It's time for decisions by the county charter commission
Back in November 2006, the voters of Dukes County established the Dukes County Charter Study Commission, a diverse group of 23 residents - 15 elected, seven sitting County Commissioners and the chairman of the county advisory board on finances. Our statutory mandate (Chapter 34A Massachusetts General Laws) is to study the current form of county government, compare it with other forms available under the laws of the Commonwealth, and then to determine whether the government of the county could be strengthened and made more responsible or accountable to the people, or whether its operations could be more economical or efficient under a changed form of government. The last time such matters were addressed was with the Charter Commission Study in 1992.
Understanding that its work was to be completed by May 2008, the Charter Study Commission spent the first few months of 2007 organizing, developing a budget and a detailed work plan. We created several standing committees. Throughout our work, all of our meetings were held in public and aired on public television - MVTV. The work plan first called for the commission to be divided into six work groups whose task was to study the various major functions of county government (county manager, sheriff, treasurer, Registry of Deeds and courthouse, and commissioners' appointments) identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each and to be followed by reports to the commission as a whole.
These work groups met with elected county officers, county department heads, employees and program heads along with studying various records and documents. Facilities such as the courthouse, Registry of Deeds, airport, jail and county administration were visited. Many commission meetings were held to discuss their findings.
In an effort to understand how county government functions in the Commonwealth, the commission held three public forums in July with officials from the counties of Barnstable, Nantucket, Plymouth, Franklin, and Hampshire. Each described their county government and how it works. As such, charter commissioners were able to hear firsthand how other forms of county government either work or have problems. An informative and worthwhile experience for all of us. These counties, along with Bristol and Dukes, are the only surviving county governments in the Commonwealth as the other counties exist only as geographical entities.
The outcome from both our work groups and the study of other counties was an insight into what our county does well and what needs fixing. To help with all of this, a commission meeting was held where representatives of the Martha's Vineyard Commission/Island Plan were invited to speak on the opportunities for Island/county-wide services.
Having completed our study of Dukes County government, our attention turned to the various options available under Chapter 34A, MGL. These are to:
Recommend no change in the existing charter;
Recommend abolishing county government without any replacement form;
Recommend abolishing county government and replacing it with an alternative form of regional government (like a council of governments);
Recommend creating a custom form of county government;
Recommend changing to a County Executive form of government;
Recommend changing to a Board Chairperson form of county government and
Recommend keeping County Manager form of government with improvements.
To help with these choices the commission broke off into three work groups and examined:
The consequences of abolishing county government without any replacement;
The financial operation of county government; and
The statutory, legal and political aspects of making charter change happen.
Comprehensive reports were issued by each group and commission meetings held to discuss the findings. Additionally, as part of this effort, meetings were held with our state representatives Sen. Rob O'Leary and Rep. Eric Turkington. They described the legislative process, the political realities and the time constraints of getting special legislation through the state legislature on Beacon Hill should such be necessary. Understanding all of this is important, as several options available to the charter commission (i.e. custom charter or abolishment) require special state legislation, before submission to the voters of Dukes County.
As this year was drawing to a close we wanted to narrow our options so that in the remaining months of study and deliberation the Commissioners could focus on those options viewed most favorably by them. To this end a narrowing vote was taken at the commission meeting on Nov. 8. Questions voted on were:
Should the current form of Dukes County government be retained without change?
Should Dukes County be abolished without replacement?
Should the Commission recommend abolishment of Dukes County government and replace it with a Council of Governments?
Twenty of the twenty-three commissioners attended this meeting and each voted on these questions. The commissioners were unanimous in deciding that they did not want to retain the existing county government without change and also unanimous in deciding that they did not want to abolish county government without a replacement. Two commissioners favored abolishment and replacing with a council of governments.
Much work remains for the charter commissioners in the coming months leading up to the filing of our report in May 2008. We will be discussing what we see as the purpose and functions of county government. Such questions as what form of government will be best for Dukes County? How many commissioners should be on the county commission (legislative branch) and what should their terms be (two years or four years or more) and how should they be elected (by districts or Island - wide?) The charter commission may also draft and submit to the county commissioners recommendations it deems appropriate for the efficient administration of the county. These recommendations may include a model administrative code. Questions abound concerning the improvements, operationally or otherwise, the charter commissioners want to see made. All of this we expect to complete in early 2008.
The large volume of charter commission reports, meeting minutes and assorted documents are available at our web site - dukescounty.org - click on the charter study commission link.
The public can reach us at P.O. Box 2925, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557 or join us at our monthly meetings on the second and fourth Thursdays held at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center.
William F. O'Brien 3rd, a retired New York judge who lives in Oak Bluffs, is chairman of the Dukes County Charter Commission.