PROVINCETOWN — The Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates adopted a resolution on June 17 questioning the legality of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Covid-19 response. The Outer Cape’s delegates opposed the resolution, but were in the minority. The vote was 66 percent in favor, 15 percent opposed, 18 percent absent.
The debate on the largely meaningless resolution did have a certain significance: it exposed Cape Cod’s longstanding east-west progressive-conservative divide — at least within the assembly.
Proposed by Christopher Kanaga of Orleans and John Ohman of Dennis, the resolution states that “the Citizens of Barnstable County have been deprived of property and liberty” because of the governor’s Covid-19 declarations. It mentions especially “those in the restaurant, hotel, resort, retail, and service businesses,” and decries what it calls the governor’s exercise of “unfettered power.”
In response, Brewster Delegate Mary Chaffee said the governor had acted within the legal authority granted to him by the state legislature 70 years ago. “His actions have reduced the spread of disease, loss of life, and harmful impact on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Chaffee said.
The town by town breakdown on the resolution was seven votes in favor and five opposed. Two delegates were absent, and Falmouth’s seat was vacant at the time. The assembly’s votes are weighted by population, based on the 2010 census. Thus, the Truro delegate’s vote counts for less than one percent of the total, while the delegate from Barnstable, the county’s largest town, gets more than 20 percent of the total.
“The way the vote went was almost cleanly divided by east and west — Upper Cape and Outer and Lower Cape,” said Dr. Brian O’Malley, Provincetown’s delegate. Eastham’s Terry Gallagher and Wellfleet’s Lilli Ann Green also voted against the resolution, while Truro’s Deborah McCutcheon was absent.
This is a typical dividing line for the assembly; voting along a conservative versus progressive divide is something O’Malley said he’s seen again and again.
But this time, the vote especially annoyed state Sen. Julian Cyr. Cyr, a Democrat from Truro who also serves as public information officer for the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, said the assembly’s resolution was “profoundly disrespectful to county staff. County staff has been invaluable throughout the epidemic. Part of the success we’ve had on Cape Cod is due to the concerted efforts of county government.”
Cyr called the resolution “a bit of a political stunt,” and pointed out the assembly has no authority on the matter. “Right now,” Cyr said, “I think Cape Codders want us focused on keeping people safe and reopening in a way that prevents community spread.”
But at a July 8 meeting of the Barnstable County Commissioners, Speaker of the Assembly E. Suzanne McAuliffe of Yarmouth defended the vote as “a good government resolution.”
The commissioners have no authority over resolutions passed by the Assembly. The July 8 meeting served only as a forum for further discussion.
McAuliffe reported that County Administrator Jack Yunits had criticized the assembly’s resolution, calling it “repugnant and constitutionally inept and vague.”
For that reason, McAuliffe asked the commissioners to take action against Yunits. “The county administrator has an article in his contract that calls for an annual evaluation,” McAuliffe said. “And I would request respectfully on behalf of the assembly that there would be a discussion with the administrator about working with county government.”
“Sometimes, in the heat of the moment,” Yunits replied, “you may answer a question in a way you probably shouldn’t have. But I don’t want to take it back because I do believe in my position on that.” He added, “When it comes to defending the actions and efforts of county employees, Suzanne and I are on the same page.”
The chair of the commissioners, Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham, said that a discussion of renewing Yunits’s contract would go on the board’s agenda.
“But,” Bergstrom said, “what’s in front of us right now is to get through this crisis, both from the standpoint of health and the economy.”