The Register Newspaper, April 4, 2014
"Barnstable debate considers de-commissioning Cape Cod" By Conor Powers-Smith
BARNSTABLE - The Cape Cod Commission, the countywide organization that oversees environmental issues and significant development projects across the region, also has the power, albeit an unintentional one, to stir controversy. Voters in several communities will decide on Town Meeting articles requesting a withdrawal from the Commission in coming weeks; whatever the outcome of those votes, the organization will likely continue to face criticism from some quarters, and support from others.
Two of the more moderate voices in that discussion, one from either side, met to debate the future of the Commission at the West Parish Meetinghouse in West Barnstable on March 28. The event was organized by the 1717 Meetinghouse Foundation as part of its Winter Debates series. Harwich Selectman Ed McManus defended the Commission and Bourne Selectwoman Linda Zuern argued against it.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Reed Baer, moderated the debate, which he acknowledged is playing out in less formal settings across the Cape. “Clearly it’s a topic that people want to know about,” he said. “It’s a timely topic.”
McManus began by questioning the notion of withdrawing from an organization that was founded on a regional basis, not by individual towns. “It’s an interesting concept that we’re now considering this a membership body,” said McManus, who pointed out that the Commission came into being as the result of two Cape-wide votes, in 1988 and 1990, both overwhelmingly in its favor.
McManus said Harwich had received approximately $1.8 million worth of services and financial support from the Commission over the years, while being assessed an amount just under that figure in fees. “What this doesn’t take into account is all the other benefits the town has received during that period,” he said, citing expert advice and consultation the town would otherwise have had to seek from private firms.
Zuern countered that Harwich’s experience was not universal. Bourne, she said, had seen economic development stifled by Commission decisions, notably in the case of the proposed CanalSide Commons project.
“The Commission has become an extra layer of unnecessary bureaucracy,” Zuern said. “Bourne has been struggling economically ever since the Commission was created.”
While the Commission might work for some towns, Zuern said, those who do not judge it to be in their interest should be able to opt out. “Each town should be able to have the choice as to whether to belong to the commission or not,” she said. “If the Commission is stifling economic growth, a town should not be forced to pay the fee.”
Asked whether towns could coordinate solutions to major regional issues such as elevated nitrogen levels without an overseeing organization, Zuern argued that they could, based on precedents of inter-municipal cooperation in other areas. “Towns are used to making agreements of understanding between towns,” she said. “We do it with the police and fire. We support each other. We could also do that with the wastewater treatment.”
McManus said the price tag attached to nitrogen remediation made it unfeasible for most towns to tackle it on their own, and that a show of regional cooperation was necessary in order to garner state and federal funds for any such project. A regional organization, especially one with expertise in the area, was the best way to ensure effective and efficient remediation, he argued. “As we look at some of the more expensive systems that we’ll have to coordinate…we’ll be able to size those systems that we’ll be building so that they’re no bigger than we need,” he said. “I think the activities of the Commission are the best hope that we have for solving that problem.”
No one from the Commission attended the debate. Its executive director, Paul Niedzwiecki, said the organization was not invited to participate, but would have if asked. “We always take advantage of any opportunity we’re given to talk about what we do,” he says. “If people really want to debate, they should invite people who can come from a place of knowledge on this.”
Niedzwiecki said the drive to convince individual towns to withdraw from the Commission is misleading, as the process is not that simple. “The Commission Act was not opted into on a town-by-town basis,” he says. “There’s no withdrawal provision. There’s certainly no provision by which a town could take action on its own.” A Town Meeting vote to withdraw would result, at most, in the question being taken up by the state Legislature, which would have to pass legislation exempting a town from participation, a step it is far from clear lawmakers would be willing to take.
Broader attacks, Niedzwiecki said, are often ideologically motivated, or
based on misinformation, and those are the kinds of criticism he is most eager
to refute. “Bashing the Commission, many times, serves unstated agendas on a
local level,” he says. “Once you get into the specifics, a lot of these general
criticisms, and just anti-government arguments, start to lose traction.”