Winn Davis Mans Helm in Rocky Year for County

By JAMES KINSELLA

More than two years ago, the Dukes County commissioners hired a Falmouth man, E. Winn Davis, to manage county government.

Mr. Davis, who was then executive secretary for the town of Hanson, took on a position that had been a revolving door - and often a controversial one.

In 1995, the county hired its first full-time manager, a position created under the county charter approved by voters three years earlier.

In the last 10 years, one manager resigned after facing poor performance reviews. Another left after four weeks because of health concerns. A third manager unexpectedly took early retirement and drew scrutiny for a harassment complaint and for cutting checks to herself. A fourth was hired, but quickly dropped after she could not produce evidence of a college degree on her resume.

Mr. Davis has not avoided criticism as a county manager, especially in recent months. But, in contrast to a number of his predecessors, his tenure has provided a relative measure of stability in county government.

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"Generally speaking, Winn has done a phenomenal job," county commissioner Robert Sawyer said. "I don't think we could have a better county manager. He has a great background, both on issues and on procedures," he added.

"I think he's done a fine job," agreed county commissioner Nelson Smith. "He's brought a steady presence to the management position."

Now, as some Vineyard residents begin to wonder whether county government should continue on the Island, Mr. Davis, 58, has become more visible as a point man for that government.

Among other things he has joined county commissioners in attending selectmen's meetings around the Vineyard, both to hear town concerns and to share information about county operations.

He also has come under criticism, especially from Tisbury officials, who faulted him for a late county fuel bid earlier this year. Because Vineyard towns participate in buying fuel under the bid, any change in the contract price also affects them. Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee estimates the late bid will cost Island towns at least $100,000 more than if the bid had been submitted on time.

The county commission has yet to give Mr. Davis an annual performance review, as specified in his contract. The commission has approved increases in his salary, even though his contract specifies that any salary changes should come after a performance review.

The county initially paid Mr. Davis an annual salary of $71,750, and he is now paid $75,380.

John Alley, chairman of the county commission, said Mr. Davis did have a performance review after he had been on the job for six months, and Mr. Alley said another review will be done soon.

"We have tried to the best of our ability to live up to the terms of the contract," Mr. Alley said.

Commissioner Paul Strauss said the time has come to take a broader look at the county manager's job.

"Everybody has a view of what that job is, whether or not it's in the job description," he said.

Commissioner Roger Wey also praised Mr. Davis's performance, but said: "A concern that I have is that he should be out in the community more."

Mr. Wey said he pushed for Mr. Davis to meet with town boards to talk about county initiatives, and to gather feedback from the towns.

Mr. Davis calls his job challenging and exciting and says he is glad he took it.

When he arrived in the fall of 2003, Mr. Davis said he felt he needed to calm things down after a long period of turbulence in county administration, to make county government clear and transparent, and to operate that as efficiently as possible.

County government, he said, offers the Vineyard an opportunity for centralized services such as the veterans agent, the county engineer, and the parking ticket clerk. Dukes County also has taken the initiative to offer health education, including a pending symposium on Lyme disease, he said.

In Mr. Davis's eyes, abolishing county government would be a mistake. Island towns would face additional costs to continue to obtain the services now provided by the county. He also said the state would absorb deeds revenue that now is available for county spending, and would take over county assets, such as the Martha's Vineyard Airport and government buildings in Edgartown and at the airport.

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But some Vineyard residents are getting restless, and a superior court decision earlier this year that leaves the county exposed to possible payment of more than $800,000 in damages in a dispute between the county commission and the airport commission hasn't helped.

Mr. Davis said the county commissioners were relying on the legal advice of their attorneys when they pursued the case.

As for the fuel bid - initially scheduled to go out last spring, but finally sent out several months later - Mr. Davis said the bid may have been overlooked in the midst of medical problems in the county manager's office.

He said he has been working out a protocol with his new assistant to ensure that certain annual tasks are performed according to an annual schedule.

"We're not going to go through another year like we did this year," Mr. Davis said.

But after two years on the job, Mr. Davis also said he has been surprised by the divergence among Vineyard towns on Islandwide issues. "The towns really do have a different view," he said.

He said he has tried to bring more transparency to county government, both through establishing a county web site and encouraging videotaping of county commissioner meetings by MVTV, the local cable access television program.

As for transparency, Mr. Davis stumbled when he delayed the release of news about the ruling in the county airport case.

But another topic that drew discussion among the county commissioners at the time Mr. Davis was hired - his residency off-Island - has apparently become a non-issue.

When they hired Mr. Davis, the county commission exercised its power under the county charter to allow him to live off-Island. At the time Mr. Davis cited the expense of paying for the education of his daughter, who then was halfway through college.

A letter of understanding executed between Mr. Davis and the county commission noted that he would eventually make a reasonable attempt to move to the Island.

Mr. Davis's daughter now has graduated and is married.

Citing the higher cost of Vineyard real estate compared with Falmouth, and his wish to retire without facing mortgage payments, Mr. Davis said a move to the Island still remains out of reach.

"I would love to if I could make it work," he said.

County commissioners say they are open to the commuting arrangement.

"I don't see that as a problem," said commissioner Roger Wey. He said Mr. Davis is among a number of commuters from off-Island contributing to Vineyard life.

"It doesn't bother me one iota," Mr. Smith said. "Falmouth is not that far away."

Mr. Davis stays on the Vineyard as necessary to do his job.

Two years ago, Mr. Sawyer raised the greatest concern about residency, abstaining on the otherwise unanimous motion to approve the off-Island residency letter. He now has come full circle.

"Obviously, given my druthers, I would love to have him live here on the Island," Mr. Sawyer said. "But I'd rather have Winn Davis commuting rather than not have Winn Davis at all."