The timid and nearsighted Dukes County Charter Study Commission did voters a disservice during their 18-month review of county government between 2006 and 2008. The commission accomplished little or nothing worthwhile.
The sitting county commissioners now have both the inspiration and the opportunity to do better.
The state Department of Revenue review of county finances and working structure has found what keen observers over decades have known and said repeatedly. That is, Dukes County government does not work for its constituents, in fact it does not do much at all, and, spruced up or tweaked, it probably will not do much better. Radical overhaul or outright discard is required, because voters and town leaders have no confidence in the county’s ability to provide valuable services, and because the center of gravity of authority in Dukes County is in the six town halls, close to the voters and their decision-making, and voters like it that way. Plus, for the little it does, county government is expensive.
The DOR study, issued September 27, offers recommendations for changes, some reminiscent of suggestions the charter study commission made but which have gone nowhere. But the conclusion is that, even if the county implements all the DOR recommendations, things may not improve.
“Looking ahead,” the report concludes, “it may seem reasonable to envision the county, with thoughtful planning, offering additional services under similar management and cost-sharing arrangements. However, there are obstacles. The current organizational structure is one. The lack of universal confidence in county government is another, as is disagreement on the role of county government on the Island … While operating in this environment, we do not believe the county government is at all well positioned to fulfill a meaningful role in the regionalization of municipal services.”
What the county is positioned to do right now is to start a discussion with town leaders aimed at resolving the question of dissolution or radical change. This page has long argued that a mechanism — already envisioned in state law as the Inter-Municipal Agreements Act (IMA) — is what Dukes County towns require, not a government that governs nothing, controls little or nothing, and does what it does at an unreasonable cost. Whether such a “host agency”, to use the DOR’s term, is a council of governments or a remnant of what we now know as Dukes County, it should be a narrowly focused expediter of the dreams of towns — should the towns dream any such dreams — under the strict and close oversight of the towns.
County commission chairman Carlene Gatting sees the matter clearly. “At best, county government struggles,” Ms. Gatting told Times writer Steve Myrick. “It has no money, it functions at the behest of the towns, yet it has no direct connection to the towns.”
Does she have the skill and influence to address these problems in fresh and imaginative ways that may create something useful or discard something that is the opposite? We shall see.
County government partisans, including members of the charter study commission, have argued that the county would be valuable if it had a money supply. That has proven not to be true, largely because the voters’ opinion is that the county ought not to be given any money.
They’ve argued that the county’s problems result from a poor collection of county commissioners — sometimes too few, sometimes too many, sometimes elected for terms of too long or too brief durations, sometimes hopeless as government leaders. That was not true either. There have been good and bad county commissioners over the years, but the problem is structural, and not just structural within the county, but structural within the Vineyard’s distributed, town-based political system.
They’ve argued that the county must be preserved to do regional jobs the towns need to have done. That also wasn’t true, because the dysfunctional structure of county government and the accountability gulf between county government and town governments precludes the possibility that a town or towns will ask the county to do something, or anything at all.
County government may be valuable somewhere, or perhaps it was, sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries, but it does not suit Dukes County today.
Perhaps the sitting county commissioners, spurred by the dispassionate review they solicited from the DOR, will set out to help make something new and of real value, or have the fortitude to bring down the curtain.