Commissioners tap assistant to be new Dukes County manager

— File photo by Steve Myrick

Updated 11:30 am, Thursday

The Dukes County commissioner Wednesday voted to offer the job of county manager to Martina Thornton, executive assistant to the county manager since 2008.

“I will move forward,” Ms. Thornton told The Times Thursday morning. “We have projects that need to be finished, we have ongoing operations. I’ll make sure the county is operating effectively.”

The commissioners met Wednesday and nominated Ms. Thornton and Jeffrey Madison, both among the five finalists. The commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of Ms. Thornton. Lenny Jason of Chilmark was the dissenting vote. On a subsequent motion the vote was unanimous in favor of Ms. Thornton.

“We’re getting somebody who is quite familiar with all of the county manager’s job because she has worked very closely with Russell (Smith) for four years,” commission chairman Melinda Loberg told The Times Thursday morning. “She knows a great deal, we won’t have to start from scratch.”

The county commissioners decision to look inward came less than one week after Katherine Rogers, a lawyer and resident of Concord, New Hampshire, decided not to accept the job of Dukes County manager, offered by county commissioners following a contentious debate and vote on June 27.

In an email dated July 5 to commission chairman Loberg, Ms. Rogers, who is running for a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said that due to knee surgery she would not take the job.

Ms. Loberg told The Times in a phone conversation Tuesday prior to Wednesday night’s meeting that the county commission has several options for the next step in the process, including discussion of the three candidates who ranked just below Ms. Rogers in the rating system county commissioners used to rate the five finalists.

“I’ve checked with the top three remaining candidates and they all remain interested in being considered,” Mr. Loberg said. “There is a possibility we may choose to continue the search.”

Ms. Loberg said nothing regarding a possible vote but responded to criticism of the process for hiring a county manager.

“The process was agreed to by all the commissioners,” Ms. Loberg said. “Some of them may have forgotten. We are going to have a discussion on where to go from here. There is no format, there is no preconceived direction or option.”

The commissioners selected Ms. Rogers from a short list of five that included Christopher Knowles, health director for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah); Jessica Burgoyne, property manager for the Morgan Woods affordable housing development in Edgartown; Ms. Thornton; and Jeffrey Madison, a lawyer and former Aquinnah selectman.

According to the scoring system used by the commissioners to rate the candidates, Ms. Thornton ranked second of the five finalists. Ms. Burgoyne and Mr. Madison were tied for third.

Ms. Rogers rejection is the latest stumble in the history of paid county managers.

On June 28, the Dukes County commissioners voted 5-2 to offer Ms. Rogers the job left vacant when Russell Smith resigned effective May 1.

The vote followed an extended and sharp discussion about whether an off-Island candidate could be an effective advocate on issues affecting the county government and its relations with Martha’s Vineyard towns. Along with Ms. Loberg, Tom Hallahan of Oak Bluffs, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, Beth Toomey of West Tisbury, and Carlene Gatting of Edgartown voted for Ms. Rogers.

Tristan Israel of Tisbury and veteran commissioner John Alley of West Tisbury voted against Ms. Rogers.

“I think there is a bit of rolling of the dice with someone who is not familiar with the Island, who does not live here, who says they will move here, who doesn’t know any of the players here,” Mr. Israel said during the debate. “We are a body that has had a tumultuous history. I’m very concerned we are rolling the dice.”

Following the vote, the commissioners authorized chairman Loberg to begin negotiations. Ms. Loberg told the commissioners of the latest twist in the search for a county manager in an email she sent July 5.

“The latest information on the candidate from New Hampshire is that she is unable to commit to coming here for this job due to a need for knee replacement surgery (perhaps two) and can’t predict the timeline for her availability,” Ms. Loberg said in her email.

Last week, commissioner John Alley had some thoughts. “I just thought the process was flawed,” Mr. Alley told The Times. “The process was wrong.”

Specifically, Mr. Alley, the longest serving commissioner, said the commissioners were asked to rank the five semi-finalists and bring their rankings to a meeting on June 27, when the final selection was to be made. Mr. Alley said that without any discussion, a motion was made and seconded to offer the job to Ms. Rogers.

“There was no opportunity for discussion,” Mr. Alley said. Mr. Alley said that when he objected he was told he could discuss it, but he added, “That is hard when there is a motion on the floor.”

The amount alloted in the current budget for county manager is $63,500. In its search for candidates, the commission advertised a salary range of $60,000 to $75,000.

In advertising the position, the county cited a preference for “…a bachelor’s degree and familiarity with and residence on the island… The successful candidate should have five to seven years management experience, preferably within government, as well as strong financial management, personnel management, grant writing and strategic planning experience.”

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

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

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

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