Looking for a beautiful sunset over county government


The Dukes County commissioners are poised to potter along and select the sixth full-time $60,000-plus per year professional manager.

He or she will manage next to nothing at all for a county government that governs little, to the unrestrained relief of its constituents. You name the landmark county attributes — the criminal, civil, and probate courts, the registry of deeds, the sheriff’s department, the county-owned beaches, the airport — and none of them falls to the county to manage. Sometimes, God is good.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, accounts for more than half of the county budget.

The sheriff’s office is now 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. Each has direct control over their employees.

In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees a total of just three people in three departments — his office, veterans affairs, and integrated pest management.

After Russell Smith declared that he would withdraw, the commissioners considered reducing the job to part-time and debated the scope of the future manager’s duties. But they voted on February 29 to search for a new full-time county manager at a salary budgeted at $63,250. It may be that the over-pressed Mr. Smith led the commissioners to this nutty conclusion.

“I know it’s widely reported that my job is managing three people,” Mr. Smith said in February, describing how three can be an exhausting crowd. “I can tell you I’ve had no trouble staying busy.”

Until 1993, three elected, paid county commissioners presided over county government. In 1994, voters created a new form of county government that delegated general legislative powers to a seven-member board of unpaid commissioners and gave a county manager full control over the county administration. This enlargement of county administration anticipated an enlargement of the appetites of the six Island towns for more and better county government.

As it happened, what actually occurred was the amputation of county responsibilities, in part because of the county’s demonstrated inability to get things done rationally — the airport expansion fiasco — and the state’s need to streamline its own budget relationship with county governments that were crumbling across the state — the sheriff’s department. Plus, the towns, in their ineffable wisdom, asked for nothing from the county. Indeed, over time the county has shifted more and more of the costs of some of the shreds of its legacy responsibilities to the towns.

The time has come to sunset this government charade, not to buttress it with another manager who will certainly be ground to dust by an administrative challenge that may not do much but keeps him busy.