Regional Government Challenged at Home

By JAMES KINSELLA

After nearly two decades, the vision still has appeal: a Dukes County government taking on and solving Vineyard problems.

It is a vision that has drawn the support of Islanders at the ballot box, and inspired resistance to Massachusetts legislative and gubernatorial moves to abolish county government.

Now Dukes County government is facing what could be one of its strongest tests: a homegrown challenge that raises blunt questions about everything from day to day county operations to the need for county government itself.

Island selectmen have taken the lead, forming a committee calling for a thorough examination of county government, whose jurisdiction includes the Vineyard as well as Gosnold, which spans the Elizabeth Islands.

Last Thursday night the committee got off to a quiet start in a meeting at the Howes House in West Tisbury.

Selectmen representing four Vineyard towns - Chilmark, Edgartown, Tisbury and West Tisbury - were present, along with county manager E. Winn Davis and county commissioner Leslie Leland.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel laid out the central agenda.

"I think there's a real concern about county government, its role on the Island and its viability," Mr. Israel said.

Selectman Warren Doty of Chilmark said the county needs to do more work for the people of the county.

"The health care access program, that's a really good program. If you had 10 programs like that, it would be great . . . The county has to do more, to have some good programs that work for all the people," Mr. Doty said, adding:

"If the county is going to exist, it needs a mission."

Mr. Leland agreed on the need for more services but pointed quickly to money constraints.

"We have limited funds," he said. "The financing is always a big issue."

He said the county commissioners are ready to listen to the concerns of Island selectmen."There's always room for improvement," for constructive criticism, Mr. Leland said.

Acknowledging his self-appointed role as devil's advocate, Mr. Israel said more radical steps could be taken to carve up existing county operations. For example, he said, the Martha's Vineyard Airport, which is owned by the county, already is virtually autonomous. He said the airport business park could be transferred to Edgartown, while county health care services could be spun off into a separate operation.

Mr. Davis the county manager counseled against dissolving county government. Under the current structure, he said, more than half of the county's revenue comes from sources other than town assessments, such as the registry of deeds.

The revenues allow the county to offer a range of services that otherwise might not exist on the Vineyard, such as rodent control and expanded health care access services, he said. Mr. Davis said the state would be glad to scoop up revenues now under control by Dukes County government for its own use.

"If you do away with the county, you're going to lose money, you're going to lose services," he said.

Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck said the county does provide a streamlined way to perform certain functions, such as rodent control. He said the towns could not afford to provide the service individually.

But that argument so far has not resonated much among Islanders, who put their county government in a place somewhere between an afterthought and an annoyance.

"There's a lot of ambivalence about the county," Mr. Israel said.

And then there is what Mr. Israel called "the other elephant we've got to talk about here" - the lawsuit between the county commission and the airport commission over salaries for the manager and assistant manager at the airport.

Last year a superior court judge ruled against the county in the case and ordered triple damages. County attorneys have appealed the treble damages portion of the ruling; but in an unfortunate complication the judge died recently and the case now awaits reassignment.

If the triple damages are allowed to stand, it could deal a devastating financial blow to county government.

Hopes ran high for county government in the late 1980s, when widespread Vineyard disgruntlement over Islandwide problems such as traffic and waste disposal built the foundation for a charter study commission. The idea: to establish a regional government to address regional problems.

At the time county government was led by three part-time commissioners who oversaw county operations. Reformers said the time had come for a county charter - its first - under state law. The law would give Dukes County home rule.

Vineyard voters backed the effort, voting in a charter study commission in November 1990. The commission subsequently recommended adopting a charter and a new structure for county government, with a professional manager appointed by an unpaid county commission.

The question went to the ballot in November 1992. A last-minute campaign against the charter failed to sway county voters, who approved the charter by 4,077 to 2,988. The charter passed in every town save Gay Head (now Aquinnah), where it lost by five votes.

The late Ed Logue, chairman of the study commission and a fervent backer of regional solutions to Vineyard problems, praised the outcome. "I think it's wonderful and it sends us all a message for the county to do a better job," he said.

In 1994 voters elected their first county commission under the new charter. The commission subsequently appointed the county's first professional manager, Walter (Mike) Johnson, who took office in 1995.

Across the commonwealth county government was already an endangered species. In many areas counties were seen as lingering anachronisms beset by wobbly finances and sporadic corruption.

At first the charter commission process protected Dukes County from elimination. A threat surfaced in 1996, when then-Gov. William Weld moved to abolish Massachusetts counties as part of statewide government reform.

But Island support for county government won out again, even as counties such as Franklin turned over major functions to the state and continued on as councils of regional governments.

In recent years, the threat from outside the county has subsided. But a series of missteps has stirred concern about whether benefits from the county outweigh its costs.

A number of Vineyard residents question not so much what the county has done, as what it hasn't done after a decade under the current charter. And they wonder why the county has not shown more leadership on regional issues such as solid waste disposal.

"We don't need just support," Mr. Doty said. "We need leadership. It just can't be the county manager. We need passion from the board."

Participants at the meeting came away with homework to pursue before the next meeting, probably to be held sometime in January.

Mr. Smadbeck called on Mr. Davis to produce a sheet of paper that in layman's terms shows how money comes into the county and is spent. Mr. Israel said he will explore the experience of counties where county government was eliminated. Margaret Logue, a member of the original charter study commission who attended the meeting, recommended that the committee review the commission's final report.