Editorial : Now, the voters must do their parts
The six sitting Dukes County commissioners, who were to add a seventh member to their roster last evening, to replace Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, who resigned in June, face unremitting scrutiny between now and November's statewide election.
The Dukes County Charter Study Commission, established in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of county government, has elected to leave the county structure substantially unchanged. But, the study commission has made it plain in its final report to voters that their decision to leave the county manager form in place reflected a broad consensus among commission members that it was the county commissioners themselves, not the structure of county government, that have let voters down.
"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 [charter study] commission," the charter study members wrote in the summary of their 18 months of work. "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."
This page has made plain its view that the current structure of county government works at cross purposes to the successful functioning of a county apparatus that would be a genuine government partner with the seven county towns. The charter study commission, faced with the limited, cumbersome, and time-consuming state protocols in the way of an effort to tailor county government to this county's needs, chose to get at the underlying, structural problems indirectly, by recommending changes that depend, for the most part, upon the willingness of sitting commissioners to adopt and faithfully execute them.
Nevertheless, two changes proposed by the study commission do go to the heart of the structural problem that besets county government. The first would require two-year, concurrent terms for the seven county commissioners. No commissioner would serve for four years, as is now the case. The goals here are greater accountability to voters and a diminished burden for sitting commissioners who might not undertake the work, if the four-year term were retained. This is the only change to the current charter that Dukes County voters will be asked to approve in November.
The second material change is one the state legislature must make. Recommended by the charter study commission, endorsed by the county commissioners, special legislation may be filed and pursued by the county commissioners when the legislature reconvenes. This legislation would give the county the flexibility to hire a part-time county manager for a limited contract term. The county manager form of government now requires that the county manager be hired for an "indefinite" term and be full-time. The outcome of this special legislation request is uncertain. Apart from these basic changes, the study commission's extensive list of recommended changes has a great deal to recommend it. "These recommendations address a large number of concerns that have been voiced by the public," the charter commission explains. "They affect the county commission's accountability to the voters, its relationships with the various towns and other regional entities, county finances, the appointment process, and measures designed to broaden the availability of candidates for election of county commissioners."
Voters won't be able to require compliance by county commissioners with these recommendations. If the county commissioners adopt them in whole or in part, they may later modify or abandon them. But, with steady pressure on the sitting commissioners to recognize the wisdom of these recommendations, so critical to improving the usefulness of the county and its relationships with the several towns, what the charter commission chose not to do directly may yet be achieved.