In what could be seen as a referendum on the size and cost of county government on Cape Cod, Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham is seeking to unseat Harwich resident Leo Cakounes as Barnstable County commissioner in the November general election.
Though county politics are general seen as nonpartisan, Bergstrom is a Democrat who is campaigning on the need to restore or expand the services provided by Barnstable County departments, while Republican Cakounes said he is proud of his efforts to control spending.
Both men have a deep knowledge of county government and have found themselves on opposite sides of the fiscal debate for years. Cakounes is completing his fourth year as county commissioner; before that, he served three two-year terms on the county assembly. Bergstrom spent 12 years on the assembly, eight as speaker. The assembly is Barnstable County’s legislative branch of government, and the board of county commissioners is the executive branch.
“I watched as there’s been some reductions in county services over the years,” Bergstrom said. A former Chatham selectman, he said he is troubled that the county is seeking to reduce its annual contingent of workers under the federal AmeriCorps program from 32 to 24. The workers perform important environmental work and are active in emergency preparedness, he noted. “We just had a storm and the shelters were manned by these young men and women from AmeriCorps,” Bergstrom said. The decision to reduce AmeriCorps staffing was made by the commissioners and was “not put before the towns, who are going to feel the cut,” he said.
Cakounes said that when the county budget was prepared in January, the federal government had not identified funding for the AmeriCorps program for fiscal 2019. “We know AmeriCorps is extremely important and it’s well liked by the different towns that we service,” he added. By paring down the number of workers requested by the county, but still retaining 23, “that might be a message to the federal government that this is an important program,” Cakounes said. Since that time, the federal government has reinstated funding for the program. Cakounes said he is also concerned about the condition of the dormitories that the county provides for AmeriCorps workers.
Bergstrom criticized the decision to cut funding for the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission and said he worries about the safety of funding for Children’s Cove, the county-operated facility for children who are victims of sexual abuse. “There’s a lot [of programs] that have been threatened, and there’s some that have been cut,” Bergstrom said. If elected, he said he would seek to reverse that trend.
Accusations of service cuts are “completely, 100 percent false,” Cakounes said. The county commissioners reduced $8,000 in funding for the human rights committee, but if the county assembly supports restoring those funds, Cakounes said he will do so as well. “I was doing that to send a message to the human rights committee to say that I believe they would be better served as a private nonprofit organization not affiliated with a municipality,” he said.
Though it has existed since 1685, Barnstable County government adopted its current structure as part of a home rule charter approved by voters in 1989. Unlike most other counties in the state, Barnstable County provides a variety of services to Cape Cod towns.
“The way I see it, county government was established to service the towns and to promote regionalization,” Cakounes said. “We have done that, and there are some excellent examples.” The county dredge, the fire training academy and the county information technology program are three such examples, he said. But the county for many years has operated irresponsibly when it comes to finances, Cakounes argued.
“When I took office, the county had no money at all in reserves. Zero,” he said. The assembly funded programs through deficit spending, Cakounes argued. “They balanced the budget by showing projects were going to be done with an authorization to bond,” but then funded the budget by depleting reserves, he said. Thanks in part to new fiscal controls, the county now has a AA bond rating from Standard and Poor’s. “I’m very proud of that,” Cakounes said. But the county’s spending need to be limited in light of the increasing costs of full-time employees, he noted.
“I just feel that the word that gets out to the people right now is doom and gloom,” Bergstrom said. Rather than leading, Cakounes and fellow Republican County Commissioner Ron Beaty are focused on cost controls, he said. “They’re basically bean counters,” he said. “The purpose of government is not to save money. The purpose of government is to provide services.”
With Democrat Mary Pat Flynn serving as the third of three commissioners, the race for Cakounes’ seat has the potential to shift the party majority of the board from Republican to Democratic. But Cakounes has worked hard to distance himself from Beaty, whose bombastic comments on social media, constant filing of Open Meeting Law complaints – even against his own board – and other actions have earned him a reputation as a loose cannon. Beaty served 16 months in federal prison after being convicted of threatening then-President George H.W. Bush and other elected officials in 1991.
“I have done, I think, a yeoman’s job trying to abate, if you will, the things that Ron Beaty has done,” Cakounes said. He said he helped write the county’s social media policy and said the county now has a sexual harassment policy, but noted that Beaty is his own man. “He is an elected official,” Cakounes said.
For his part, Bergstrom said he simply ignores Beaty’s posts on social media and does not worry about serving with him on the board of county commissioners.
“I’m not a shrinking violet and I can deal with Mr. Beaty,” he said.