Op-Ed : In rebuttal - a review of the charter study commission's work
The Times' editorial page sees little that is positive or encouraging about the work of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) or even Dukes County government. Perhaps some context and corrections may change that view. The harsh judgment that the preliminary conclusions of the DCCSC are "an opportunity lost" depends upon what you think our opportunity has been. We would respectfully suggest that 17 months of hard work by a large elected group of Island citizens deserves both more respect and a more nuanced review.
From the outset of its work, the DCCSC wrestled with two questions. Are the problems (both perceived and real) with Dukes County government derived from structural deficiencies - suggesting that the charter commission chaired by Ed Logue 18 years ago got it wrong - or more from operational and interpersonal relationships? In the memorable words of one of our commissioners, "Is it the car or the drivers?" A second overarching and clearly related question has been whether county government can continue to serve a real purpose on this Island.
To answer those two fundamental questions, the commission undertook an extensive effort to examine all corners of county government in two rounds of workgroups, and to examine five other counties in the Commonwealth, two of which no longer have a county government, and get their perspectives on how their counties work. For the most part, the 23 charter commissioners approached their work (and it was a great deal of work) with open minds. The process was transparent, with opportunities for the public to participate at every turn. I doubt that anyone who has followed our deliberations, even casually, would say it was not a thorough and diligent effort.
Now, after 17 months, the answers to the two basic questions are clear: it's the drivers, not the car, and the car should not be abandoned in favor of a horse and buggy. By an almost unanimous vote, twice, the DCCSC has concluded there is a need for county government to continue, as did the first charter commission. The reasoning is set out in our workgroup reports (available on line; see website below). However, the need for structural change is minimal. In other words, the first charter commission, (1990-92) got it pretty much right when it recommended, and the voters agreed in 1992, that seven county commissioners, elected Island-wide for four-year staggered terms, and a professional county manager responsible to those seven county commissioners should run Dukes County.
Disappointed as those who sought radical changes or who advocate abolishment of county government may be, the painstaking process of the current charter commission has revealed mostly that the past behavior of the elected Dukes County commissioners, their relationships with their professional county managers, and the personalities of these managers (of which there have been four since 1995) are largely responsible for the past operational problems, and for the poor public perception of Dukes County government. In other words, the vision of the first charter commission would likely be further along the road to realization, if a different dynamic had been in effect on the Dukes County commission in recent time.
Second, we have determined that there are significant areas where the county can play an important role in "solving Vineyard problems that cross town borders" (your phrase) and we are recommending many ways the county should do so.
With regard to the charter commission's preliminary recommendation to change the charter from the county manager form to a board chairperson form, it is necessary to see that change as a compromise rooted in political realities. Some charter commissioners would prefer Dukes County to have a custom charter (as do Barnstable and Nantucket), and not be forced into one of the three pre-approved forms defined in statute for county governance. None of those three forms fits Dukes County precisely, given its small size and unique status as several islands with seven towns. The unfortunate reality is that writing a custom charter would require another 18 months, and then the approval of the legislature, before the voters got their say at the earliest in November 2010. Implementation, assuming the voters adopted the charter then, would not occur until January 1, 2013, at the earliest. For better or worse, the DCCSC chose not to go that lengthy route.
Of the three statutory possibilities, the county executive form was rejected by us, just as it had been rejected by the 1992 charter commission. The board chairperson form, which invests executive power in one of the county commissioners, who is chosen by the board of seven for a one-year term, provides flexibility that the county manager form does not. The board chairperson form provides for a hired county administrator (who is not a county commissioner). That person may be part-time or full-time, and may operate under an employment contract. By statute, a county manager, who has both executive and administrative authority, serves "an indefinite term," and must be full-time. It was this tradeoff that persuaded a bare majority of commissioners to support switching the executive authority from a county manager to a county commissioner elected by his/her peers. That may or may not stand in the final round of voting, as there is still considerable sentiment for maintaining the county manager form.
To help avoid a repetition of past problems, the DCCSC has exercised its right to make administrative recommendations to the county commissioners, as provided for in the statute. A great deal of effort has gone into these detailed recommendations, which go to the heart of how county government operates. (The first three sections of these may also be viewed online.) To their credit, the county commissioners have already signaled their willingness to cooperate. It should be pointed out that the administrative recommendations may be adopted by the county commissioners immediately, regardless of whether any charter changes are subsequently approved by the voters in November. We have every confidence that the county commissioners will adopt the majority, if not all, of our recommendations.
We too have been puzzled by the apparent public apathy regarding the deliberations of the DCCSC, though I've had numerous conversations in the grocery store that suggest people are watching our meetings on MVTV. Perhaps it's because full commission meetings have generally lacked excitement and drama (at least until recently). Subcommittee and workgroup meetings - of which there have been an uncountable number - have often been quite spirited and contentious. Minds have been changed many times, to the credit of their owners. While the final outcome is still not certain in the details, the broad outline of our recommendations is there: We need county government, and its structure will work with the right people in office. That's what the facts have told us. We hope that our final presentations to the voters in November will be persuasive.
Paddy Moore lives in West Tisbury; she is vice chairman of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission.