A study worth the effort
The serious, determined effort by Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel to pursue an inquiry into the future of county government is commendable. Spurred by Mr. Israel, the selectmen who are conducting the examination clearly recognize the need to reconsider the future of county government. They appear to be proceeding deliberately and thoughtfully, as should be the case. The question must be probed in the context of the mismanagement of county affairs, notably in the relations between the county commissioners and the airport, but also in the broader context of what is best for the Vineyard community financially and in terms of necessary services.
As Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck argued, the first goal is fact-finding. "Some of the questions I have have to do with the finances," he said at a meeting last week. "If you don't have the county, what do things look like? What sources of revenue disappear? What liabilities go away?"
And, Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Dutton wisely urged the selectmen to review the county's relationship with their town departments and do a cost-benefit analysis of the way it works.
"It is incumbent upon us," he said, "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."
But, as we have said before, apart from what the current county government does, there are two critical flaws in the way the county is now organized: the elected commissioners are not sufficiently accountable to the voters, and the county's budget is not presented to the voters for approval. Any conclusion of the selectmen's investigation must confront these two deficiencies, even if retaining county government in some form turns out to be the result of the inquiry.
Mr. Israel said last week that he plans to ask voters to establish a county charter commission to make the informal inquiry more authoritative. It is an appealing idea and one the Island selectmen ought to consider.
Mr. Israel also called for the county commissioners to replace county manager Winn Davis, the county manager, as the commissioners appointed representative to the committee. Mr. Israel, joined by Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman, is correct to regard Mr. Davis's membership as troubling and awkward. The selectmen wisely decided to ask the county commissioners to select someone else.
Under Massachusetts law, as Times reporter Ezra Blair explained this week, a petition from the county's finance advisory board seeking the creation of a charter commission would lead to a question for voters on the November state election ballot. If voters agree to create a study commission, they would create a broadly representative study group that would include appointed and elected members. The incumbent county commissions would not be left out of the mix.
We urge the selectmen to persist in this important effort. The question of the utility of county government is in focus at last, and Island voters deserve an answer. Even those who favor the retention of some form of county government cannot argue that the county's performance has earned the allegiance of Island voters and taxpayers. Responsible citizenship demands a stern but open-minded reassessment.