Charter study group ask little change
After 17 months of study and deliberation, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) last week decided 19-0 what to recommend to voters on the November ballot.
The bottom line is that voters will have a choice between the present county system with two-year terms for commissioners (a "yes" vote) and the present system with four-year terms (a "no" vote).
At present, county commissioners serve four-year terms, with three elected in one biennial state election year and four in the next. If the study group's recommendation is accepted, all county commissioners will have to answer to the voters every other year.
In all other respects, the proposed county structure will be the same as the one now in effect. It will again be a "county manager" system, with seven commissioners elected at large and no more than two from any one town.
There was general agreement on the DCCSC that abandoning county government altogether would be a bad idea. Only commissioners Dan Flynn and Woody Williams continued to hold out for abolishment. Mr.
Flynn angrily left in the middle of the May 1 meeting and did not return last week.
There was also agreement that electing county commissioners to represent towns or other voting districts was impractical and would in one way or another disfranchise residents of the smaller towns.
However, opinion was sharply divided about the other choices open to the DCCSC.
In January, the group tentatively voted (13-3) to recommend switching to the "board chairman" form of county government, in which the county commissioners each year elect one of their own to serve as chief executive. The board chairman form allows hiring a part-time professional administrator who serves at the pleasure of the commissioners. For Dukes County, this promised to be cheaper than a county manager, who the statute says must be full-time and serve "an indefinite term." Since 1992, it has been difficult and expensive to get rid of a county manager. However, seven DCCSC members were absent from the January vote, including most of the sitting county commissioners who have generally favored the county manager form. Last Thursday, they and others of the DCCSC argued that the county needs an executive clearly separate from the legislative branch (the commissioners). So in another vote last week, the DCCSC reversed itself and voted 10-6 (with three abstentions) to support the county manager form after all. However, 10 votes, a majority of those present, was not a majority of all 22 members and far fewer than the two-thirds standard the group had set for itself from the outset. The DCCSC would keep talking.
Meanwhile, the DCCSC was evenly split on the length of term for county commissioners. At a vote taken on May 1, 10 voted for four-year terms, 10 for two-years terms, and there was one abstention. Additionally, a small group of DCCSC members held out for reducing the county commission to five members, even though a simple majority voted for a seven-member board, with enough fence-sitters willing to go along to make a two-thirds decision.
On Thursday last week, the logjams were all broken with a "package" presented by DCCSC member Tad Crawford and vice-chairman Paddy Moore. The package included a "county manager" system with seven commissioners elected for two-year terms, elected at large and with no more than two from any one town. To correct some of the perceived flaws in the county manager system (and win the votes of the "board chairman" proponents), Mr. Crawford included in the package a recommendation to petition the state legislature for two changes in the statute creating the county manager system. Although no separate component of the package had unanimous support, everyone was satisfied enough, so that the proposal passed 19-0 and will be the DCCSC's final recommendation.
The changes Mr. Crawford proposed are to remove the requirements that the county manager be full-time and serve an indefinite term. Even though these two items seem crucial to the members of the DCCSC, Mr. Crawford opined that the legislature is likely to view the changes as minor, and Sen. Robert O'Leary and Rep. Eric Turkington have told the DCCSC that minor changes have a high probability of approval. Dukes County is the only county to use the county manager system, and the changes do not involve state funds or any special interest group.
Unfortunately, Mr. Crawford and Ms. Moore explained, it is almost certain that the legislative changes cannot be made before this November. However, voters in November will be choosing the county manager form no matter which way they vote (or if they choose not to vote at all).
The DCCSC will also propose to the present and future county commissioners a long list of recommendations for changes to the county administrative code. These proposals have the potential to make more significant changes in county government than anything the DCCSC is allowed to present to voters in November, according to Mr. Crawford. The recommendations include, among other things, changes in the way the county commissioners make appointments, and proposals for more extensive consultation with the all-Island selectmen's organization, the town administrators, and other regional entities.
The present county commissioners are by statute members of the DCCSC; many have served on the subcommittees that created the administrative recommendations, and in general they endorse almost all of them. But, they are only recommendations. Future county commissioners will be free to rescind or ignore them.
Although the proposals for the administrative code will not appear on the ballot in November, interested citizens may read them on the DCCSC website or at mvtimes.com.