Has county government a point?
Island voters, appalled by the misfeasance of the county commissioners and the failure of the county charter that empowers them, have decided to go back to the drafting board. They want to see whether there is a point to county government.
We don't think there is. This page has argued that every important function of county government is either under the control of some agency other than the county, or ought to be. The courts, the communication center, the sheriff's department, the airport, the registry: all of these are county functions in name only. And, thank goodness for that.
Are there services that span some or all of the six towns? Of course. Must the cumbersome, vestigial apparatus of county government be enshrined in order to control vermin, manage a few beaches, test the water, provide low-cost engineering and parking ticket writing? No. In each of these cases, often cited by county officials as the current justifications for their existence, the service could be performed by an ad hoc agreement among the towns interested. The four-town and two-town refuse districts are appropriate examples. Each trash district is organized differently. One is run by a volunteer committee and paid staff employed by the district. The other is run by a volunteer committee which contracts with a private trash handler to do the work. Each operates successfully, although one may be more trouble-free and less expensive than the other. If some town is unhappy, it can apply to drop its current membership and move to the other district.
The founding inspiration of the current Dukes County charter was that some tasks require a regional government to accomplish. What these tasks might be and whether Island voters, who generally identify themselves with their towns and not with the county as a whole, welcome such remote governance was never resolved. It is not resolved today.
If there is a job that Island voters want the county government to do, then proponents of county government should name it, price it, and see if voters will agree. If they do, then perhaps there is a role for county government and perhaps there is a way to write a charter that will serve such important ends. If there is no agreement on the practical role of county government, rather than on its oft-touted potential, then write the county out of existence.
At the very least, if we are to be afflicted with county government in some patched up and splinted form, there are three threshold requirements that any new charter must make explicit.
First, the county commissioners may appoint the airport commissioners, but they may not appoint themselves or their manager to airport commission seats.
Second, commissioners must be elected as the Martha's Vineyard Commission members are: at least one, but not more than two from each town.
Third, the county's budget, paid for to the tune of nearly $750,000 by Island taxpayers, must be reviewed by each town finance committee and voted, along with each town's assessment, at each town's town meeting.