Final charter study report released
The Dukes County Charter Study Commission has issued its final report, calling for retaining the county manager form of government for the county's seven towns, but sharply limiting the terms of the elected commissioners, of whom there would be seven.
The commission wants seven commissioners elected at large for concurrent, two-year terms, with no more than two from any one town. This is a change from the current rules that prescribe staggered, four-year terms. Voters will decide on the commission's recommendations in November.
In a meeting with Times editors last week, representatives of the charter study commission urged support for their recommendations and especially for the recruitment of candidates for the county commission seats, particularly candidates who are new to county government and even new to Island government agencies. The commission representatives said the reduction in the length of service for county commissioners was aimed at attracting fresh candidates who might not be inclined to commit themselves to four-year terms of service. It was also a step, they said, to increase county accountability to voters.
The study commission recommended a change that calls for narrowing the role of the manager - a departure from the county manager formula that is offered under state law - and will require special legislative action. The study commission would have Dukes County exempted from the current state requirement that the county manager serve in a full-time position for an indefinite period. The commission wants the county commissioners to be free to offer part-time employment to a manager under a contract with a specified term.
This recommendation for state legislative action will not appear on the November ballot. It was made to the sitting county commissioners, who have already asked legislators representing the Vineyard to file the necessary bill, and that's been done. The forecast is that there is support for the change, although the legislature's summer recess is quickly approaching.
The study commission met about 40 times over seventeen months, and although its members quickly decided that county government should not be abandoned, it was difficult to settle on what they might recommend instead.
Also not on the ballot in November is an extensive set of recommendations for changing county commissioners' practice. These recommendations must be adopted by sitting county commissioners and may be modified or discarded as the commissioners see fit.
The ballot question for the November 5, 2008 election will read:
"Shall the county manager plan be adopted for Dukes County, with the provision for a board of commissioners of seven members for concurrent two-year terms and elected at large?"
The charter study commission explains that, "If voters adopt the new charter, its provisions will be implemented on January 1, 2009. Three commissioners will be elected for four-year terms in November 2008, under the provisions of the current charter. These three commissioners will serve their four-year terms through 2012. Four commissioners will be elected to two-year terms in November 2010. Therefore, beginning in January 2012, all seven seats on the county commission will be elected every two years. Failure to approve the recommended change in the charter will leave the current charter in place with its four-year terms of office."
Why did the study commission offer only a narrow set of recommended changes to voters? The commission answered this way in the executive summary to the full report: "The charter commission has opted for minimal change in the charter because in the course of its work it became apparent that governance structure was not the underlying cause of the problems that gave rise to the creation of the commission. The issues relating to the actions of the county commissioners, their relationships among themselves, with their appointees, the approach of county managers to their positions, and poor public relations in general have in the aggregate been responsible for hindering relations with the towns, and the poor public perception of county government. These issues do not lend themselves to easy solution through legislation or a restructuring of county governance. As a result, the charter commission has chosen instead to make a series of administrative recommendations designed to address the functions and functioning of the county."