Moving Toward a Town Manager

A town manager would take over administrative responsibilities

   Reading the tea leaves, it appears that East Hampton Town may be advertising for a town manager some time soon. Such was the unmistakable impression at a meeting Saturday at which the advantages of such a position were extolled. Hosted by the Group for Good Government, the League of Women Voters, and the East Hampton Business Alliance, a compelling, if mostly one-sided, take on the issue was heard.
    As described at the meeting, a town manager would take over administrative responsibilities, leaving policy, vision, and lawmaking to the five-member town board. Proponents said that removing management duties from the supervisor and town board members would help attract superior candidates to public service, candidates who might otherwise be put off by the day-to-day grind.
    Ideally, a town manager would be apolitical and protected from the political winds while coordinating the various town departments and enforcing local laws. That the presumptive Democratic nominee for supervisor, Larry Cantwell, was the East Hampton Village clerk, then its administrator — essentially, village manager — for 31 years in all is a case in point. Speaking at Saturday’s forum, he said he believed the concept would work if gradually scaled up to Town Hall.
    A strong argument is easy to make for the stability that a manager’s office could provide, especially when many, many town governments have come and gone. The caveat, however, is that despite best intentions, the concentration of authority in any single person has an inherent risk. Moreover, having seen in the last few years how difficult a few vindictive people on a town board can make the lives of staff who have earned their displeasure, we are unsure of whether a manager’s objectivity could be protected. By one calculation, a manager’s post in the wrong hands could be just a sharper needle with which a supervisor or town board could prick staff members.
    The town now has a cadre of department chiefs who, to differing degrees, have been subjected to undue influence. At the same time, a relatively recent reorganization that put Bill Wilkinson confreres in charge of the Building Department, Fire Safety Department, Ordinance Enforcement Department, and the animal control unit has not resulted in obvious improvements. Would a town manager be able to have a positive effect on these departments, or in the conduct of the town attorney’s office, which has been rather shaky of late?
    Despite these concerns, however, East Hampton residents should be in favor of further exploring the concept. In his remarks Saturday, Mr. Cantwell said a safe course might be for someone already working for the town to gradually take on the role of manager. This may be a good approach to something that sounds good but may prove difficult to implement.