Faced with making appointments to several key posts including the Steamship Authority, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission, the Dukes County commissioners are conducting what they describe as a "talent search" for interested candidates.
County officials said they are looking for candidates who will take a regional approach to their responsibilities and be independent. But several former county appointees who ran afoul of the commissioners said that the commissioners are really only interested in acquiescent candidates.
For the most part, the seven elected Dukes County commissioners and their paid county manager exercise little real responsibility over most county departments other than rodent control, water testing and beach management. But it is through the power of appointment that the county commissioners are most able to influence Island affairs, most notably concerning the Steamship Authority.
Three years ago J.B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark, then the appointed Vineyard SSA member, supported startup of a SSA-operated seasonal fast ferry service to New Bedford. In a 4-3 vote the commissioners replaced Mr. Parker with Kathryn Roessel, who ultimately supported privately operated year-round service.
Ms. Roessel is seeking reappointment to another three-year term. Two other candidates, Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, Oak Bluffs port council member, and Mark Snider of Edgartown and Wellesley, have also declared their interest in the appointment.
In addition to high profile appointments to the SSA, MVC and the airport commission the county commissioners have an additional 23 appointments to make this year, including: the associate commissioner for affairs concerning handicapped persons, associate commissioner for affairs concerning the elderly, emergency management director, and spots on the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and the Dukes County Health Council.
A recent county press release said the county commissioners were launching "an aggressive search for talented residents" and encouraged competition for appointed positions.
"Many of our incumbent volunteers are doing a tremendous job for the citizens of the county, and we hope they will apply for reappointments, but the success of our form of government lies in citizen participation, and we want to encourage many people to vie for these important positions," wrote E. Winn Davis, county manager.
The county set a deadline of Friday, 3 pm, Oct. 15 for letters of interest.
On its face, the county initiative appears to be an early effort to publicize the openings and attract the best candidates. But several former county appointees share another view of the county's self-described "talent search."
A puppet search
In 1997, the commissioners appointed Marc Villa of Chilmark to the airport commission. A successful businessman and pilot, he served six years on the airport commission, three as chairman after wresting control from John Alley of West Tisbury, long-time county and airport commissioner.
During his tenure Mr. Villa engaged in a running battle with the former county manager, Carol Borer, and county commissioners over his insistence that the airport commissioners and not the county commissioners and their county manager had the sole statutory authority to control airport affairs, a position bolstered by state and federal grant guarantees.
Mr. Villa was credited for many of the improvements at the airport, including the construction of a new terminal and businesslike accounting procedures. In 2003, the county commissioners voted not to reappoint Mr. Villa.
"Having been appointed to the airport commission and having watched other appointments to that board, I have few kind words about their appointment process," said Mr. Villa in a telephone conversation. "The county works very hard to dismiss people who have contrary views to their collective opinions."
In 2003, the commissioners also decided not to reappoint Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary and a supporter of Mr. Villa, and the commissioners bypassed individuals with business and aviation experience in favor appointing fellow county commissioners John Alley of West Tisbury and Nelson Smith of Edgartown, and T.J. Hegarty of West Tisbury, county rodent control officer.
Mr. Villa said the move was a clear effort on the part of the county to gain more control of airport affairs. He said the message that past county appointments sends to potential candidates is "that unless you want to be a puppet to an uninformed commission you needn't waste your time and effort."
Mr. Carroll of Chilmark, a former county commissioner with long municipal experience, had equally pointed remarks about the county appointment process, and this year's talent search. "I don't think the county is looking for talent. It seems they are looking for clay. If you don't allow yourself to be molded to their opinion you don't get reappointed," said Mr. Carroll.
Three years ago, Mr. Parker sought reappointment to the SSA with the unprecedented support of five of the six town boards of selectmen, the town of Falmouth and the city of New Bedford. But Mr. Parker's willingness to work with New Bedford officials and his support of high-speed ferry service had attracted opposition from Grace Grossman, former Nantucket SSA member, and she in turn pressed her argument that Mr. Parker should be replaced.
In December of 2001, the county commissioners chose Ms. Roessel, a newcomer to the Island and SSA affairs. In comments at the time, John Early, West Tisbury's veteran selectman, said it was difficult to find the proper words to describe his disgust with a county decision he termed "monumentally irresponsible."
Mr. Parker, a Chilmark selectman, said anyone interested in serving in a county-appointed position should look at the commissioners' history first. Declining to comment on his failure to be reappointed, he said only, "I think the county's past performance speaks for itself."
John Alley of West Tisbury, county commission chairman, said it is time to look to the future, not the past.
"We are looking forward, we are not looking to the past. And we are looking forward to getting people interested in these positions. I don't think anyone is interested in dredging up the past history," said Mr. Alley, who is one of three county commissioners seeking election to another three-year term on the board.
Mr. Alley said the rejection of past incumbents has nothing to do with favoring those who hew to the county commissioners' line. He said it is a matter of job performance, nothing more. "I think that the county commissioners have to evaluate whether or not they feel their appointed representatives to whatever board or committee have done a job that they feel is credible, and that's not necessarily open to public referendum... It is the responsibility of the county commissioners to select an appointee, that is what the law says, and that is what we will to do," he said.
Asked about some of the previous incumbents who had broad public support, but were not reappointed, Mr. Alley said, "You could just as easily say that there were an equal amount of people who didn't support those appointees."
Robert Sawyer of Tisbury, county commission vice chairman, said the county commissioners have to look at the appointments from a regional perspective. "I represent the entire Island, unlike selectmen who represent their towns. I have a fiduciary responsibility to the Island as a whole, and from that perspective, we appoint or don't reappoint based upon what we feel this community wants and needs on a regional level," he said.
Mr. Sawyer said that when an incumbent is passed over, "it is never personal. It is a reflection that a better candidate could do a better job for the community."
"However, I wouldn't want anyone to be misled," added Mr. Sawyer. "We have strong in-house candidates in many positions, and I would hate to send a message to the public that this is open season for these positions. We just want the best field we can put together."
Mr. Alley said the county commissioners will make all of this year's appointments before the end of the year, and before any new commissioners are sworn in. He said to make the appointments in January with new board members would defeat the purpose of conducting interviews with the candidates in the fall.
This week, Mr. Davis said a vote on the county's SSA appointment is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 10 or Nov. 17. He said that would provide time for interviews and any transition should one be needed.