Selectmen question county government
Led by West Tisbury, a group of selectmen from five Island towns last week took a tentative first step toward a comprehensive review of the government of the County of Dukes County.
West Tisbury chairman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter welcomed selectmen from Aquinnah, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury to the West Tisbury selectman's regular meeting on September 14, where they had been invited to discuss the recent widespread criticisms of county government. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Manter was careful to say that the purpose of the meeting was not to begin abolishing county government, but to inquire into the best way to take a close look at the benefits and shortcomings of the present system. Outcomes, he suggested, might include doing nothing, changing the county charter, or "life after county government."
At the close of the meeting, no decisions had been made, but the selectmen in attendance (Chilmark and Gosnold were not represented) agreed to send one selectman from each town to meet next week. That smaller group, perhaps also with representatives from Chilmark and the county commissioners, will draft a plan for a formal committee to give county government "a good hard look-at."
Although in introducing the issue, Mr. Manter had said, "I don't really want to discuss the pros and cons of county government," Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman, responded, "We wouldn't be sitting here if some people in the community didn't feel there were problems with county government."
Mr. Israel went on to say that the issue for him is whether county government "is a viable institution or not on this Island any more." He went on to point out that the airport and the registry of deeds, for example, would operate whether or not there were a county government. "We need to look at what services the county provides and whether these are enough to warrant its continuing as it presently exists," he said.
Ray LaPorte, chairman of the Tisbury selectman, suggested that the selectmen look at the records of the 1992 county charter review and see what the make-up of that commission was. Later in the meeting, a member of the 15-member, 1992 commission, Ted Stanley of West Tisbury, said that he would make copies of the documents available to the selectmen. He said that he still feels that county government has intrinsic value, but that he has been disappointed with its performance.
Jim Newman, chairman of the Aquinnah selectman, said that he is concerned about the costs of county government and expressed a willingness to serve on a committee. "I don't see what the county is doing for us," he added.
Glenn Hearn of West Tisbury commented that any committee should investigate what other counties have done in giving up county government. Of the 14 counties in Massachusetts, eight have abolished county government altogether, and Bristol County, while still a legal entity, has no form of county government. Mr. Hearn wanted to know what the mechanism was and how county services were taken over by other agencies. He suggested that abolishing county government in those communities might have turned out to be more expensive than before.
"I'm not for or against the county at this point," Mr. Hearn said.
Arthur Smadbeck of Edgartown commented that while the airport manager's lawsuit has people stirred up, he also could point to positive benefits. In particular, he mentioned the county engineer, who, Mr. Smadbeck said, had done a lot for Edgartown. However, he said, that while the Edgartown board had not discussed the idea, he thought they would probably participate in a study.
John Early of West Tisbury agreed with Mr. Smadbeck. "There are definitely benefits," he said. He pointed out that since 1992, some functions of county government have been taken over by the state but others, such as the county engineer, have been added.
"We should take a hard constructive look at it," he said, "and see what we find."
Tom Pachico of Tisbury had a different slant: "Instead of forming a committee, maybe we should hire somebody that does that kind of thing." He cited the consultant hired to review the Tisbury police department some years ago.
County engineer Steve Berlucchi, who spoke only as a citizen of the Island, agreed with Mr. Pachico's call for an independent consultant. He also commented that representatives of county government itself should also be involved in any review.
There was no consensus on the details. Some at the meeting felt a new study commission should not include elected officials, who might have axes to grind; but others felt that elected officials are the ones who deal with county government and know the most about what it does and doesn't do. Some felt an independent consultant was a good idea; others were skeptical of the cost.
However, the selectmen did agree that county government needs a close inspection and that each town represented would appoint one member to a small group, to be called together by West Tisbury, which has so far taken the lead. The group, which Mr. Manter called a "ground-breaker" subcommittee will meet soon to discuss how to proceed.