Charter study group struggles over definitions
At their meeting last week, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) agreed quickly that the new county government, whatever its form, should retain fiduciary responsibility for the county's assets and departments, and should retain control over the appointments the county commissioners currently make. However, there was only scattered agreement about what else the county should do.
It was almost a given going into last Thursday's discussions that the DCCSC would decide that any new government should maintain the county's considerable assets and control of its current appointments. These were the reasons why the DCCSC rejected the idea, popular in some circles, of scrapping county government altogether or replacing it with a regional coalition of town governments. There is, they agree, no guarantee that the legislature would turn over the courthouse, the jail, the county administration building, the airport, the county-owned beaches, the county retirement fund, or any other county assets to local control. Moreover, two subcommittees of the DCCSC had concluded that the Sheriff's department, the communications center, and other county programs would cost the towns more if they were in state hands than they do now. The registry of deeds, a source of income to the county, would pass entirely to the state.
At least as important in the minds of the DCCSC members is the power to make appointments. These include the Island representative to the Steamship Authority, the airport commission members, the county representative to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the health council, the housing authority, the county retirement board members, emergency management leaders, and several others. Without the county, the DCCSC sees the potential for a huge loss of local control of local affairs.
Having agreed unanimously that the new county government should keep its appointment powers and what financial control it has over its assets, the DCCSC turned its attention to present and future county programs, what the agenda called "working assumptions" about what the county should do.
Immediately there was a dispute over language. The draft outline prepared by DCCSC member Tad Crawford of West Tisbury identified a county role as "leadership of regional functions." Few agreed that "leadership" was the right word. Some suggested "coordination"; others, "facilitation."
County commissioner Lenny Jason of Chilmark said that the job of the county commissioners is "to raise regional issues" rather than "leadership." County commissioner Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, until recently the chairman of the commissioners, said that the county commissioners have two roles, "nurturing" and "direction." He did not say which programs are nurtured and which are directed.
The discussions in general did not distinguish clearly among existing county programs, programs the county proposes to curtail, and possible new programs.
When little progress was made in discussing what the new county government should do, the DCCSC sent Mr. Crawford back to revise his outline and moved on to discuss the number and election of commissioners.
While there was some consensus that there should be more than three commissioners, there was little agreement whether there should be five, seven, or more. Several refused to make any choice as to the number of commissioners until the group decided how they should be elected (at large, by towns, or by districts).
The DCCSC adjourned without having settled, even tentatively, anything more about the composition or priorities of a revised county commission. They will meet again tonight at 5 pm at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center.