Charter study weighs what's possible
A subcommittee of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) reported last week on the choices available to the commission under MGL Chapter 34A, on the timelines likely for each choice, and on the political ramifications of each choice. Spokesman Richard Knabel reported that the subcommittee recommends against one of its choices, abolishing county government entirely, and it cautions that a second, a custom charter, will be difficult to get through the legislature and might take five years to put in place.
Mr. Knabel pointed out that many people think rejection of whatever the DCCSC recommends will abolish Dukes County government. It will not. If the voters reject the DCCSC recommendation, the present form of county government will continue.
Easiest and quickest
The legislature in Chapter 34A of state law has pre-approved three possible forms of county government. All have an executive and a legislative branch. The county manager form, the one we have now, empowers the commissioners to hire a county manager. Dukes County is the only county to use this form. In the county executive form, the voters elect a county executive as well as county commissioners (no county uses the county executive form). In the third form, the commissioners elect one of their own members to serve as the executive (several counties use this form).
The big advantage of choosing one of the three pre-approved forms is that there is no need to ask for special legislation, a time-consuming and risky process. The DCCSC could make its decision and send it to the Secretary of State before Aug. 6, 2008, so that it could appear on the November ballot next year. If approved by the voters, new commissioners could then be elected in the November 2010 election (the next state-wide opportunity) and sworn in Jan. 1, 2011, the earliest Dukes County could have a new form of government.
The disadvantage of using a pre-approved form is that the DCCSC has very little influence over how the new county government will operate. It may specify only which of the three forms, the number of commissioners, the length of their terms, and whether they are to be elected at large or from districts (in which case the districts would have to be defined). No one at last week's meeting was sure whether or not the Island's towns could be the districts, as that might give smaller towns disproportional representation.
No matter which form it selects, the DCCSC may also recommend to the county commissioners a model administrative code. Mr. Knabel commented, "Considering the dissatisfaction with the manner in which parts of the county have been operating, which is the reason this commission exists to begin with, this statutory provision allows us to address directly the operational concerns [we] have identified."
However, such "operational concerns" recommended by the DCCSC are not binding on the county commissioners, who may adopt them "in whole or in part," according to Chapter 34A.
A custom charter
Last summer there was considerable interest in creating a custom county charter, as Barnstable and Nantucket counties have done. However, if that is to happen, its implementation is likely five years off. In theory, our representatives could introduce a custom county charter bill in the legislature at late as April and get it voted on in July, but Rep. Eric Turkington and Sen. Robert O'Leary have told the DCCSC that to have much hope, bills need to be introduced now, an impossible requirement. Bills that do not get acted upon in this legislative session will have to be reintroduced in 2009.
Mr. Knabel reports that Mr. Turkington and Mr. O'Leary have said that no bill would pass if it contained "poison" provisions, by which they meant any dedicated revenue stream that a special interest group might object to or any revenue transferred from the state to the county. Since increasing county revenue is one of the main reasons for a custom charter, this hurdle may by itself remove the motivation to design one.
Moreover, Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Turkington have said that they themselves would not support a custom charter that did not have broad support on the Island. This is a bit of a Catch-22, as the voters get to vote on the proposal only after it comes out of the legislature. In the view of study commission chairman William O'Brien, the legislature has made custom charters difficult precisely because it wants to approve each charter before it goes to the voters. However, DCCSC member Mimi Davisson suggested that a non-binding referendum might appear on each town's annual meeting warrant.
In any event, it seems unlikely that any but the most non-controversial custom charter could be approved in time to make next year's ballot, and the earliest a charter tailored to the Vineyard might appear on a ballot would be November 2010, assuming the legislature cooperates. That puts off implementation to January 2013.
The subcommittee advised against abolishing county government entirely, whether or not it is replaced by a coalition of regional governments. Martha's Vineyard would be at risk of losing considerable assets to state control. The DCCSC would try to negotiate with the legislature and the governor, and in theory could suggest that assets be distributed to the towns or to a regional coalition, but Mr. Knabel pointed out, "The legislature might not give us what we ask for."
Spectator Margaret Logue, who was listening to Mr. Knabel's report while knitting quietly, in response to a question from the committee, said that her late husband, Ed Logue, always said you didn't know what would come out of the legislature, if it came out at all. She said he often quoted Judge Gideon Tucker in 1866: "No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session."
Mr. Knabel pointed out that services now provided by the county would have to be provided by the state, which would charge the towns for them. "Abolishment," he said, "is not likely to result in savings to the towns."
Carlene Gatting, who chaired the financial subcommittee, went further. "Abolishment is very likely to cost the towns more money than they're paying now," she said.
The biggest reason against abolishment, he said: "Abolishment is irrevocable."
Negotiating terms of abolishment would take even more time than creating a custom charter, and the present county government would exist until January 2013.The subcommittee members were Richard Knabel, Dan Flynn, Tristan Israel, Leonard Jason, Nora Nevin, Paddy Moore, William O'Brien, Linda Sibley, and Mimi Davisson.