County government review gathers steam
An examination of county government by a group of Island selectmen could become more formal in the weeks ahead with the establishment of a county charter commission, the first official step in remaking county government.
At a meeting last Thursday of the still somewhat informal group, Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman, said he would ask voters to establish a county charter commission to make the current examination more official. The meeting was called in the wake of a recent wave of controversial county decision making,
A request to create a charter commission must be made by either the seven elected county commissioners, the county finance advisory board (which includes one selectmen from each Island town), or five percent of the registered voters in the county.
While state law clearly identifies the membership requirements of a charter commission, the composition of the informal committee examining the county generated debate at last week's meeting. Mr. Israel, a critic of recent county actions and spending, said county manager Winn Davis, who receives an annual salary of $74,000, should not be a member of the committee.
The spur for an examination of county government was a Superior Court ruling last July in a lawsuit that pitted the county against its appointed Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission. The county lost its battle to control the salaries of the airport manager and assistant manager, in a ruling that could cost county taxpayers more than $800,000.
County government currently costs Island taxpayers $750,762, in the form of an assessment levied against the six Island towns plus the town of Gosnold that make up the county of Dukes County.
Mr. Israel, a member of the county finance advisory board, which must approve county budgets, was expected to ask the advisory board to call for the creation of a charter commission at a joint county commission and advisory board meeting scheduled for last night.
Mr. Israel said that a charter commission would not replace the committee of selectmen currently reviewing county government, but would provide an additional and more official format for examining the county and making suggestions for change. He added that time is a factor if the Island wants to create a charter commission this year.
Under Massachusetts law, a petition from the advisory board to ask voters to create a charter commission must be filed with the state by the last Tuesday in February, which is now less than four weeks away.
If the advisory board makes the request, voters would be asked on the November election ballot, "Shall a charter study commission be created to study the present governmental structure of the County of Dukes County to consider and make findings concerning the form of government and make recommendations thereon?"
A county charter commission would include 15 elected members. In addition, each county commissioner, or his designee, and the chairman of the county advisory board, or his designee, would be non-elected members of the charter commission.
At last Thursday's meeting, Mr. Israel began with a discussion of whether Mr. Davis, Dukes County manager, should even be a member of the existing committee. "I have no problem with this committee using Mr. Davis as a knowledgeable resource for the county, but I do have a problem with the fact that the county has appointed a paid employee of the county to be their representative to this committee," he said. "I think the county commissioners should appoint one of their members or someone who is not an employee of the county, because I don't know how he can objectively look at this."
Jim Newman, Aquinnah selectman, agreed. He questioned the county's involvement at all. "At this juncture, I wonder why the county would even be involved with this until we can come to a consensus ourselves," he said.
After some discussion, the selectmen agreed to ask the county commissioners to appoint a new representative, who is not a county employee, to the committee.
While the selectmen took no other action at last week's meeting, they discussed several items they will address at future meetings.
Mr. Newman said he wants to examine the process by which county government would be abolished. He brought a 26-page handout of the state laws governing the abolition of county governments.
Before handing out copies of the document, Mr. Newman spoke critically of the county. He called the county commission "an old boys network," and said he wants to discuss its role in the regional government. He asked, "At what point do we talk about the ineptitude of the count commission, and when do we get down to the nitty-gritty and say 'something's not working?'"
Art Smadbeck, selectman from Edgartown, said that at this stage the committee is on a fact-finding mission. He said he wants to look at the details of how county government works and what would happen if the county were changed or abolished. "Some of the questions I have have to do with the finances," he said. "If you don't have the county, what do things look like? What sources of revenue disappear? What liabilities go away?"
Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs selectman, said that the committee members need to bring the discussion and those questions to their towns. "It is incumbent upon us to talk to some of our town departments and ask them what it would take to develop our own engineering services if we didn't have the county engineer, or rodent control if we didn't have that county service," he said.
The committee members agreed, and said that they would continue the discussion at their next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 15.