Charter study group weighs recommendations
The Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) has settled, at least tentatively, the four parameters of the county government which it plans to recommend to the voters in November. The members turned their attention last week to a long list of recommendations.
Under chapter 34A of the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL), the DCCSC may recommend to the voters only the following: a form of government (it has chosen the "board chairman" form), the number of commissioners (seven), the length of their terms (four years), and the way they are to be elected (at large). The recommendation which will appear on the ballot in November will contain only those four particulars.
The DCCSC may, however, also make recommendations, including perhaps an administrative code, to the present and future county commissioners, who may or may not adopt some or all of the recommendations as county ordinances. Such recommendations could be adopted by the present county commission, whether or not the voters approve a new form of county government.
The DCCSC last Thursday considered a list of 20 possible recommendations, ranging from county appointments, county revenues, and periodic charter reviews, to the chain of command within the commission and compensation and benefits for commissioners. After a lengthy discussion, it turned out that every item but one (term limits for commissioners) was considered by at least one member present to be worthy of debate. One possibility, expanding the county advisory board, was also eliminated last week.
Ted Stanley, who was also a member of the 1992 study commission, sounded a note of caution: "We may be finding ourselves doing something we shouldn't be doing, which is in essence attempting to micromanage the county commission. What we really want to be doing is developing a structure that encourages and nurtures the county commission into doing the job that they are charged with."
Few DCCSC members seemed disposed to take Mr. Stanley's advice, but at the rate they began last week, it seems unlikely that the DCCSC will be able to debate at such length the 18 remaining recommendations in advance of April 17, when they plan to begin public hearings on a draft report.
The county advisory board
As early as last summer, some members of the DCCSC saw the county financial advisory board (CAB) as a way to make county government more accountable to the voters. The CAB is made up of one selectman from each town and must approve each county budget. Since county budgets are not voted on in town meetings, it is up to the CAB to look out for the towns' interests. County treasurer and acting county manager Noreen Flanders told The Times that in practice it has been difficult to get the CAB to take its responsibilities seriously. Operating in obscurity (its members are not well-known to the public), it has often met only once a year to approve the county budget, and in some years it was hard to get a quorum for that meeting.
Current county commissioner Lenny Jason pointed out last Thursday that in recent years the CAB has been more active, and in the current county budget cycle, perhaps partly as a result of the charter review, the CAB began meeting with Ms. Flanders when the first draft budget was proposed.
Many members of the DCCSC have hoped that the CAB could function as a kind of legislative body. Several have argued for expanding the role of the CAB to discuss other regional issues and make recommendations to the county commissioners. Perhaps, they say, expanding the role of the CAB might make it more important to its members and therefore more effective.
However, the CAB has its own statute (MGL chapter 35) and does not fall under the purview of the DCCSC. Short of legislative action, there is no way the DCCSC can make any changes in the CAB. At last week's meeting, expanding the CAB was removed from further consideration.
The municipal advisory council
However, there is another possibility, if the county commissioners agree. Having determined that it cannot affect the CAB, the DCCSC transferred its attention to the merits of recommending that the county commissioners appoint a municipal advisory committee (MAC).
Former county commissioner Linda Sibley felt that the CAB group is too small to represent the (often differing) opinions of all the selectmen. She suggested that the All-Island Selectmen's group (AIS), which includes every selectman, be appointed the MAC, in hopes of revitalizing the sometimes apathetic AIS as well.
County commissioner Tristan Israel proposed that the various town administrators and executive secretaries, a group that already meets regularly, be the MAC, because they would know what was going on in every town, could report regularly to their selectmen, and would have management expertise. Mr. Israel credited the husband of DCCSC member Carleen Gatting, who was not present last week, for the idea.
Aquinnah selectman and DCCSC member Jim Newman suggested that the MAC be comprised of representatives from all the regional organizations on the Island (schools, refuse district, housing authority, transportation authority, etc.).
Member Holly Stephenson thought the DCCSC should recommend only that there be a MAC, but recommend no specific membership. She argued that the county commissioners and the AIS should decide who should be on the MAC. Mr. Israel suggested that possible memberships be presented along with such a generic recommendation.
Dan Flynn, a former county commissioner, recommended against a MAC, but recommended that the county commissioners appoint ad hoc committees as needed, made up of persons with expertise in the specific area where advice is needed.
Member Tad Crawford argued that no MAC should be recommended at all. The DCCSC, he said, should applaud the current efforts of the CAB and other regional entities, and let them continue to advise the commissioners in their own areas.
Each of the suggestions had several opponents, and no action was taken last Thursday. The debate on this matter, and 17 others, will continue on March 13.