Dukes County proves once again that it must be extinguished


The Dukes County Charter Study Commission failed voters during its 18-month review of county government, between 2006 and 2008. (Yes, 18 months – only a government study could require 18 months to achieve nothing.)

Still, the commission’s benightedness did not foreclose the possibility that useful change might be wrought upon a useless and expensive county government.

The state Department of Revenue’s (DOR) review of county finances and working structure delivered the news that the charter study commission, despite its broad charge and months and months of muttering, utterly missed the point. 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 offered recommendations for changes, some reminiscent of suggestions the charter study commission made but which have gone nowhere. But the conclusion was that, even if the county implements all the DOR recommendations, things may not improve.

“Looking ahead,” the report concluded, “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.”

Well, we know all that from long and bitterly disappointing experience. County government does less and less, costs more and more, and imagines a future that never materializes. The departure last week of the latest in a string of county managers with nothing to manage is the latest alarm bell sounding for Vineyard voters. They ought to listen.

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, with its manager and its seven elected commissioners, governs nothing, is in charge of nothing, controls little or nothing, and does what it does poorly and at an unreasonable cost.

One of the straws that the 2006 charter study commission grasped as a justification for continuing county government was the need to look after the historic courthouse. As if some efficient custodian for the handsome building could not be found outside the clumsy confines of government. The latest manager casualty puts the lie to that dim hope, because fixing the courthouse windows, undertaken by the manager at the direction of the commissioners, turns out to be county government’s latest muddle.

Whether such a “host agency,” to use the DOR’s term for inter-municipal pacts, 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 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’ wise opinion is that the county ought not to be given any money.

These partisans argue 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, and there has been some fresh blood since the study commission, but the problem is structural, and not just structural within the county, but structural within the Vineyard’s distributed, town-based political system.

Partisans argue that the county must be preserved to do regional jobs the towns need to have done. That also isn’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.

Alas, the DOR report was disdained and dismissed by the county commissioners, who dream that they and their apparatus may be needed someday. But, 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. Voters ought to say so.