A structural issue
Dukes County manager Winn Davis resigned last week. In the letter announcing his decision, Mr. Davis told the county commissioners that he believes in the future of county government, but that his presence had become a distraction. Mr. Davis may believe in county government, whatever he means by that, but a significant portion of the county's voters and taxpayers do not. For the most part, they are indifferent to county government, confused about what it does, and nervous at the prospect that it might be asked to do more.
Mr. Davis has been county manager since Sept. 3, 2003. He now earns $79,194 annually, and he has an administrative assistant. His office has real authority over none of the most significant county functions. His office exists primarily because there is a county government, not because of what county government does. His tenure has been marked by little progress and an embarrassing collection of flubs, usually having to do with attempts by the county to find ways of increasing county revenue, at the expense of town taxpayers, and without any assurances that more money would result in more and better services.
Mr. Davis has done nothing to improve the opinion that Dukes County voters and taxpayers have of his management of county government, or of the county commissioners who hired him and supervise his performance. His resignation will not undo that trend.
We suspect that Mr. Davis recognizes that the Dukes County Charter Study Commission, just now getting its teeth into the work it was charged with doing by county voters, is unlikely to be complacent about the current structure of county government. Change is in the wind.
How extensive that change will be is not clear, and it's important to keep in mind that the failings of county government are not entirely the fault of the elected county commissioners and their paid, professional manager, though they certainly could have done a lot better. But, the problem is greater than the cast of characters.
For instance, there is the matter of the commissioners' at-large election, which leaves some towns unrepresented and no town closely connected to any one commissioner. Then there is the matter of the county budget, proposed by the commissioners, reviewed by a county finance committee and the legislature's committee on counties, but never actually reviewed and approved by town voters at town meeting.
And, then there is the fundamental question of what county government ought to do. A common observation is that county government has an important role to play in coordinating or operating vital regional government services, things that no town, or collection of towns, could do efficiently. What those services might be, or how they would be improved by enshrining county government as the overseer, is rarely made clear. To the contrary, there is considerable evidence that ad hoc, volunteer, inter-town agreements would do the trick, without the apparatus of a separate government structure.