to have served twice.
Dissatisfied with county government, voters created the first charter study commission in November 1990. After an 18-month study, the 15 commissioners recommended Dukes County adopt a charter and restructure county government to include a paid county manager and seven elected, unpaid commissioners. Voters backed the recommendations and, in 1994, the first county commission under the new charter took its seat and subsequently appointed the first manager.
“The first study group changed the structure of county government in an attempt to facilitate the operation,” Mr. Stanley reflected from his offices last week. “We created the opportunity with the assumption that quality leadership would be there to drive the change, but it wasn’t.”
A decade later, dissatisfaction with county government again reared its head.
In the November 2006 general election, Vineyard voters gave voice to their disappointment and appointed a second charter study commission. “The first time, [the study group] was successful, but only up to a point,” said Mr. Stanley. “It created an opportunity, but it was unfulfilled.”
The new charter group, which consists of 15 elected members and the seven county commissioners, is now more than halfway into its 18-month study. Study commission members have until May to make recommendations to voters as to the future of county government.
Despite widespread lack of faith on the Island in county government, Mr. Stanley is not yet ready to jump ship. “I don’t have faith in the current county government, but the things we may lose if we get rid of it, we may regret,” he said. “If we make changes, they could create a substantively more productive county government and regain the faith of the voters.”
This time around, Mr. Stanley wants to see strong county leadership emerge: “It’s all about leadership and it’s incumbent upon the charter study commission to make change not just for the sake of changing the county, but to entice quality leadership into the system.”
Part of the problem, Mr. Stanley said, is engaging voters and engaging them now, before the May deadline. “The voters and towns right now have no interest because they don’t have faith in county government to get things done,” he said. If the voters are not engaged now, Mr. Stanley worries they will not be satisfied when the commission makes its recommendations.
“Nobody comments on what the chef is doing in the kitchen until it’s on the plate,” he said. “The public don’t want to be participants, but want to react. We need to serve it up [now] and see what the people like.”
So Mr. Stanley recommends putting the wheels of change in motion. “The charter study group, at this juncture, should collectively make recommendations to the county about what they can do now, by themselves, without the voters’ endorsement or legislative enablement, to improve the quality of how things get done,” Mr. Stanley said.
Among his recommendations to the sitting commissioners are to create a documented list of county activities, develop a mission statement for the county, and require all annual appointments be made in March rather than January.
“This will, one, improve the quality of how things get done and two, send a message to voters that we do need to make improvements,” he said. “It will be a litmus test to see if the county can discuss things intelligently and do things effectively.”
Down the road, Mr. Stanley advocates keeping the county manager form of government, with significant changes. “Look at national politics,” he said. “The vast majority of people are not happy with George Bush, but no one is saying lets get rid of the Oval Office.”
If he could wave his magic wand over the Vineyard, Mr. Stanley would elect county commissioners concurrently, establish term limits for commissioners and reduce their number from seven to five. In addition, Mr. Stanley would like to see fresh faces in county offices. “We need improvement,” he said. “Fresh leadership will produce fresh stuff.”
With five months left in their study, Mr. Stanley said the commission is now at a critical stage. “We’ve been so involved with the process and the studies that we haven’t really gotten to the meat. We’re getting to the meat now,” he said.
The meetings of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission are open to the public. The commission meets every other Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center. The next meeting is Dec. 13.