Contented voters


The political pundits and the national media tell us that the voters are an angry lot. They back that notion up with polls and trot out studio focus groups so that voters — Democrats, Republicans, Independents — granted their few minutes of fame, willingly express their anger on cue.

At the local level we are not so angry on Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, it would appear we are a pretty contented lot. How else to explain the dearth of races this town election season. The deadline to submit nomination papers for town office has passed in four of the six Island towns and there are virtually no contests.

Do Island voters think that their town’s affairs are in good hands, or are they just apathetic? We think they are generally pleased with the efforts of their neighbors and happy to let them shoulder the burden of governance.

Of the 13 offices up for grabs in Oak Bluffs on April 14, only three seats will be contested: one each on the planning board, the school committee, and the cemetery commission.

Edgartown voters will decide one contest among the 13 on the ballot when they go to the polls the same day — a three-way contest for two available seats on the board of library trustees.

West Tisbury voters can doodle when they go to the polls. There are no contested elections on the ballot. Likewise in Tisbury.

Participatory democracy, or a lack of it, is closely linked to participatory spending of the sort that pushes up property tax bills. On Tuesday, April 12, all four of the aforementioned towns will hold their annual town meetings.

In 2015, fewer than 10 percent of their combined electorate approved town operating budgets, that when added together, totaled more than $100 million — and that figure did not include the warrant article add-ons. Spending decisions in Chilmark and Aquinnah, where meetings are held later in the spring, were made by an equally small percentage of voters.

A frustrated voter may rail at state and federal spending decisions without much effect. That is not the case at the town level. Sitting through an annual town meeting is not everyone’s idea of a good night out, but it is the one forum where a voter has an opportunity to make his or her voice heard and where they may influence town spending decisions.

Running for elected office is another way to influence spending and policy decisions. We report this week that the deadline to take out papers to run for the seven seats on Dukes County Commission is May 3.

The county commissioners preside over a vestige of colonial government established in 1683, as part of the province of New York. It was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

Despite the abolition of most county government across the state, Dukes County, the Island’s only form of regional government, managed to survive under a specially written and adopted county charter.

The seven elected, unpaid members of the Dukes County Commission exercise general legislative powers. They preside over a county government led by a paid county manager who has full control over the administration of county services.

The county annually siphons off about $500,000 from Island taxpayers in the form of individual town assessments, which are based on real estate valuation. Taxpayers are often unaware of the amount because it does not appear as a line item on annual town meeting warrants. Edgartown shoulders the largest part of the burden, about $180,000 last year.

We have heard few convincing arguments over the years for maintaining county government. Most of what little it has accomplished could be provided through regional agreements without the costs associated with county governance — and we could have done without the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees spent in the county’s losing battle with its appointed airport commission.

Recently, the county commissioner decided it would be a good idea to adopt a policy calling for a minimum wage of $15. It was a policy that had no effect on county employees, who you will be shocked to learn do not earn less than that, but it does create a significant problem for The Trustees of Reservations, the private nonprofit that took over management of Norton Point Beach under a contract with the county.

With election season upon us, perhaps a group of public-spirited citizens will band together to run for the county commission on a platform that calls for meeting only twice a year. That would be an example of good government where less is more.