County charter study moves toward decision
At their meeting last week, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) moved several steps closer to a resolution of its task.
Last fall, the DCCSC unanimously voted not to abandon county government entirely, nor to recommend no change at all in the present county government. On Thursday, the study commission also eliminated seeking a custom charter and selecting the elected county executive form.
While the members could theoretically reconsider any eliminated choice, only two recommendations are now on the table for serious consideration. One is to petition the legislature for changes in the county manager form of government (the form now in effect). The other is to recommend to voters the pre-approved "board chairman" form, in which the commissioners each year name one of their own number to wield executive power.
A custom charter
The DCCSC had earlier agreed to keep open (as a last resort) the option of petitioning the legislature for a custom charter, even though a custom charter could not be voted on until November 2010, and would not be in place until January 2013. At the close of last week's meeting, the DCCSC unanimously approved Linda Sibley's motion to take "a full-blown custom charter" off the table. The group agreed, however, that there might be a need to approach the legislature about minor revisions to one of the existing forms, a process which might be done in time for the November 2008 ballot, provided that the proposed "tweakings" of the statute are non-controversial and do not involve revenue sources, according to state Sen. Robert O'Leary and Rep. Eric Turkington.
The county executive form
At the end of Thursday's meeting, study commission members unanimously approved Tad Crawford's motion to remove the "county executive" form from consideration. In this form, pre-approved by the state legislature, the voters elect a county executive every four years. This has the advantage of making the executive directly responsible to the voters (unlike the county manager, who is responsible only to the commissioners) and would therefore encourage him or her to maintain a relationship with the people. However, it is by far the most expensive form of county government. The elected executive, by statute, receives a full-time salary and is required to appoint a "chief administrator," who also collects a full-time salary. Most of the members of the DCCSC have expressed the opinion that county management is too expensive now and are opposed to adding another layer of administration. No county in Massachusetts uses this model.
The county manager form
Early in their deliberations, the DCCSC voted not to recommend that the present system of county government be left unchanged. However, they might still recommend the county manager form with changes permitted in chapter 34A of the Massachusetts General Laws. These include the number of commissioners, how they are elected, and the length of their terms. The DCCSC also has the power to recommend policies and ordinances, though the commissioners do not have to adopt them.
For many on the DCCSC, the permitted choices do not address what they see as the shortcomings of the county manager system, as it has operated on the Vineyard. The statute requires that the county manager serve "an indefinite term." Former county commissioners on the DCCSC say that in practice, an underperforming county manager is difficult to get rid of without an expensive lawsuit or an expensive buyout. Ms. Sibley of West Tisbury, a former county commissioner and member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, has called the county manager a "king for life."
However, the DCCSC believes that the legislature might approve a minor change in the statute, which would allow the county commissioners and a county manager to enter into a contract with a definite term. Other DCCSC members want the statute to be amended to include an automatic five-year charter review, so that the present cumbersome charter review process need not be repeated if their decision (assuming voter approval) fails to improve county government.
Last week's vote, on a motion by Dan Flynn, a former county commission member, took the DCCSC's earlier decision one step further. The DCCSC will recommend a county manager system only if the state legislature approves changes in the pre-approved model found in chapter 34A.
The board chairman form
The chief advantage of the board chairman model of county government is that it is much less expensive than the other pre-approved forms. In this form, the commissioners elect one of their own number to serve as the executive branch of county government for one year. The board also appoints a "chief administrator," who can be a part-time employee and serves "at the pleasure of the commissioners."
County commissioner and DCCSC member Lenny Jason of Chilmark called this option "a step backward." He pointed out that this form is similar to the traditional system which had been in place for many years and which many on the Vineyard considered dysfunctional. Ted Stanley of West Tisbury, the only current member of the DCCSC who served on the 1992 charter study group, said that the previous study commission feared that the board chairman in any one year might "lack professional expertise" sufficient to administer the county.
However, others replied that the part-time chief administrator, never used in the old Dukes County government, might have reduced the need for the chairman to have administrative expertise. While some suggested that the board-chairman form is the most vulnerable to political strife, Holly Stephenson of Tisbury pointed out that a weak board chairman could be in place for only one year, and that shortening the terms of commissioners to two years might further make the commissioners, including the chairman, more accountable to the voters.
DCCSC member, Tisbury selectman, and present county commissioner Tristan Israel pointed out that if what is wanted is a "minimalist" or "bare-bones" county government, the board chairman form makes the most sense and would cost the least. Others added that the board chairman is the most flexible system. If the towns in the future should ask the county for more services, the commissioners could increase the hours of the chief administrator in order to manage them. In the meantime, many on the DCCSC say the towns do not want additional services, or even all that they now receive, and a part-time county administration is what is needed.
Form follows function
The format for last Thursday's meeting was to list the advantages and disadvantages of the three forms of county government remaining on the table. Mr. Jason objected to the agenda, saying that the DCCSC should first decide what it wants the county to do before settling on a model. "Form follows function," he said.
After listing the pros and cons of the available choices, the DCCSC will now follow Mr. Jason's advice. Next week's meeting will discuss the various possible roles of county government and whether the modified county manager form or the board chairman form is best able to accomplish each.
The DCCSC was created in the wake of widespread voter dissatisfaction with county government. The DCCSC has 23 elected members - 15 elected at large, the seven Dukes County commissioners, and a representative of the county advisory board. It must complete its examination and issue a final report with possible recommendations to the voters by May 2008. Any recommendations will be on the November 2008 ballot. However, if the DCCSC recommends an option that requires negotiations with the legislature, it is likely the voters would not see a ballot question until 2010.
The DCCSC will meet tonight at 5 pm at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center. Members of the public are urged to attend.