County charter study votes for four-year terms for commissioners
The Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) last week decided to recommend that the commissioners in the new county government serve staggered four-year terms. However, several DCCSC members argued for two-year terms, and there is scattered interest in other solutions.
Tad Crawford reminded the commission that there is profound unhappiness with county government, and two-year terms might give the voters more control. Holly Stephenson said that accountability is what is wanted at this juncture, a sentiment which was echoed by Nora Nevin and Mimi Davisson. Voters need to be able to make their displeasure known quickly, they said. Ted Stanley, who was also on the 1992 charter study, agreed and said that voters' ability to reject a commissioner after two years might empower them and reduce the present lack of interest in county affairs.
Mr. Crawford and others opined that more new candidates might be attracted to the shorter commitment.
Former county commissioner and former West Tisbury selectman John Early argued for four-year terms, saying that continuity is more important than accountability. Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman and county commissioner Les Leland agreed with four-year terms and pointed out that there is a long "learning curve" with such a job. Mr. Leland, now in his third term and current chairman of the commissioners, said that in his first year he mostly listened.
DCCSC chairman William O'Brien also preferred four-year terms and quoted former county commissioner Linda Sibley, who had said at the previous meeting that the process of running for county commissioner is "expensive, time-consuming, and painful." Candidates for a state office, as well as doing all the things that local candidates do, must disclose and update all financial holdings, open a special bank account in a designated bank, and make monthly campaign finance reports. There is a $500 fine for missing any deadline, a stiff penalty for seeking an unpaid job. A candidate who wishes to run with a party affiliation must also run in the primary, which involves a very early decision. Ms. Sibley said two weeks ago that the mountain of red tape would discourage many from running again in as soon as two years.
DCCSC treasurer Jeff Kristal is a proponent of four-year terms, because of the greater continuity, but he mentioned in an aside that Ms. Sibley, who was not present last week, had communicated in an email that she is now in favor of two-year terms.
The DCCSC rejected two-year terms by a vote of five in favor, seven opposed, and one abstention. They next endorsed four-year terms: eight in favor, four opposed, and one abstention. Finally, the group quickly voted unanimously for staggered terms, with four commissioners standing for re-election in one two-year election cycle, and three in the next.
The results of the last three meeting are that the DCCSC has agreed with the decisions of the 1992 study in all particulars but one. Though they have voted to recommend a "board chairman" model of county government rather than a "county manager" form, they have, after considerable debate, come down in exactly the same place as the 1992 group as to number of commissioners, how they are to be elected, and the length of their terms.
However, the three choices - election at large, seven commissioners, and staggered four-year terms - have all come on close votes. Earlier votes - not to recommend abolishment or a custom charter, not to recommend an elected county executive or a modified county manager, and to settle on the "board chairman" form - all came on unanimous or nearly-unanimous votes. As these recent votes were taken with several members absent, it may be that the three recent choices will come under review when the full DCCSC makes its decisions final.
DCCSC vice-chairman Paddy Moore commented during the discussion, "We should not choose something just to be different. We should choose something because we think it's right."
Mr. Crawford, on the other hand, has several times pointed to the political reality that voters expect change.
At the start of last Thursday's meeting, the DCCSC discussed at considerable length how to approach the Administrative Recommendations which the group will make to the county commissioners. These include such issues as the functions of county government, a periodic review of county government, a Municipal Advisory Council, strategies for attracting more candidates for county office, and the relationship between the county commissioners and the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
While the DCCSC recommendations are not binding on the county commissioners, all agree that they offer the best opportunities to shape the direction of county government in the future.
The group argued as to whether a new subcommittee should be appointed, or not, who would be on such a committee, and what it's authority would be. After many minutes of debate, Mr. Stanley observed, "Let's stop talking about how we're going to talk about something, and get on with it."
The new seven-member subcommittee will meet next week at 5 pm at the Oak Bluffs senior center. Up to 11 DCCSC members will be welcome. If more arrive, some will have to take turns stepping out of the room to avoid an illegal quorum of the whole DCCSC.