With three months left to complete their 18-month study of county government, the Dukes County charter study commission last Thursday voted to recommend the county retain a seven-member commission.
“I think seven works well,” said study group member and former county commissioner Linda Sibley of West Tisbury.
At the start of the meeting group member Richard Knabel, also of West Tisbury, read aloud a summary of progress to date and urged the study group to keep trucking. “Time is no longer on our side,” he said. “We must really conclude our decision making by the end of February so that public hearings can be held in March, and a final report with recommendations can be written in April.”
By law, the 23-member commission, elected in November 2006, has until May to make recommendations to Vineyard voters on the future of county government.
Before discussing the size of the county commission, the study group debated whether to elect that commission through an at-large vote or a district-wide vote. County elections are currently done at-large. A district-wide vote would require the six Island towns and the town of Gosnold be broken into districts for voting by region.
“I like the idea of me voting for someone from Tisbury or Edgartown or wherever,” said group chairman William O’Brien of Oak Bluffs. Mr. O’Brien supported retaining at-large elections. “I like having a say on who’s sitting on our county government and not just picking the most qualified from Oak Bluffs,” he said. The vote was 14-1 in favor of at-large elections.
The group then turned its attention to size. Seven commissioners now sit on the county commission. There are no more than two commissioners from each town.
Daniel Flynn, a former county commissioner, argued for a return to a three-member board, the size of the commission in 1992 when the first charter study commission voted for an increase to seven members. “Seven doesn’t work and that’s why we’re here now,” Mr. Flynn said.
Other members recommended the commission decrease from seven to five members.
Still others were in favor of keeping the composition the same. “I think it works,” said Leslie Leland, current chairman of the Dukes County Commission and a member of the study group. He pulled out the final report from the first charter study group, written in April, 1992, and read aloud: “The board of the county commissioners should be enlarged to seven members to increase its ability to represent the voters of the county and to ensure geographic diversity while preserving an Islandwide focus.”
Fellow county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark agreed. “The Island has probably doubled in population since the last county charter,” he said. “I think seven gives you a better base or cross section of the community that’s being represented.”
His opinion was not universal. “I think seven is too many,” group member Mimi Davisson argued. Current county commissioner and Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel agreed. “To put seven people in front again with a structure with no real accountability to the people for another four years, that’s part of what’s not working,” he said.
Ultimately, the board voted 9-5 to keep a seven-member county commission with no more than two commissioners elected from each town. Mr. Israel abstained.
Despite an evening which resulted in two votes from the group, a central issue went unaddressed. “Since this is identical to what we have, what is going to cause the pool of candidates to be different,” Ms. Davisson asked. Group member Tad Crawford shared her hesitation. “If that’s all we do in this deliberation is go from tweaking one form of government to another and from small changes in terms and numbers, we will not have fulfilled our mission,” he said. “The Island is expecting more of us than simply moving deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The charter study commission met again last night, and will meet again at 5 p.m. on Thursday Feb. 28 at the Oak Bluffs senior center. The meetings are open to the public.