New rep says liaison fills key role
As he prepares to take office the newly elected state representative for the district that includes Martha's Vineyard, can claim one perquisite more senior members of the State House do not have.
Tim Madden of Nantucket, who will represent Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and portions of Barnstable County is entitled to hire a legislative liaison to represent the interests of Martha's Vineyard at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $33,000 plus health insurance benefits.
It is a job that Mr. Madden, a former Nantucket selectman and businessman, knows well. For the past ten years Mr. Madden has been the legislative liaison for Representative Eric Turkington, the man he will replace in the State House.
At one time the six towns on Martha's Vineyard comprised a separate legislative district. When the districts were redrawn in 1978 Martha's Vineyard lost its seat. The Legislature created the liaison's position to compensate for the loss.
Despite state cutbacks Mr. Madden said he has been assured that funding for the Vineyard position will continue. Because Mr. Madden is from Nantucket he will not be entitled to hire a legislative liaison for his home island.
Mr. Madden told The Martha's Vineyard Times he is close to a decision on who will fill the Vineyard spot but he is not ready to make a public announcement.
Russell Smith of Tisbury, a former Aquinnah selectman and civil engineer, has been the Vineyard legislative liaison for the past 12 years. Earlier this year the Dukes County commissioners hired Mr. Smith to be the county manager on a part-time basis.
The commissioners allowed Mr. Smith to fill both jobs pending a job review after six months and a possible change to full-time status. Such a change would preclude retaining his liaison position, Mr. Madden said. "I don't see how he could do both," said Mr. Madden.
Mr. Madden currently earns $35,933 as legislative liaison for Nantucket, according to a state spokesman. Mr. Smith currently earns $35,945.
Mr. Madden said the new liaison he appoints would earn $33,400, the same as a legislative aide, though the aide position is considered full-time, and the liaison position is part-time. The liaison positions include the same health insurance benefits available to all state employees. The positions are funded out of the house operations budget.
Both Mr. Madden and Mr. Smith say they usually travel to the statehouse once each week during the first six months of the year, when the legislature is in formal session, and less often when the legislature meets in informal session, over the second half of the year. Travel costs are not reimbursed. They also hold office hours for constituents on their respective Islands.
The liaison's responsibilities are not formally defined, and they do not formally account for hours worked. Mr. Madden and Mr. Smith say much of their time is spent advocating for constituent issues, shepherding special legislation through the complex political process, and meeting with the state representative. "Sometimes I feel as if I do nothing else," said Mr. Smith. "It's not an hourly job. Every year, there are seven or eight pieces of legislation that pertain specifically to the Vineyard." While he said current issues or the legislative schedule sometimes require extra work, at other times there is little that needs his attention at the statehouse.
Recent examples of special legislation on behalf of Vineyard towns include laws to allow the towns of Tisbury and Aquinnah to vote on limited beer and wine licenses for restaurants, installing a sewer line on the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association land, and work on the controversial regional school funding formula.
The liaison position was created in 1978. Before that year, both Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket were each designated as legislative districts, and each sent a representative to the statehouse. In 1978, voters approved a statewide ballot question to reduce the size of the house of representatives from 240 to 160 members. When all state legislative districts were redrawn, the two Islands were combined with six precincts in West Falmouth, to create the Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket district that remains in effect today.
Terrence McCarthy, now an Oak Bluffs businessman who owns Dockside Marketplace and Marina, was the elected representative for the Vineyard when his seat was redistricted out of existence. First elected in 1972, he says he fought to create the liaison position. His efforts were helped by an Island secession movement, which Mr. McCarthy said was never a serious threat, though it did catch the ear of state lawmakers.
"They became much more sympathetic because we were making waves," said Mr. McCarthy.
The position was conceived as a post for the liaison to participate in all phases of the legislative process, except voting.
"Originally that job was created to report to the speaker of the house," said Mr. McCarthy. "You would be able to go into committee hearings, you would have the strength of the speaker's office. At some point it was morphed out of that and it became an aide to the representative. I think personally it was a mistake."
Currently, the state representative appoints the legislative liaison, though the person actually does some work for both the state representative, and the state senator. Island selectmen and regional officials are traditionally consulted about the appointment, and may substantially influence the state representative's decision, but they have no official say in the appointment.
Despite the current climate of state service cuts and budget restraints Mr. Madden believes the liaison position is a valuable resource for Vineyard residents, and local officials contacted by The Martha's Vineyard Times agreed. Improvements in transportation and communication have lessened the isolation of Island living, factors often cited in creating the liaison positions, but Mr. Madden said personal contact is still important.
"You would hate to see that position go away," said Mr. Madden. "There are a lot of things that go on in Boston, There are a lot of agencies that don't have regular office hours on Martha's Vineyard. These agencies rarely come to Martha's Vineyard. To have that face time and to meet with those people, so people feel that they're actually seeing someone, I think is invaluable, I really do."
As a new legislator, with no appointment as a committee chairman expected, Mr. Madden is allotted one legislative aide, who will work full-time at his statehouse office.
"The chances of that aide being productive for the Islands would be very difficult," said Mr. Madden. "That aide will be spending time up in Boston. They won't know the Islands."
While former state representative Terrence McCarthy thought it was a mistake to change the original scope of the position, he does not advocate eliminating the job, and does not think that would save money. "It's nice having somebody right here on Island," said Mr. McCarthy. "You can call up, and say 'can you come over to meeting.' I think there's a lot of relevance."