Commission Recommends Major Changes To County Government
By: Michael C. Bailey
For 23 years, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates has served as the legislative branch of county government, but a special commission is saying it is perhaps time to trim that branch away as dead wood.
The 27-member Barnstable County Special Commission on County Governance, co-chaired by former state senators Robert A. O’Leary and Henri S. Rauschenbach, on Wednesday voted in support of a formal recommendation to the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners to eliminate the assembly in its current form.
Mr. O’Leary did not regard the change as the elimination of the county’s legislative branch as much as a “merger” of the board of county commissioners’ and assembly’s respective forms and functions.
“People have talked about eliminating the assembly,” he said. “I’ve never seen what we’re doing here, frankly, and heading in that direction as much as merging these two entities…I would like to argue that we really think of this in the context of bringing these two groups together.”
The commission’s proposed new government structure replaces the position of county administrator with a chief executive officer, an appointed position that would handle the county’s day-to-day operations and also serve as a strong public face for the county.
The board of county commissioners and the assembly, respectively the executive and legislative branches of the current structure, would become a single legislative entity comprising seven members: five representing five yet-to-be-determined districts across Cape Cod and two at-large members.
At present, all three county commissioners are at-large and there is no requirement that all three hail from different areas of the Cape, although the board cannot have two sitting commissioners from the same town.
Each member would be elected to a four-year term, those terms staggered to avoid the entire group coming up for election in a single cycle. The races would be nonpartisan.
In order to entice greater interest in the positions and compensate individuals for their time commitment, members of the new body would receive an annual salary of $15,000 to $25,000, depending on whether they also applied for benefits such as health care.
The commission rejected the concept of a formal advisory board comprising town administrators and/or selectmen, and instead, adopted language that mandated quarterly meetings between town and county officials to discuss regional matters, county services, and county finances.
The proposal must still go to the county commissioners for adoption, and the commissioners expect to take the matter up as early as Wednesday.
The new government model adopted by the special commission mirrors models championed by the League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area and the Cape Cod Business Roundtable.
“It seems to us that the county would be better served by a single, strong executive,” Nancy Curley, co-chairman of the League of Women Voters’ county subcommittee, said in her testimony to the special commission back in November. The league believed that a single top executive would be better able to “articulate a clear vision for the county [and] would decrease the blurred lines for both vision creation and execution which currently exist.”
The league believed this executive should be elected rather than appointed to increase public interest and involvement in county government.
As for the assembly, the league stated the legislative branch of county government should be abolished in favor of an expanded board of county commissioners that assumes the assembly’s legislative duties.
Assembly: Stay Or Go?
Julia C. Taylor, Falmouth delegate and at 11 terms the longest-serving member of the assembly, said prior to this week’s meeting that she was open to the possibility of dissolving the assembly—conditionally.
“I’m happy to change the assembly, but I’m worried about anything that could change the relationship between the county and the Cape Cod Commission,” she said, noting that along with overseeing the county’s annual operating budget, the assembly’s “most important responsibility” is its oversight of the Regional Policy Plan (RPP).
Ms. Taylor also said she would be supportive of eliminating the assembly if the new county government structure included a “strong executive authority” and a separate elected body with legislative duties.
Marcia R. King, Mashpee’s delegate, said she supports the assembly’s continued existence in its current form, and she took issue with the business roundtable for “their presumption that the assembly is a stumbling block or a problem.”
“I question their motive” for supporting the assembly’s dissolution, she said. “They have an agenda. They don’t want a deliberative, democratic body for some reason.”
At special commission meetings, business roundtable Co-Chairman Elliott G. Carr said the roundtable’s desire was to see a county government with a more regional perspective on certain key issues such as housing and wastewater. The league stated that the assembly “often fails to foster regional approaches to common problems.”
Ms. Taylor did not agree with criticism that paints the delegates as parochially minded and lacking in a true regional perspective. “I do not feel there’s been a dreadful level of town-based voting over the years,” she said, an opinion she reiterated at this week’s special commission meeting.
If the assembly is folded into the board of county commissioners, it would mark the first substantial overhaul of county government since 1988, when the assembly was formed by the passage of the Barnstable County Home Rule Charter.
That charter was adopted by voters at a time when the state was systematically abolishing county governments and turning certain functions, such as the registry of deeds, over to state control.
The concept of a county legislature predates the charter by about four years, when the Barnstable County Review Committee—a group similar in its origins and scope of work to the present-day special commission on county governance—completed a review of county government and recommended the creation of a 21-member “county legislature” to enhance the work of the three-member board of county commissioners.
Ms. Taylor noted that the same group also considered simply expanding the board of county commissioners to nine members, but ultimately embraced the idea of a county legislature comprising one representative from each of the Cape’s 15 towns to act as a check-and-balance system to the commissioners while also giving towns more direct input on county finances.
“It was more politically palatable” at the time, Ms. Taylor said, explaining that town officials pushed to have directly elected town-level representation in county government.
The Assembly On The Assembly
The final phase for the special commission is to submit to the county commissioners a report containing all their formal recommendations—and that kicks off a second process, wherein any attempts to disband the assembly could be easily thwarted.
Because the special commission’s recommendations are not binding, they must be formally adopted by the county commissioners. Then, to enact major changes to the leadership of county government, the commissioners would have to file an ordinance amending the county charter—and for that to happen, “You have to go through the assembly,” Ms. King said.
The county normally conducts an extensive charter review every five years, and the penultimate step in that process is the adoption of any amendments by the full assembly.
The county charter directs any changes approved by the assembly (by a two-thirds majority vote) to then go before voters during the next biennial election, unless those changes are to the composition of county government itself.
Charter amendments that “relate in any way to the composition, mode of election, or term of office of the [assembly]…shall be proposed to the voters only after the enactment by the state legislature of a special law approving of a petition filed by the assembly of delegates with the approval of the board of regional commissioners.”
If neither the county commissioners nor the assembly file an ordinance calling for a restructuring, the proposal effectively dies—unless a “citizens initiative measure” brings the proposal to the assembly. This would require at least 3 percent of the Cape’s registered voters (as of the last statewide election) signing on to a petition calling for a restructuring.
The assembly could still reject the petition, which would require petition organizers to collect within 45 days of the rejection additional signatures equal to 1 percent of the Cape’s registered voters in order to force the measure onto the next November ballot.