By MICHAEL C. BAILEY
When Mary L. (Pat) Flynn of Falmouth first ran for the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners in 2008, she knew she did not want to be a one-term wonder.
“It’s one thing to go the first round, but I don’t think anyone should ever into it thinking they’re only going to be there for one term,” Ms. Flynn said. “It’s pretty difficult when you’re elected to a position or an office that people have never heard of before — and that was as vague as the county seemed to be to a lot of people — so it doesn’t make any sense not to work at it.”
Ms. Flynn reflected on her first term and its ups and downs, starting with an annual budget creation process that she said has improved considerably since she first took office.
That improvement, she said, was the result of bringing delegates in while the commissioners worked on the budget, which involved meeting with County Administrator E. Mark Zielinski and various department heads. Previous budget processes had the commissioners and assembly working separately, which resulted in conflicting priorities.
“I invited [the assembly] to come to our meetings,” Ms. Flynn said, and several members of the assembly accepted the offer. “I think that really helped…transparency and working together makes a big difference.”
Ms. Flynn admitted that the county did not handle as well one of the thornier region-wide issues of the past few years, a public outcry against the Cape Light Compact and the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC). “It could have been done a lot better,” she said.
Starting in March 2011, a number of residents began attending the commissioners’ meetings on a regular basis to air concerns that the CLC and CVEC were not conducting their business in a transparent manner, particularly when it came to their finances and operational practices.
For several months the commissioners entertained public comment but did not act on the residents’ requests for a formal inquiry. Eventually the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates took up that effort.
“It was hard to know what it was all about,” Ms. Flynn said. “We had to have it explained to us too, and that probably didn’t help. If we had been more informed in the very beginning, if we had gone out and done our homework when [the residents] first came there, it could have been handled better.”
An equally controversial but, in Ms. Flynn’s opinion, more productive debate arose from a set of recommendations submitted to the county by the Special Commission on County Governance. Formed at the behest of the commissioners but operating independently of county government, the commission was charged with examining the current county structure and operations.
Ms. Flynn did not serve on that commission but attended several meetings “because it’s so important to hear that dialog. It’s one thing to see it on a piece of paper…but to actually be there and listen to the dialog back and forth was very helpful.”
The two hottest topics to arise out of that process: a restructuring of county government to eliminate the assembly and expand the board of county commissioners from three members to seven, who would serve in more on a legislative capacity while administrative matters would be handled by a county executive; and the creation of a regional wastewater authority with taxation authority to oversee wastewater management.
“I’m committed to pursuing the changes,” Ms. Flynn said, although she was quick to point out that she did not support the wastewater authority concept, reiterating an opinion shared and expressed by the other commissioners and Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, at a July meeting.
Ms. Flynn viewed the county’s role is addressing wastewater management as an advisory one, and perhaps to help find state or federal funding for local and regional water management projects.
She further expected that the commissioners would keep their eyes on a possible lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2010, the Conservation Law Foundation and Buzzards Bay Coalition submitted a letter of intent, the first step toward filing a lawsuit, alleging the EPA had failed to meet its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act to control nitrogen loading in the Cape’s coastal embayments. The county commissioners and the commission were also named in that letter.
Since the filing of the letter of intent, the county has tucked away money in the event the lawsuit goes forward. The EPA has filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the case.
As for the changes to county government’s structure, Ms. Flynn said the commissioners need to continue their discussions with the assembly, which has so far expressed strong opposition to the notion of blending the two government bodies into one, often citing the loss of a direct representative to the county for each individual town.
“This is an exploration,” she said. “It’s really trying to work this out, and I think [the delegates] have as much of a responsibility to think about how county government works and how it can work better as we do. They can’t just say, ‘We like everything the way it is,’ and that’s the end of it. They have a good reason to become involved in the dialog.”
Specific recommendations aside, Mr. Flynn said the special commission review brought renewed attention to the county’s potential in providing services to towns, perhaps even “some things that the state does now.”
“I think that’s a little ambitious,” Ms. Flynn admitted, “but I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what regional opportunities there are, and the value that those efforts have for the towns. There’s real value to the towns in what the county can do.”
Ms. Flynn noted that her extensive experience in town government, which includes two runs as a selectman (1993 to 2002 and 2007 to present), gives her an insight into the relationship between the county and towns unique among this year’s slate of candidates.
The coming year will provide the Cape with numerous opportunities for regionalized services through OpenCape, the Barnstable County-wide broadband network that is scheduled to be fully active in January 2013.
The county is already preparing to offer “e-permitting” services through town websites, which would allow resident to obtain municipal permits, licenses, and inspection services online, and Ms. Flynn said assessing and certain public health functions could be added down the road.
The commissioners will, probably after the New Year Ms. Flynn said, start taking a hard look at a possible new regional service in the form of a takeover of the Aquacultural Research Corporation (ARC), the state’s only commercial shellfish hatchery and the business that provides 90 percent of the Cape’s 235 shellfish farms with seed according to William Clark, director of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.
In July, Mr. Clark made a pitch to the assembly to buy the Dennis business and contract its operations back to the current owners. The $4 million transaction would be funded through an increase to recreational and commercial shellfish licenses.
Ms. Flynn flatly denied claims that this project was a done deal, and indicated that the commissioners has to first explore several issues that could decide whether this transaction is in the best interests of the county.
“We have to have a clear understanding of what the owners want,” she said, and from there get an appraisal of the property, which is 40 acres in a residential zone right on the beach, which would require an environmental assessment; and then get an idea of the cost of refurbishing the buildings on the site in an environmentally sensitive manner; and then come up with a detailed business plan.
“Definitely, we are looking at it. We’re not just turning away from it and saying no, because we recognize the importance of that resource,” Ms. Flynn said, “but we need more information before we have a discussion.”