Study group nibbles at county charter choices
Having agreed to recommend the "board chairman" rather than the "county manager" form of county government, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) turned its attention last week to the options available under the charter study statute. After considerable debate, commission members voted 13-3 that county commissioners should be elected at large (rather than by districts) and by a much narrower margin (9-5, with one abstention) that there should be seven commissioners, with no more than two from any one town. In these two choices, the DCCSC replicated the decisions made by the 1992 charter study commission.
DCCSC member Richard Knabel opened the debate last Thursday with a "white paper" commissioned by the steering committee, in which he outlined several options proposed by the DCCSC members over the past several months, together with research into the statutes and opinions from the DCCSC's lawyer as to which choices are legal and which are not.
Early in the process, there had been considerable support for electing a county commissioner to represent each of the six Island towns and Gosnold. Noting that a "huge disconnect," in Tristan Israel's phrase, exists between the towns and the county, the DCCSC sought a way to bring the town governments and county governments closer together. Some, including Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman, wanted selectmen to be the county commissioners, as is the case in Nantucket's custom charter, but that is not possible under any of the pre-approved forms, according to Mr. Knabel's report.
Others wanted a district representation system, with one commissioner elected from each town. While this might be possible, the one-man-one-vote standard established by the secretary of state would require that the town-based commissioners wield proportional votes according to the population of the town each represents. As a practical matter, a weighted vote would mean that any two of the down-Island commissioners would control 48 or 49 percent on any vote, and to prevail in any question would need only one of the other five commissioners to agree. There was doubt that Gosnold and Aquinnah, and perhaps even Chilmark, would field candidates for commissioner with such a low-weighted influence in county government.
An alternate plan would be to create geographical districts with roughly balanced populations. Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown could be districts, and West Tisbury, Chilmark, Aquinnah, and Gosnold would together comprise a fourth district of about the same population. DCCSC members from Chilmark and Aquinnah objected, arguing that West Tisbury's larger population could always elect a West Tisbury person, disenfranchising voters in Aquinnah and Chilmark. Moreover, the plan yields an even number of commissioners, risking stalemates on important issues.
A compromise - some commissioners elected by district and some at large - is also not allowed under the statute. Commissioners may be elected at large or by district, but not both ways.
In the end, the DCCSC members agreed that, in Linda Sibley's words, there is "no comfortable way" to elect county commissioners by district, and they voted, as the 1992 charter commission had done before them, to elect county commissioners at large.
The number of commissioners
There was no clear consensus as to how many commissioners there should be. DCCSC chairman William O'Brien weighed in for five commissioners with no restrictions as to town. Former county commissioner Dan Flynn wanted three commissioners. Ms. Sibley, also a former county commissioner, commented that seven seemed to her to work well enough. The present antipathy to country government, most agreed, does not stem from the number of commissioners.
Even though district representation was off the table, some of the DCCSC members wanted to avoid the possibility that one or two towns could dominate the county commission. The problem, Mr. Knabel told the meeting, is to balance localism and regionalism. Member Les Leland quoted the 1992 charter study report, which sought "Island-wide" representation while retaining "geographical diversity."
Member Tad Crawford argued that the County Financial Advisory Board (FAB), which is made up of one selectman from each town, has sufficient oversight over the county budget to protect the interests of the towns. Moreover, Mr. Knabel pointed out that the statute allows the county commissioners to appoint a Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), though the statute is vague about what the MAC would do. There is no reason why the members of the FAB could not also comprise the MAC, together making almost a second, legislative branch of county government, accountable to the towns, allowing the commission itself to be regional.
However, despite their desire to focus on Island-wide issues, few on the DCCSC were ready to abandon "geographical diversity" entirely.
Mr. Crawford proposed "a straw horse" that there be five commissioners, with no more than one from any town. This would require that five towns be represented on the commission. Holly Stephenson pointed out that such a plan would be "de facto districting," and others argued that good potential commissioners would be discouraged from offering themselves as candidates from a town that had an active and well-known commissioner, or that a commissioner might be elected with very few votes, perhaps as a write-in from a town with no candidate.
At the end of the meeting, the DCCSC voted 9-5 with one abstention to follow the lead of the 1992 study and continue the present make-up of the county commission.