Are we invested in county government?

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With the recent primary election, it seems an opportune time to reflect and raise questions about where we are and where we are headed.

Let’s start with the Dukes County Sheriff. Given the state of the jail (even with $6 million headed to the sheriff’s department from the state over the next few years for improvements) and a report by the Special Commission on Correctional Funding that the commonwealth’s correctional facilities are only at 50 percent capacity, we wonder if it’s time to reconsider how we do things on the Island.

We have a Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office. Why not explore a Cape and Islands Sheriff’s Department? It seems like something Island leaders should at least consider.

When we broached the subject of the jail during the campaign between Sheriff Robert Ogden and his opponent Erik Blake, Ogden said a Martha’s Vineyard facility “is critical because it provides a connection to the community and families of our justice-involved population.” Since women inmates are already sent to Barnstable, we wonder why it’s OK for them, but not for men?

While we are supportive of more regionalization on the Island, we’re not sure the sheriff’s department makes the most sense. We’ve heard complaints from law enforcement about the communications center, which is one of the primary functions of the sheriff’s department, so we wonder if it would be better if the public safety chiefs had more control over the dispatch system, and if it would be a move toward streamlining the Island’s law enforcement.

Again, these are questions worth exploring now that we know that Ogden will be the sheriff for the next six years. While we understand that things get tricky as services move off-Island, and that may not suit our needs, shouldn’t we at least have the conversation?

As for county government itself, this election also raises questions about the county commission. There are seven seats on the commission, but only three people took the time to get their names on the primary ballots to see who would be picked to run in the general election. And even after there were three successful write-in campaigns, voters will have no real choice whom to pick in the general election for the commission, and what about the seventh position? We asked several people how that would be filled, and got no immediate response.

Essentially, those six candidates will make up the commission, along with a yet-to-be-determined seventh member.

Does the indifference of people to run provide an indication that county government just isn’t that necessary on the Island? Is abolishing the County of Dukes County something that should also be on the table? At the very least, should we be thinking about a smaller number of people on the commission? Both Barnstable and Plymouth counties, which are much larger, have just three commissioners elected countywide.

Dukes County is one of the few counties that survived when counties across the commonwealth were abolished by the administration of then-Gov. William Weld. County governments were considered holdovers from the colonial governments (indeed, the County of Dukes County was originally part of New York State before it was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691). No one in those counties that were eliminated is clamoring for a return of county government. 

What does our county government do? The commission appoints the Vineyard’s representative to the Steamship Authority board, and occasionally meets with that representative when the public raises concerns about the ferry service. Things are particularly heated now, as Islanders remain frustrated with the reservation system often showing no availability, and people publishing photos of half-filled vehicle decks on social media. More angst is coming with proposed rate hikes.

The county also appoints members of the airport commission, and has sometimes been accused of interfering in the business of the airport, though recently the two commissions appear to be working more harmoniously. The county commission also oversees county buildings, and recently commissioners have floated the idea of selling the aging and deteriorating courthouse to its main tenant, the Massachusetts Trial Courts.

There is, of course, a county manager who oversees the county budget for things like veteran’s services, along with the county advisory board, which is made up of Island select board members or their representatives.

How would all of this work if there was no county government? Perhaps the towns could fund a study. In some places, regional councils of government have been established to deal with some of the shared costs of communities, according to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. That could be worth exploring here.

Maybe we’ll come to the conclusion that all of this is necessary, and both the sheriff’s department and the county commissioners are important layers to Island governance. But shouldn’t we at least ask the questions? We think so.

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