By MICHAEL C. BAILEY
A number of initiatives begun during Sheila R. Lyons’ first term on the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners are coming to fruition, and Ms. Lyons is looking for a second term so she can see them through to conclusion.
“We’ve been doing some great things, and we’re in the process of some of these initiatives being realized,” she said. “We’ve put wheels into motion and I would like to see these initiatives through. I do think that there is still a lot to be done.”
Ms. Lyons said that over the past four years, the commissioners have improved transparency by streaming their meetings online and creating a video archive of their meetings; have improved coordination between the Barnstable County Human Services Department, county officials, and individual human service providers across the region; and established the Regional Umbrella Services System (RUSS), which will explore regional applications for the OpenCape broadband network, which is scheduled to be fully active in January.
She added that the county has taken positive steps toward addressing what is shaping up to be the biggest issue in the coming decade: wastewater management.
“We’ve wasted 15 years just kicking this around,” she said, and the threat of a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Buzzards Bay Coalition is emphasizing the county’s need to have a comprehensive wastewater management plan. “Wastewater is indeed the biggest economic and environmental issue on the Cape, and if we don’t deal with it, we’re going to use everything.”
In February, the commissioners charged Andrew Gottlieb and Paul J. Niedzwiecki, respectively the executive directors of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative and the Cape Cod Commission, with exploring a regional management plan, which is scheduled to be submitted by the end of the year.
She said she hopes to see a plan that “doesn’t penalize anyone who has done the work” at the local level and proposes solutions entailing “the least amount of infrastructure, with a savings to the taxpayer.”
Ms. Lyons stated that, despite claims from critics and one of her opponents, Eric R. Steinhilber, she was not in favor of a “wastewater authority” with taxation powers — one of the changes recommended earlier this year by the Special Commission on County Governance.
“Nobody has ever voted for it or called for a wastewater authority,” among the county commissioners or the assembly, she said, and the report itself called for the creation of a regional “wastewater district” and “fair, broad-based funding mechanisms” to support that entity.
Commission co-chairman Robert A. O’Leary suggested taxation on property owners as a way to generate revenue for the district, and Ms. Lyons interpreted that as his effort to “emphasize the seriousness of this” and a challenge to county officials to “have the political courage” to pursue the option if they determined it was necessary.
However, Ms. Lyons said the commissioners have heard significant opposition to a tax-funded regional authority from town officials across the Cape, and she considers the proposal dead.
If funding is necessary to support whatever approach the county adopts, that is all the more reason for the county to develop a comprehensive plan. She pointed to the OpenCape project as an example of how a strong plan can leverage federal funding, noting that the plan was unveiled in 2006, and between 2008 and 2010 received a total of $37 million in state and federal funding to make it a reality.
“That’s what you get when you have a plan,” she said. “That’s why you plan.”
New County Structure
“We need to have some structural changes within the county,” she said, and one of the changes she wants to pursue is “a strong administrator” with executive powers, another recommendation by the Special Commission on County Governance.
By creating a “county executive” position, Ms. Lyons said Cape Cod would gain someone who could truly champion county government and its mission to provide economic, efficient services to all 15 towns.
Creating such a post would require shifting certain executive powers from the county commissioners to the county executive, she said, and separating out peripheral duties currently handled by the county administrator and assistant administrator. The administrator also acts as the county’s finance director, and the assistant administrator serves as administrator for the Cape Light Compact.
“These are too many jobs for too few people,” she said, “and for anything to get done well, you need someone that’s much more pro-active in interacting with departments, out there looking for those grant opportunities.”
Ms. Lyons was also supportive of a new proposal from the assembly to create a county finance director who would be solely responsible for monitoring the county’s revenue and expenditures, and she proposed forming a joint county commissioners/assembly subcommittee to explore the idea.
Once the county executive issue is addressed, the commissioners could then better determine whether it was necessary to act on another of the special commission’s suggestions: combining the county commissioners and the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates.
Under the special commission’s plan, the three-member board of county commissioners would be expanded to seven members, five of whom would represent specific districts, two of whom would be at-large members representing the entire region.
While open to the idea, Ms. Lyons said there are “constitutional questions” whether representation by geography rather than population is allowable, referring to criticism from the smaller Lower Cape towns that they do not have a strong voice in county government.
When the assembly was created in 1998, constitutional “one man, one vote” requirements led to the assembly’s weighted vote system, which gives larger towns such as Barnstable and Falmouth more influence on votes that the Lower Cape towns, some of which have less than two percent of the total vote.
She added she understood the concept of having county commissioners represent specific districts, but said that in running a county-wide campaign, “as difficult as it is, I had a much better understanding of Cape Cod because I ran a 15-town campaign. I spent time getting to know not only the elected officials in those towns but the individual voter, and I could start to see where each town has similarities and differences culturally, politically, philosophically.”
“If you’re going to govern over the entire land, you need to know the land you’re governing,” Ms. Lyons said.
New County Services?
Ms. Lyons identified two other brewing major projects for the county, the first of which is the proposed purchase of the Dennis-based Aquacultural Research Corporation (ARC), which has been pitched by its current owners as a possible county service.
The candidate said she first became aware of ARC’s interest in becoming a county service six years ago, while Ms. Lyons was still on the assembly, through local shellfisherman who were concerned at the prospect of losing the state’s only commercial shellfish hatchery, which provide the Cape’s 235 shellfish farms with 90 percent of their seed.
The commissioners have held two executive session meetings to discuss the $4 million proposed purchase so Ms. Lyons could not comment in-depth on the matter, but said the county “would be negligent if we did not look at it.”
However, she added that she would not support the idea if the commissioners’ research suggests the business would be “a money pit…I would like for it to be able to pay for itself.”
“We have to have the right plan, the right business plan,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to be negligent about it just to go forward.”
Ms. Lyons said she planned to exercise similar caution when exploring the concept of establishing a regional emergency dispatch center. The Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee’s 911 Dispatch Study Steering Committee is currently working on that proposal, and one option on the table is utilizing existing infrastructure and personnel at the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department’s regional dispatch center.
While she was open to that possibility, Ms. Lyons said she was hesitant to endorse that model due to past issues with the sheriff’s department and its administration of the region’s Centralized Emergency Medical Dispatch (CMED) system.
The Cape and Islands CMED system coordinates communications between four area hospitals and ambulances operating on the Cape and surrounding communities. It also coordinates MedFlight helicopter landings for the Cape.
Ms. Lyons noted that James M. Cummings, county sheriff, has in the past warned of a possible CMED shutdown if he could not obtain funding to support its $450,000 annual operating costs, and she worried that a similar lack of a funding mechanism for a full-fledged county dispatch service could lead to problems down the road.
Ms. Lyons’ official campaign website is www.sheilalyonscapecod.com.