A back-of-the-ballot sleeper question that will decide whether to change the Dukes county treasurer from an elected to appointed position has turned into a surprise political fight, as the Nov. 3 election nears.

Question 3, if it is approved, would give the seven elected county commissioners the power to choose their treasurer.

Four of the seven county commissioners -- Keith Chatinover, Christine Todd, Tristan Israel and John Cahill — are advocating for the change. They say it was suggested by a 2010 review of the county from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. There has not been a contested race for county treasurer since 1990. 

“We strongly believe this will lead to a more transparent selection process, allow for the most qualified individual to hold this critical job, and enable Dukes County to better serve its citizens,” the four commissioners wrote in a letter last week.

County manager Martina Thornton also supports the change, she told the Gazette this week. 

But on the other side, former county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders has mounted an aggressive campaign to stop the measure, arguing that the decade-old DOR report is a red herring and that keeping the treasurer elected is necessary to ensure independence from the county commissioners. 

Yard signs have popped up across the Island opposing Question 3, and even the county commission itself is divided over the issue. At least one commissioner — Leon Braithwaite — opposes Question 3, and Richard (Peter) Wharton, a candidate for election to the commission, has also voiced his opposition.

In her own letter last week, Ms. Mavro Flanders said appointing the treasurer would give the county commissioners too much centralized control and eliminate financial oversight. 

“Please vote no on Question 3 to ensure there is transparency, independence and a system of checks and balances,” Ms. Flanders wrote. “Don’t give the county commissioners the power to dictate how your tax dollars are spent.”

In another twist, if Question 3 is approved, the change would not go into effect until 2027, after current treasurer Ann Metcalf finishes out her six-year term. Ms. Metcalf is running unopposed on the November ballot. The former assistant treasurer, she was appointed to fill the remainder of the term left vacant when Ms. Flanders retired in 2018 after 30 years on the job. Her current annual salary is approximately $97,000. 

Question 3 will only appear on ballots for Dukes County voters on Nov. 3, and is on the back of the ballot.

And while the public political fight around the question is new, debate among county officials over the treasurer position stretches back for more than a decade, wrapped in arcane issues around county finances and government.

By state statute, the county treasurer collects all money belonging to the county. The treasurer also serves as the county accountant, manages payroll and serves as the human resources department.

In Dukes County, the treasurer manages a combined total of just less than $10 million in county service revenue, the vast majority of which comes from the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. The county general government’s fiscal year 2020 budget was approximately $1.7 million; the airport budget was around $6.5 million. 

The relationship between the airport and county has been fraught with tension and political infighting for many years, eventually leading to more than one court case and ultimately establishing the airport’s financial independence from the county. 

In September 2010, the state DOR conducted a financial management review of Dukes County at the request of the county commissioners. The 25-page review focused on county financial management and the role it could play in Island regionalization. 

The report included interviews with commissioners and staff, including the treasurer, and listed 15 recommendations that ranged from establishing a formal budget process to considering parking enforcement opportunities. The final recommendation was to change the position of treasurer from elected to appointed.

“This recommendation is not a reflection on the performance of the current treasurer, who we feel is a valuable asset to the county,” the report said. “However, at an opportune time in the future (e.g. upon retirement), we recommend that the county file special legislation to convert the elected treasurer to one appointed by the county manager.”

In June 2018, eight years after the report and one month after Ms. Flanders announced her retirement, county commissioner Tristan Israel moved to change the position from elected to appointed. The commission authorized Ms. Thornton to research the change, according to publicly available meeting minutes.

Over the course of the next year, the county commission occasionally discussed the measure and eventually decided to file special legislation to bring the question before voters. The original legislation would have taken effect in January 2021. 

In meeting minutes, Ms. Metcalf said she preferred to keep the position elected, but would respect the decision of commissioners to change it. 

In September 2019, the commission was scheduled to vote on filing the special legislation. But Ms. Flanders, who was by then retired, attended the meeting and spoke out forcefully against idea, minutes show. Ms. Flanders requested that the commission change the effective date to January of 2027, after Ms. Metcalf’s elected term ended. 

Commissioners unanimously agreed, minutes show. The commission then voted 5-2 to file the legislation, with commissioners Leon Braithwaite and John Alley voting no. (Mr. Alley died in March of this year.)

At the same meeting, commissioner Gretchen Tucker-Underwood raised concerns about the county treasurer, noting “confusion, miscommunications, and overall poor meshing of the finances” with the airport, minutes show. Ms. Tucker-Underwood requested an independent audit of the county treasurer’s reports. Airport commissioners and others at the meeting agreed with the concerns, but Ms. Flanders called them a “vendetta” against the treasurer, according to minutes. 

The audit never took place. 

Speaking to the Gazette this week, Ms. Thornton said the issues regarding the county and airport finances have been largely resolved, with the airport hiring a financial controller and the two organizations making their systems more compatible. She said the desire to change the position from elected to appointed has nothing to do with Ms. Metcalf’s job performance.

“It is one hundred per cent improved,” Ms. Thornton said. “This has nothing to do with the actual person in the position before or now. It is about that the job really evolved into a very professional position, and that elections might not be the best vehicle to assure the best candidate to be in that position.”

Ms. Flanders, in her letter last week, took an opposite view.

“It is only the county treasurer who has the day-to-day knowledge to discuss the totality of county finances, and sometimes it might not be what everyone wants to hear, but it needs to be independent,” she wrote.

On Nov. 3, it will be up to county voters to decide.