A recipe for working together


Last week in this space, I suggested that expansion of what is today a modest use of cooperative or regionalized services will be, as it has shown itself over decades to be, difficult. The argument was that several ingrained, practical, political impulses set voters against relinquishing town control to umbrella organizations, even when economic considerations appear to support such a change.

Voters like to keep public officials on short tethers. They like to have direct and immediate control over budgets. They like the public decision makers with whom they must inevitably contend to be like-minded — a civic empathy likely to be more dependable when the civil servant is a neighbor in your town. They want direct and powerful impact on decisions, especially because so many voters and their extended families live off the spending, for employment and contracts, that towns do. Town governments are often the biggest and most secure employers in their towns. Voters have only limited experience with cross-town or cross-Island organizations with solid track records of performance. And, voters are practical and intelligent, so they know that for regionalized delivery of services to work, the public agency created to do the work, which will certainly be more remote in its operations than the town selectmen or board of health, must be efficient and practiced at running things smoothly.

Voters would prefer that the town run important stuff rather than a regional organization. But, they would prefer a regional organization to the state government. Of course, they’d rather the state government do it than the federal government. And ultimately, under no circumstances do they want the Congress getting involved if that can possibly be avoided. This hierarchy of diminishing returns is to the voter like a ladder, along which one does not rise but instead descends from the free exercise of direct influence to the ultimate slippery, murky, constipated netherworld whose inhabitants don’t know your name.

But, there’s more. It might be easier to persuade us to embrace, or at least tolerate, and support regional organizations if it were easier for us to settle on the purpose for which one might be established. Islanders are not good at defining objectives. Some examples of this mutation in the Island genome may be found among existing regional organizations including the three school districts that are regionalized: the high school district, the up-Island district, and the umbrella six-town region. The mere existence of three regions and six school committees makes the point. (I do not consider here the public Charter School, which operates independently under an appointed board of trustees.)

The five committees — three elementary/middle school committees, the up-Island committee, and the high school committee — are nominally members of the all-Island committee, but each does its own policy making and budgeting. The all-Island committee, a delegation of members sent up from the town and sub-region committees, might in a more streamlined conception exercise comprehensive authority over education for about 2,200 kids in six towns, but it does not. Part of a region, yes, but still the town and sub-region committees want to separately manage their town schools. The all-Island committee and its professional superintendent do not have the authority that might be granted, in a more narrowly purposeful arrangement, over the deployment of funds, students, teachers, and other assets. But, because the purposes are several and varied, and because the regions are regions for pedestrian and tactical reasons — say, qualifying for state or federal funding grants for buses — rather than educational ones — say, making every dollar spent on education count — the regional disorganization of education here conforms to Vineyard-friendly preferences with which we are comfortable.

Or, how about the County of Dukes County? What is its purpose? I’m waiting. You’re stumped? It’s understandable. The Dukes County Charter Study Commission was stumped too. What it came up with for a purpose was the notion that Dukes County is a placeholder for something we might want it to do. Plus, it owns the courthouse, which is a lovely historic building. Plus, its members appoint the airport commission members and the Steamship Authority member. For that, they preserved a layer of government, with its own headquarters building at the airport, an annual assessment to the towns, and no say in anything.

Contrast these examples of regional entities, whose affairs are less than optimized, with the Land Bank, whose mission is a narrow one: Buy land with scenic, recreational, environmental, or historic value. Distribute your purchases among the six towns. Spend and borrow sensibly, given annual fluctuation in income. Take advice from committees established in each town. Hire and then depend on a superb professional manager. As elected and appointed lay decision makers, restrain yourselves from meddling in matters that your very competent manager is better equipped to decide. Compile a two-decade record of accomplishment that assures the admiration of your constituents, even the ones who’ve had to pay your bills.

Cooperative delivery of services here suffers from a history of failure, a hostility among town voters, and a predisposition on the part of Islanders to indiscipline, as they consider the possibility of a new regionalized service, as Tisbury and Oak Bluffs now propose to do, respecting police services. When such cooperation works, it’s because the purpose is narrow and well defined, the political control remains closely tethered to the voters (they decide the budget with town finance committees and ultimately at town meeting), and terrific professional management runs the resulting organization.