The county question
The series of forums sponsored by the Dukes County Charter Study Commission have added importantly to the remarkable stock of research the commission members have developed during the first part of their review effort. It is safe to say that the commission members know more about how Dukes County government works than any of the county's constituents and even some of the county's leaders.
The commission also knows how the few other county governments in Massachusetts - none of them a perfect model for us - work. All this research and all of these imperfect models will help the commission make its recommendation to voters next year. Keep Dukes County government as is, modify it to serve our needs better, design something altogether new, or scrap the whole thing: these are the choices. Tough choices, every one.
For years, we have lamented loudly and repeatedly the failures of Dukes County government as it is and, in particular, the failings of its leadership. They have done us little good and wasted taxpayers' money. The commission must recommend a way to change this sorry history. But, before the commission makes its final judgment about what ought to happen next, we are struck by the simplicity of the most basic question facing the commission members.
Indeed, Tom Bernardo, the chairman of the 2000 and 2005 reviews of what amounts to county government on Cape Cod, put the matter squarely before the Dukes County study commission members two weeks ago. Cape Cod is Barnstable County. Its county government is known as Cape Cod Regional Government, including a legislative branch known as the assembly of delegates and three county commissioners, responsible for operating the government. It was established in 1988, by a home rule act of the state legislature, and amended in 2000 and 2005. Mr. Bernardo does not now hold a position in Barnstable County government.
In his remarks to members of the charter study commission, reported last week by Times contributing editor Dan Cabot, Mr. Bernardo discussed what were referred to as the "core services" of Barnstable County or any county government. Mr. Bernardo said "core services" are not what the county does now. Rather, he said, "core services" is a concept that changes.
"They are the minimum critical mass that can justify your reason to exist," he said. A county, Mr. Bernardo explained, must identify needs, prove that they cannot be provided by the state, build popular support, and get local representatives to persuade the state legislature to go along.
"What you need more than [structure] is a relationship with the population. If...they believe and trust in your [core services], the infrastructure can be many shapes and sizes.... But the relationship with the population is where the power is."
Whatever the core services may be, here's the core question for the Dukes County Charter Study Commission and its constituents - before some new apparatus gets created: What will county government do?