State representative Eric Turkington met with the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) on Thursday last week to discuss the role of the state legislature in the process of bringing a proposal to the voters next fall.
If the DCCSC chooses one of the three pre-approved forms of county government, there is no need to go to the state legislature. However, there are only a few variables in the control of the DCCSC: which of the three forms, the number of commissioners, the length of their terms, and whether they are to be elected at large or by districts. A majority of the DCCSC members feel the taxpayers of the Vineyard expect operational changes.
If the DCCSC chooses to write a custom charter (as Nantucket and Barnstable have done), the legislative process could not be completed in time for the November 2008 ballot. None of the DCCSC members seem to be in favor of delaying until 2010 a proposal which could not be implemented until 2013.
As a compromise, several members asked Mr. Turkington whether minor changes to one of the existing forms (what they called "tweaking") might make it through the legislative process in a timely fashion. DCCSC members were careful to say that they were not considering asking the state to give up sources of revenue (a "poison provision," according to Mr. Turkington). Mr. Turkington replied that even minor tweaking might be derailed if anyone objected and complained to the legislature. "You never know who's going to take an interest," he said.
However, Mr. Turkington said that very local concerns, if supported on the Island, might attract little attention in Boston. "As long as you're not intruding on anyone's prerogative, the county treasurer, the sheriff, as long as you're not touching their world, it's likely to sail right through," he said.
Bills are usually filed at the start of each legislative session, in January of odd-numbered years, but it would be possible to make a "late filing" as late as May of next year. But if the DCCSC wants to seek legislative approval this session, Mr. Turkington told the meeting, it should finish its work as soon as possible. Even with only benign "tweakings," a bill would have little chance of being considered by the legislature if it were filed later than March.
Rather than going to the legislature, Mr. Turkington said, it may be possible to present the voters with one of the three standard patterns for a county government (thus avoiding legislative action), and suggest that other changes be made "by ordinance" (voted by the county commissioners). The drawback of such a plan is that even if the commissioners pass mandated ordinances, later commissioners (or even the same ones) could subsequently repeal the action.
As he left the meeting last Thursday, Representative Turkington told the DCCSC to decide what changes they want, then consult again with him and state senator Robert O'Leary about how to implement them.
A minimalist county government
After Representative Turkington left to catch a boat, the DCCSC members discussed next steps. Perhaps because only 12 of 23 DCCSC members were in attendance, there chanced to be considerable agreement about the scope of the new Dukes County government.
Former West Tisbury selectman John Early, long active in Vineyard politics, said simply, "It's all about the money, and there isn't any."
There was a consensus that a core of basic services (the Sheriff's department, the Registry of Deeds, the airport, the communications center, and others) are well run and provide useful services to the taxpayers more cheaply than the state is likely to charge for them, and that these departments function with little or no direct supervision from the county manager or commissioners.
However, while many see the county as a facilitator of future regional initiatives, most agreed that the county should not be providing services unless the towns want them and are willing to support them.
DCCSC treasurer Jeff Kristal commented, "The county shouldn't go to the towns. The towns should come to the county. The county should cut back to bare bones, then add only the things the towns want."
Study Commission member Dan Flynn agreed. "I don't believe the taxpayers of Martha's Vineyard want to continue an expensive county government that has little to do with no sustainable source of funds."
Tisbury selectman and new county commissioner Tristan Israel, who has been trying out several sometimes conflicting ideas in discussions with study commission colleagues, agreed with Mr. Kristal and Mr. Flynn. "Perhaps we need a minimalist county commission. Perhaps we meet three or four times a year, sign papers and make appointments, and let the successful departments run themselves." While he didn't say so, such a plan might suggest the "board chairman" form of government, in which the commissioners elect one of their own number each year to serve as the county executive.
On another topic, many of those present agreed with Paddy Moore, DCCSC vice-chairman, who wants to expand the role of the County Advisory Board (CAB). The CAB is made up of one selectman from each town and must approve the county budget each year, which in theory gives it almost legislative power to affect the course of county government. Several speakers saw an expanded CAB as a way to make the county government more responsive to the towns.