For nearly two years, between 2006 and 2008, members of the Dukes County charter study commission probed and debated the state charter that enables county government as we know it. They completed the job, making only modest changes, and voters endorsed their work in November of 2008, modifying the existing charter, but only slightly.
This page was disappointed with the work of the charter study commission. We thought voters would be too. We continue to think so. Vineyard voters had learned not to expect much of Dukes County government. What they expected of the charter study commission is only a guess, but it would have been reasonable to expect suggestions for meaningful changes. Or, if no way could be found to breathe life into the county carcass, it might have been respectfully interred.
The study commission correctly analyzed the structural deficiency in the organization of Dukes County government, but instead of dealing with it, the members preferred to pick at the problems rather than overhaul them. It was a failure of imagination and determination.
But, before you become impatient, apart from these few words on the subject of county government’s failings, you’ll be pleased to learn that the subject today is not county government but the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).
The commission recommends itself for this consideration, because it is budget season, and the MVC budget, now in preparation, has already inspired some dismay, especially in Edgartown. That, in itself, is not surprising. Edgartown leaders are among the least enthusiastic constituents of the MVC, or for that matter Dukes County. The question to be posed in December to Edgartown voters, asking whether the town should begin efforts to withdraw from the regional planning and regulatory agency, is not unfamiliar to voters in that town, or even in Tisbury or Oak Bluffs.
The moment has not arrived to argue whether Edgartown or any other town ought to withdraw from the MVC umbrella, but there are several reasons why the moment is right for Islanders to revisit the MVC’s 1970s-era enabling legislation with an eye to reshaping the agency to better match 21st Century Vineyard life.
(Indeed, one might argue that the MVC might have served us all better to have led a review of its enabling legislation and budget requirements rather than devote itself to the grand whimsy of the Island Plan. But, leave that discussion for another time.)
Here are some of the problems that suggest a review is in order.
Wisely, Island voters like a close, direct, influential relationship with the elected officials who make decisions about the way they live their lives. Town selectmen make sense to voters, even if their decisions from time to time do not. County commissioners and Martha’s Vineyard commission members do not. Too remote and beyond reach.
Voters like direct control over the spending they fund with their tax dollars. Budgets, as for the county and the commission, are beyond voter decision-making at town meetings.
The MVC enabling legislation, whose concept matched the grow-fast, subdivision-manic tempo of the 1970s, grants broad discretion over budgets, planning, districts of critical planning concern, developments of regional impact, but the extent and historic use of that discretion deserve to be reconsidered. Should the MVC declare pizza restaurants in the heart of a downtown business district a development of regional impact, beyond the scope of town planning boards? Or Girl Scout camp renovations in Chilmark? Or single family houses?
You will answer such questions, and others, differently. The argument here is that those questions and others ought to be asked in a considered way. The outcome of the Dukes County charter study commission’s work may have disappointed, but it was important work that needed to be done. A similar, broad review of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s founding legislation is now in order, and badly needed.