After nearly a year of study, the members of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) voted overwhelmingly last week to eliminate three of the choices available to them. They will not recommend that county government continue as it is without change, nor will they recommend that it be abolished, with or without a "coalition of governments" to take its place.
In a round of comments before the votes, a plurality of those members present appeared to be leaning toward a revision of the county manager plan (the one now in place), though other choices have their advocates. Almost all of the study commissioners say they hope to have a preliminary decision by the end of January.
The DCCSC will not consider recommending no change in county government. By a vote of 20-0, members affirmed the view expressed by almost every of them at one time or another since early last summer: change is the reason for the existence of the DCCSC in the first place.
Also unanimously, the DCCSC voted not to abandon county government entirely. Member Tad Crawford, while admitting that this decision will be hard for many Islanders to accept, commented that abandoning the county would be "committing hara-kari." DCCSC subcommittees have reported that giving up county government would almost certainly involve a transfer of valuable assets to the state and would cede control of decisions important to local residents. Two subcommittees concluded that abandoning the county would cost the towns more money than the county costs them now.
"There is more at stake than most people realize," Mr. Crawford said. He went on to say that the DCCSC needs to make the public understand why abandoning the county is a bad idea, although a popular one.
Several members also commented that abandoning the county government would involve a lengthy and uncertain negotiation with the state over the fate of the airport, the courthouse, the county beaches, the communications center, and other assets and appointments. It is uncertain, and perhaps improbable, that the Vineyard would get what it asked for from the legislature, they said. Member Richard Knabel said that such a process would likely drag on too long for a proposal to appear on the ballot next fall, and in 2010 the final ballot question might be so disadvantageous to the Vineyard that even opponents of county government would vote against abolishing it under the legislature's terms.
For the same reasons, the DCCSC also voted against abolishing county government and replacing it with a regional council of governments (COG), though the vote was not unanimous (18-2). Representatives from Franklin and Hampshire COGs in Western Massachusetts, formerly counties, made presentations last summer, and for a time the COG solution had support on the DCCSC. However, several DCCSC members expressed doubt that the legislature would cooperate with Vineyard plans for transferring assets to a COG. It is almost certain that the COG solution could not appear on a ballot before 2010, to take effect Jan. 1, 2013.
While the DCCSC could vote at a later time to reconsider any of the choices eliminated last week, opposition to them is now nearly unanimous.
The remaining four choices
While voting on the four other choices was not on the agenda, the DCCSC members were given an opportunity to make their views known. One option is to craft (and negotiate with the legislature) a custom charter, as Barnstable and Nantucket counties have done. Several members agreed with colleague Ted Stanley, a member of the 1992 charter study commission, who echoed the doubts of then chairman Ed Logue that the ballot question that came out of the legislature was likely to bear very little resemblance to a custom charter proposed by the charter commission. In meetings with the DCCSC, Rep. Eric Turkington and Sen. Robert O'Leary 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.
William O'Brien asked for a show of hands. Although the majority wanted to eliminate consideration of a custom charter, more than one-third of the members favor keeping a custom charter as an option, despite the difficulty of dealing with the legislature. The DCCSC made a rule last month that eliminating an option would require a two-thirds majority.
Member Linda Sibley said that she favors the pre-approved charter plans, which do not require the approval of the legislature, but she wants to keep the custom charter option in reserve.
In a voice vote, the DCCSC decided to keep all four choices under consideration.
The legislature in 34A, the state law that permits counties to restructure themselves, has pre-approved three possible forms of county government. The county manager form, the one in place now, empowers the commissioners to hire a county manager. Dukes County is the only county to use this form. In the county executive form, which no county uses, the voters elect a county executive as well as county commissioners. In the third option, the board chairman form, which several counties use, the commissioners elect one of their own members to serve as the executive.
The DCCSC could choose one of the pre-approved charter schemes and send it to the Secretary of State before August 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 statewide 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 should be adopted, along with the number of county 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. Most DCCSC members now oppose at-large election of county commissioners, but they have not as yet determined how commissioners can legally be chosen to represent the towns.
More of the study commissioners who expressed a preference favor "tweaking" the existing county manager form. Member Nora Nevin said that she is leaning toward the county executive form, but other commissioners were ready to eliminate it. No member voiced a preference for the board chairman form, but no vote was taken to eliminate that option.
No matter which form it selects, the DCCSC may also recommend to the county commissioners a model administrative code. Mr. Knabel commented last month, "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."
Although recommended fixes for the "operational concerns" identified by the DCCSC are not binding on the county commissioners, several members of the DCCSC last week said that this "tweaking" of the county manager form offers the best hope for making significant improvement in Dukes County government.