For the umpteenth time in recent history, the Dukes County commissioners have demonstrated their latent but persistent determination to get their mitts on county airport management.
The commissioners declined the reappointment of two airport commissioners, using the fireworks over the dismissal of an airport employee as the pretext.
Airport management and its union employees have been feuding, and the airport commissioners and the Dukes County commissioners have a decades-old history of feuding. Here was an imagined opportunity for the county commissioners to enlarge their influence over the airport, which after all is the largest, indeed the only significant county asset. So, the county commissioners spurned the re-appointment request from two of their former appointments to the airport commission. They did so against a backdrop of repeated chastisements – federal, state, and judicial – over attempts by the county to exercise authority over the airport, apart from the strictly limited authority to appoint airport commission members.
The county commissioners tossed two airport commissioners, one of them a county commissioner himself, and replaced them with a fresh county commissioner, perhaps unacquainted with the knotty history of airport-county relations, and with a former airport employee, a frequent and vocal critic of airport management, now on disability retirement and an organizer of airport employees to form a bargaining unit. He also served as shop steward.
You name the landmark county attributes — the criminal, civil, and probate courts, the registry of deeds, the sheriff’s department, the county-owned beaches, the airport — and none of them falls to the county to manage. Sometimes, toward Dukes County voters, God is good.
The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, accounts for more than half of the county budget. The county commissioners slaver over that solid financial enterprise, and they’d like to have a piece of it.
The sheriff’s office is now under state control. The registry of deeds and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager. Each has direct control over their employees.
In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees a total of just two people in three departments — her office, veterans affairs, and a fragment of integrated pest management.
Until 1993, three elected, paid county commissioners presided over county government. In 1994, voters created a new form of county government that delegated general legislative powers to a seven-member board of unpaid commissioners and gave a county manager full control over the county administration. This enlargement of county administration anticipated an enlargement of the appetites of the six Island towns for more and better county government.
As it happened, what actually occurred was the amputation of county responsibilities, in part because of the county’s demonstrated inability to get things done rationally — the airport expansion fiasco, for example — and the state’s need to streamline its own budget relationship with county governments that were crumbling across the state — the sheriff’s department, for another. Plus, the towns, in their clear-eyed wisdom, asked for nothing from the county. Indeed, over time the county has shifted more and more of the costs of some of the shards of its legacy responsibilities to the towns.
Here is the latest moment offered to the towns and the voters to take steps to sunset this government charade and not to countenance county’s ham-handed intrusion in the business of the only dependably functioning and financially successful county enterprise.