Dukes County government will receive only minor polishing and not a complete overhaul, if voters heed the recommendations of the county charter study commission.
With less than three weeks left before they make their final recommendations public, the study group voted unanimously last Thursday to keep much of county government just as it is.
In their regularly scheduled meeting last Thursday, the group voted to retain county government overseen by a county manager, with a recommendation to impose term limits on the job and with an option to hire a part-time manager.
They also voted to recommend a reduction from four to two-year terms for county commissioners.
As for the rest of county government, it will remain largely unchanged.
The vote, 17 months in coming, met with a round of applause from the 19 commissioners present.
Elected in the Nov. 2006 elections and charged with conducting a study of county government, the commission has until the end of this month to vote on recommendations for the future of county government. The recommendations will be compiled in a final report later this month and will appear on the ballot for Vineyard voters in November.
This is the second charter commission in Dukes County history. The first concluded its study in 1992. Its recommendations were sweeping and were adopted by Island voters. A broad overhaul of county government followed. The recommendations created a charter for county government, established the county manager form of government and expanded the county commission from three to seven commissioners.
But still, flaws remained. “It’s unfortunate that the county manager form has not fulfilled the expectation of that first charter study group,” commission member Tad Crawford of West Tisbury said Thursday.
“The county manager form has not been terribly viable. It has not performed to the standard the public would expect,” said Ted Stanley, the only charter group member who also sat on the 1992 board.
On Thursday, the board considered adopting a board chairman form of government to replace the county manager form. The vote was 10-6 to retain the county manager.
Mr. Crawford then urged the commission to recommend special legislation which would make possible changes in the job of the county manager. Current Massachusetts General Laws require a full-time county manager and impose no term limits on the job. Any change would require an act of the legislature. “It would address the lack of flexibility while preserving the professional aspect of the job, which is a big plus,” Mr. Crawford said.
Dukes County has the only county manager in the commonwealth.
The commission voted 18-1 in favor of seeking special legislation.
Acting chairman Paddy Moore then proposed a package deal to retain the county manager form of government with the understanding that the charter commission will work with the county commission to seek special legislation regarding terms for the county manager. Her proposal also included keeping a seven-member county commission, elected Islandwide, with no more than two commissioners from each town. This is the same structure which currently exists. The only proposed change was a shift from four to two-year terms.
Much of the discussion focused on the change in term limits. “Only the voters can select the drivers, but it’s our duty to recommend structural changes to county government which will broaden the voter’s choices and the only mechanism to do that is two-year terms,” Mr. Stanley said. “Retaining the four-year term of office for Dukes County commissioners is a vote for no change, which is clearly not what the voters of this county are asking for.”
In the end, the commission voted unanimously for Ms. Moore’s package. It remains to be seen whether Vineyard voters will agree.