Improving County Government

In the end, after a laborious and sometimes painful process, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission has recommended relatively little change in county government.

The commission’s conclusions match the gut feeling that many Island residents held at the start of the study: that the failings of the existing county government have owed far more to the members of that government than to its structure.

The charter commission’s proposed changes in county government, which will go before county voters in the coming November election, offer some worthwhile fine tuning: cutting the terms of county commissioners from four to two years, to help make them more responsive, and allowing the county to employ a manager part-time and with term limits, to better match the employee’s workload and give the commissioners more control over the position.

That the group is recommending so few changes is testimony to the inherent soundness of the current charter, created under the leadership of the late Ed Logue sixteen years ago, and to the inherent value of regional government for the Island. Even Woodrow (Woody) Williams of Vineyard Haven, a member who formerly called for abolishing county government, supports the commission’s proposal.

But if voters approve the commission’s recommendations, another kind of change is needed in Dukes County government.

While the revolving door in the county manager’s position has served as a continuing source of controversy, a far deeper problem is rooted in the recurring lack of leadership and imagination from the elected county commissioners.

The commissioners have bemoaned the straitened finances that limit their ability to offer countywide programs. Short of major changes in the county’s funding stream, unlikely in this difficult economic period, that won’t change.

What the elected county commissioners still can do — and much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, they’ve always been able to do it — is serve as designers and advocates of solutions to Islandwide problems and challenges. That will be an even more welcome transformation of county government.