No Backtalk, Supe Says

Letter to workers addresses insubordination

(March 10, 2011) East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who has a background in corporate human resources, is turning his attention to management procedures and issues related to town employees.

A letter issued to all employees in their pay envelopes on March 1 warns against “behavior that will not be tolerated,” and says that “progressive discipline” will be used “to improve employee performance.”

At a meeting last week, he addressed the fact that town workers, under the terms of their employment or union contracts, had accrued a total of $6.6 million worth of sick and compensatory time, for which, as individuals leave town employ, the town will be obligated to pay.

“When we came in here, we stopped hiring,” said Mr. Wilkinson, who had vowed to resolve the town’s massive financial issues upon election, and who cut the budget by approximately $8 million this year. Eighteen positions were eliminated through attrition, he said, and 32 more were dropped when employees availed themselves of a state retirement incentive program.

Nonetheless, the supervisor said at last Thursday night’s meeting, the town has an employee-to-resident ratio of 1 to 6, while other Suffolk towns have many fewer employees per town resident: 1 to 120 in Southampton, he said, 1 to 98 in Riverhead, 1 to 253 in Babylon, 1 to 467 in Islip, and 1 to 514 in Brookhaven.

“We have to address this stuff,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

In the letter sent last week to all town employees, he wrote that “During 2010, the main focus of the town’s elected officials, appointees, and fellow employees was the financial well-being of the municipality.”

“The requirement for business discipline, however, cannot be limited to just financial practices but must also be applied to general management processes, procedures, and behaviors,” he continued.

The letter says that “setting standards of workplace practices are required to insure a professional business tone and atmosphere.”

The letter goes on to discuss insubordination — defined in the memo as “failure or refusal to recognize or submit to the authority of a superior,” as well as “employees’ attempts to embarrass, ridicule or degrade a supervisor, or grumbling, backtalk, or overall disrespectful attitude towards a supervisor.”

Insubordination, Mr. Wilkinson wrote, “can lead to discipline up to and including discharge.”

Mr. Wilkinson chose not to comment this week about whether the letter was prompted by a specific incident, or specific employees’ behavior. However, a passage that was italicized and printed in bold letters says that “Identification of this behavior as unacceptable is especially critical where high-level managers are concerned and where the efficient running of the enterprise demands a high degree of trust and cooperation among top personnel.”

In a letter to The Star this week, Sylvia Overby, an Amagansett resident and former Democratic town board candidate, asked if the intent was to “foment fear among our employees in an economic environment of uncertainty so that they will submit to his demands . . . or worse, is he targeting employees so that he can fire them using his letter and its stated objectives?”

“Where is Mr. Wilkinson’s respect for the expertise, knowledge, and advice of those employees who have been guiding and upholding East Hampton Town’s laws long before he became supervisor?” Ms. Overby asked in her letter.

As a member of the planning board for seven years who, she said, has worked closely with town employees, Ms. Overby said she was “appalled at the demeaning language” in the letter.

“It appears that Mr. Wilkinson and his team as the newest arrivals on the town payrolls have created a toxic work environment,” she wrote.

In his letter, Mr. Wilkinson told employees that the “communication about performance and its importance to a healthy workplace and to the taxpayers of the town” would continue, and that all those in the town’s employ are responsible not only for performance management but for being ambassadors of good performance to all our residents, visitors, and businesses.”

The town’s most recent union contract with its Civil Service Employees Association members, in effect since January 2006, expired at the start of 2011, and negotiations over a new contract are to begin later this month.

Heath Liebman, the president of the East Hampton C.S.E.A., said that the union had sent a survey to members, and was “going to negotiate based on the concerns of the membership,” but did not elaborate on those concerns.

“As public service employees we are not looking to take advantage of the town,” he said. “We are putting in long hours, dedication, professional attitude — we are expecting to be treated equally. We are providing the essential services that keep the town functioning on a daily basis,” he said.

Mr. Liebman said he had not heard any concerns about the March 1 letter describing behavioral expectations. “It’s something I believe any organization expects,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should really take offense to it.” However, he said that it was unusual for town officials to be “that direct” about expectations.