Politicizing Personnel

A system of checks and balances is warranted

   By a 3-to-2 vote, the East Hampton Town Board further consolidated power in the town budget office in the name of budget restraint early this month. Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who led the party-line vote, explained that eliminating the town personnel officer would save $170,000. Len Bernard, the budget chief and Mr. Wilkinson’s appointee, will now be the only town official sharing hiring, firing, and, presumably, disciplinary matters with the supervisor. That’s not a good idea.
    East Hampton Town personnel issues have already been highly politicized. Late last year, for example, the Republican-dominated board failed to take action when a town employee was caught on video using a Highway Department truck to run over and remove roadside signs promoting the election of a Democratic candidate. Just last week, the town’s top building inspector apparently was hustled off on an unplanned vacation after a dressing down over having issued a stop-work order the supervisor didn’t like. Town Hall has been described for some time as having an unpleasant atmosphere in which Mr. Wilkinson frequently huffs about “subordinates” and how they should toe the line — as he sees it.
    One would think, therefore, that town officials would be especially sensitive to placing too much unchecked authority in the hands of two closely aligned individuals, especially when one is a political appointee who could be expected to keep an eye on making the boss happy. Lest East Hampton residents need any reminding, former Supervisor Bill McGintee and Mr. Bernard’s immediate predecessor as budget officer, Ted Hults, were responsible for a town deficit of some $27 million, which is still being paid down. It took months of forensic accounting to figure out what, acting exclusively, they had done, and the town’s bond rating, ability to pay for future projects, and credibility paid the price.
    No matter how much confidence Mr. Wilkinson has in Mr. Bernard, and vice versa, and how much money the two may try to save, a system of checks and balances is warranted. Having a career personnel officer, who reports to the town board as a whole, is one way to keep watch on lapses in judgment and untoward influence.