History of Dukes County management is an uneven affair

The County administration building, located at the Martha's Vineyard Airport, houses the office of the county treasurer, county manager, integrated pest management and veteran's affairs. — File photo by Steve Myrick

The resignation of Dukes County manager Russell Smith, whose contract ends on May 1, leaves the seven elected Dukes County commissioners with a choice.

In November, the commissioners approved a change in the county administrative code to reflect the possibility of making the county manager’s job a part-time position.

Tuesday, commission chairman Melinda Loberg said she is in the process of constructing a committee that will examine the mix of administrative jobs and determine if the county needs to change the manager’s job description, “and identify whether we need a full time or part time county manager.”

The resignation announcement last Wednesday came against the backdrop of a flawed contract Mr. Smith issued for the repair of windows in the Dukes County courthouse. His departure is the latest chapter in the story of the commissioners’ largely failed efforts to provide paid, professional managerial oversight to a county government that remains largely irrelevant to county taxpayers.

Until 1993, three elected paid county commissioners presided over county government affairs and departments not under the control of elected officials.

Fueled by a dream of regionalization and concerned that Governor William Weld would make good on his promise to abolish county governments in the state, a group of Island leaders pressed for a change.

The county charter Island voters adopted in 1994 created a new form of county government that delegated to the seven-member board of unpaid commissioners general legislative powers while giving the county manager full control over the county administration.

Hardly knew Mike

In July 1995, the commissioners selected Walter M. Johnson of Lake Oswego, Oregon, to be the county’s first manager and oversee a county government with a budget of approximately $2,100,000 and 54 employees at a salary of $52,000 per year.

Charges of micromanaging by the county commissioners and ineffective administration by Mr. Johnson characterized the tenure of the county’s first paid professional manager.

By February 1997, after a little more than a year and a half, lawyers for the county and Mr. Johnson had agreed on the terms of a severance package worth approximately $31,000 citing a “difference of vision” between Mr. Johnson and the commissioners.

To fill the operating void, the commissioners appointed one of themselves, county commission chairman Timothy R. Carroll of Chilmark, as unpaid acting county manager.

Short term Ike

In July 1997 the county commissioners decided to stick close to home and hired Isaac D. Russell of West Tisbury, formerly a lawyer, foreign service officer, and teacher to be the new county manager. At the time, Mr. Russell, said his first job “will be to make the county useful.”

Even as he spoke, then Gov. William Weld filed legislation to abolish all of the state’s counties by July 1, 1999. Four weeks after he began the job Mr. Russell resigned for health reasons.

Carol Borer

In October 1997, the commissioners hired Carol Borer of West Tisbury, a former executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, to take the helm of a county government becalmed in uncharted waters.

“The county has to prove to the state, and of course the residents, that they can manage their affairs, and they can do it in an efficient and effective manner,” Ms. Borer said at the time. “I think that is critical.”

Much of Ms. Borer’s term was marked by unrelenting battle with Marc Villa, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, over authority for the airport. The conclusion was a court victory for the airport and state and federal directives that airport management rested with the county-appointed airport commission.

When Ms. Borer became the third county manager in several years to take the helm of county government, the job paid $52,000 per year. Ms. Borer’s salary rose by more than 52 percent over the course of her five-year tenure, to $79,206.

In December 2002, she unexpectedly announced her retirement in order to take advantage of the state’s early retirement incentive program. She departed surrounded in controversy when the county finance board learned after the fact that she had received a $22,791 check on the eve of her retirement as compensation for unused vacation and sick pay in contravention of the rules for county employees and department heads.

As the search began for a new manager, county business was placed in the hands of an acting county manager, Diane Powers, the Dukes County Registrar of Deeds.

Perry, no Davis

In May 2003, the county commissioners chose Laurie Perry of Edgartown, administrator for the Wampanoag Tribe, to be the county’s fourth county manager since 1992.

By August, the commissioners had not signed a contract because they were unable to verify Ms. Perry’s claim that she received a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Northeastern University in 1977.

After 10 executive sessions, in August the county commissioners voted 4–3 to rescind the job offer to Ms. Perry.

In September 2003, after more than eight months without a full-time county manager, the county commissioners signed a three-year, $71,750 contract with E. Winn Davis of Falmouth, executive secretary of the town of Hanson.

The commissioners voted to waive the county charter’s Island residency requirement for Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis’s tenure was marked by a series of bobbles that included allowing the county engineer to ticket drivers who visited State Beach on a warm, sunny day for the rarely enforced violation of parking with their cars headed in the wrong direction, and a much ridiculed application for disaster funds to use the Edgartown dredge to pump sand into the Norton Pont breach.

Mr. Davis resigned in May 2007. Noreen Mavro Flanders, county treasurer, stepped in as acting manager. Once again a screening committee got to work.

Mr. Smith

In April 2008, the commissioners ended an eight-month search process and voted 4-3 to hire Mr. Smith, a civil engineer and former Aquinnah selectman.

At the time Mr. Smith was also legislative liaison to state representative Eric Turkington, a position that paid him $34,000 annually.

The county commissioners and Mr. Smith agreed on a six-month contract based on an annual salary of $45,000. The terms were designed so that Mr. Smith could retain his liaison job until the end of the year. In December 2008, the commissioners signed a new contract with Mr. Smith.

What the manager manages

Although the county manager serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, represents more than half of the county budget. State and federal regulations prohibit any use of airport revenue for uses unrelated to the airport.

The sheriff’s office is under state control. The registry of deeds, and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager and have direct control over their employees.

In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees three people in three departments: the county manager’s office, veterans affairs, and integrated pest management.

In the current fiscal year, Dukes County assessed towns a total of $849,414 to operate the county government.

Town-meeting voters have no direct say in the assessment they must pay. The assessment cannot be amended on the town-meeting floor and does not show up on the operating budget.

Taxpayers must rely first on the county commissioners to exercise fiscal oversight and ultimately on the members of the county’s finance advisory board, which includes one selectman from each town.

In the current fiscal year, county assessments by town are: Chilmark, $128,024; Edgartown, $305,423; Aquinnah, $31,459; Gosnold, $11,360; Oak Bluffs, $126,276; Tisbury, $126,276; West Tisbury, $120,596.

The seven elected county commissioners are: Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, John Alley of West Tisbury, Tristan Israel of Tisbury, Melinda Loberg of Tisbury, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, Carlene Gatting of Edgartown, and Thomas Hallahan of Oak Bluffs. Mr. Alley and Mr. Jason have served on the commission since the adoption of the county charter in 1995.