Every two years, the voters in every town on the Cape elect delegates to the Barnstable County Assembly, our county’s legislative body. The new session of the Assembly just begun includes only one new face, Mashpee Selectwoman Michaela Wyman-Colombo, and carried none of the Washington, D.C. drama. But it carries the prospect of important changes.
First, there’s a newly rebranded web domain for our regional government. What was barnstablecounty.org is now capecod.gov. This change, which updates all our email addresses, communicates the message that our county is about more than just our largest town. Our concern is the entire Cape Cod peninsula.
During this past year, that big picture has been much in evidence, with the work of distributing over $41 million in federal ARPA funding for needs related to the pandemic. Every town was allocated funds, and work has begun on those “shovel-ready” projects where money was the holdup. Many more regional and local efforts to address water quality, affordable housing, public health, and broadband access are now being planned.
This tranche of funding represented an unprecedented opportunity as well as a challenge that brought into the open a brief but very unpleasant conflict between the Board of Regional Commissioners — our executive branch — and the Assembly of Delegates over the authority to distribute the windfall funds. With good leadership, the two branches reached an agreement: that our home rule charter makes clear our shared responsibility for all regional government spending.
With that stumbling block resolved, the process has gone forward deliberately, guided by an ARPA Advisory Commission composed of community leaders not involved in county government and skillfully chaired by Paul Niedzwiecki, now head of the independent Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. The virtual meetings led to some very thoughtful discussions of regional needs and planning.
Of course, those virtual meetings that we’ve all come to love and hate were accessible to all, direct to people’s homes. YouTube carries the meetings live and allowed participation by residents without travel.
Within the Assembly of Delegates there have been procedural changes that bode well for a more open model of governance through its standing committees. In recent years, these committees had gone dormant, but in the last session of the Assembly they were engaged in active review of the budget and more. These committee meetings, also virtual and open to the public, offer less constrained dialogue with real conversation. The use of committees to explore in greater depth, through public hearings, some of our more gnarly regional issues could be a refreshing model of collaborative governance.
With some reason, I think, I have a longstanding cynicism about how a two-party system functions to limit options. We saw that dysfunction at work this past week in the U.S. Congress. It is perhaps one of the most important features of the Barnstable County Assembly that we are nonpartisan. Members are elected without reference to party affiliation. We approach every issue as individuals, and while we certainly have varied perspectives, we are not beholden to any party line. And while each of us has a watchful eye for issues that may affect our own town or neighbors, our overriding concern is the health and well-being of the people of this peninsula.
I believe that this regional government offers each of us the possibility of being engaged, to be part of the conversations that will help determine our responses to the many challenges we face. This is self-governance. Capecod.gov is all of us working together for the benefit of all.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].