Editorial: A good idea is what you make of it

In his May report to the Tisbury selectmen, Robert Wasserman’s Strategic Policy Partnership outlines the steps to be taken if Tisbury and Oak Bluffs elect to merge their police forces. The selectmen in the two towns are interested in exploring this possibility, and they should be.

Mr. Wasserman is the chairman of the Strategic Policy Partnership, a group of public safety and public policy experts who assist police and government agencies with performance improvement and policy development issues. He has advised Tisbury on police issues before. In 2000, the Tisbury selectmen hired Mr. Wasserman to study problems in the town’s police department. His 25-page Police Issue Assessment, commonly referred to as the “Wasserman report,” was released in February 2001. Mr. Wasserman also reported on police issues on July 30, 2009 and August 27, 2009. He and his wife live in West Tisbury.

Mr. Wasserman has some familiarity with Island policing across the six towns and he understands the limited enthusiasm among Islanders for regional approaches. His report identifies the difficulties associated with arranging an Island-wide, or even a more limited, police organization, but he says, “It is clear that merger of the departments Island-wide makes economic sense.” Mr. Wasserman also qualifies this endorsement for a Tisbury-Oak Bluffs merger, noting that if saving money is one of the goals, savings will be absent at the beginning.

It may be clear to Mr. Wasserman that an all-Island police merger would make economic sense, but there are many dimensions to such a notion, all of which deserve careful exploration. He adds wisely that small steps may open the way to wider achievements. “A Tisbury-Oak Bluffs merger,” he writes, “could serve as the pilot for the Island.”

The real value of Mr. Wasserman’s report is the blueprint he sketches for exploring and implementing the two-town police merger. He recommends a three-year process of decision-making and implementation of consolidation, beginning with an effort to describe what the merged organization would look like and how it would be governed. That’s the first year. In the second, a new position, that of a single chief for the merged departments would be filled. That new leader would, in Mr. Wasserman’s words, “oversee the development of the final merger plans.”

This is not a job for the eight selectmen of the two towns. Rather, it’s a job for a carefully designed task force, appointed by the selectmen and guided by advisors — perhaps Mr. Wasserman can help —experienced in such inter-municipal cooperation, in all its organizational, financial, political, and law enforcement dimensions. A good idea is what you make of it.

Cooperative delivery of services here suffers from a history of failure, hostility among town voters, and a predisposition on the part of Islanders to squabble. When such cooperation works, it’s because the purpose is narrow and sharply 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. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs have moved thoughtfully to consider what would be an historic change. For such a venture to succeed, if it should, will require disciplined consideration and the informed support of the voters.