Vigorous Debate on Town Manager

Right person on the details could free up pols for bigger things, it’s argued
Lynn Sherr, left, moderated a forum Saturday on the council-manager form of government. Larry Cantwell, right, the East Hampton Village administrator, was among a panel discussing the idea’s pros and cons. Morgan McGivern

    The question of whether a manager or administrator is appropriate and advisable for the Town of East Hampton was the subject of a lively debate at the village’s Emergency Services Building on Saturday.
    Sponsored by the East Hampton Group for Good Government, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, and the East Hampton Business Alliance, the 90-minute forum provided residents a range of opinions from elected officials and others.
    Lynn Sherr, formerly of ABC News and an East Hampton resident since 1980, moderated a panel consisting of Steven Altieri, administrator of the Town of Mamaroneck; Howard Arden, supervisor of North Castle, N.Y., which added an administrator in October; Carole Campolo, a retired New York City government executive and resident of Springs; Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton Village administrator; Zachary Cohen, a 2011 candidate for East Hampton Town supervisor, and Barbara Jordan, former president of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons.
    The League of Women Voters, Ms. Jordan said, began to study the issue in 2008 and held a forum on the subject the following year. That study led to the league’s advocacy of the council-manager form of government. Its support for a change in the organizational structure, she said, “is based on the fact that since its inception our local town government has grown in complexity to the point where we believe professional management of the administrative details of government should be in the hands of professionals.”
    The town board, she said, spends “an inordinate amount of time on administrative details, many of which people are truly not qualified to do, but it’s part of the job.” This discourages otherwise qualified and talented people from running for office, she said.
    Combining the leadership of elected officials with the managerial experience of a trained administrator who would oversee delivery of public services would produce more effective and efficient government, Ms. Jordan said.
    A town manager’s duties would include serving as the board’s chief adviser, preparing budgets, hiring and firing department heads, supervising day-to-day operations, formulating and implementing personnel policies, negotiating contracts with employees, and enforcing local laws and ordinances, she said. (An administrator would have a similar job description, but would not have hiring and firing authority.)
    Mr. Altieri quoted Alfred Gatta, manager of the Village of Scarsdale, who he said had made an interesting comment at the 2009 forum. “He said, ‘Council members are elected to do the right thing, and managers are hired to do things right.’ “ A professional manager, he said, provides continuity, interdepartmental management, and efficiencies in staffing, borrowing, finances, and budgeting.
    Interdepartmental management is lacking in the present town government, Mr. Cohen said, and a town manager becomes a point of centralized knowledge, critical in the event of a newly elected board consisting of neophytes. “All of us who have proposed the town manager system are hoping it’s not a politicized system that changes with every supervisor change.”
    It is a form of government that can work in the town, said Mr. Cantwell, who is retiring from his position as village administrator and has announced his candidacy for town supervisor. His position had grown organically from within, he said, “because the board felt there was a need to have someone in place who would help them carry out their policies in an efficient way, and also provide institutional memory over time, and stability and continuity so that policy was carried out evenly over time.”
    “You don’t necessarily have to think of this in terms of establishing the office and bringing someone in to create a new department. . . . If you can find someone within the organization who has the skill and ability to take on additional responsibilities and fill this role, that may be the best way to implement it,” he said.
    Ms. Campolo, who Ms. Sherr said specialized in budgeting and operations over 30 years in New York City and State governments, was a lone dissenting voice. “I feel like the ants at the picnic,” she joked, before citing the town’s 2009 budget deficit of $27 million, which she called the most serious crisis in the town’s history after the Hurricane of 1938. “We were on the precipice of bankruptcy.” This was avoided, she said, thanks to “incredibly impressive organizational efficiencies and reforms. Departments were reduced from 21 to 13. Headcount was reduced from a staggering 400 full-time staff to 300. The budget was reduced from $72 million to $64 million.”
    This was accomplished without a town manager. “I’m not sure why we would then look to increase our headcount once more,” she said. Even with recent staffing and budget cuts, the town government remains bloated, she said. “Before we increase the size of the staff, the elected officials and town leaders . . . need to take a hard look at how to bring down the current number of employees, how to continue reforms in making government more efficient.”
    “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Mr. Arden countered, “that you would not have a $29 million deficit that you’re having to pay back if you had a town administrator five years ago.”
    Such was Mr. Arden’s confidence that he campaigned for supervisor on the platform of bringing in a town administrator. “I already knew how valuable it was,” he said. Describing politics as a beauty contest, he said, “You’re not going to get, necessarily, the right person for the right job.”
    Saying he did not run for office to address minutiae such as potholes or brush pickup, an administrator, he said, allows him to work on “big projects, things that will make a difference in the future of our town.” A qualified candidate was identified and hired at an annual salary of $135,000, he said. Mr. Arden volunteered to take a 60-percent cut in his own salary, and medical benefits for elected town board members were eliminated in order to pay for the new position.
    Initial objection due to the added expense was quickly assuaged, Mr. Arden said, and the results have been dramatic. “It’s been amazing, the coordination among departments. We’ve done a great job as far as cross-training people, as far as actually cutting staff in many cases.” Seven of 13 department heads were replaced, he added. “It has been a huge upgrade in personnel.”
    Nonetheless, said Ms. Campolo, an administrator shouldn’t be necessary. “When department heads and staff are doing their jobs at the best level they possibly can, that automatically frees up the executive and town board members to focus on policy,” she said. “In a large agency, that’s exactly what happens.”
    But the important point that Mr. Altieri and Mr. Arden were making, Mr. Cantwell said, is that an administrator brings a different skill set to local government. “One is a professional manager trained to do specific tasks, find efficiency, manage people, and run the day-to-day operations. You’re talking about a chief operating officer, really. The supervisor needs to provide much broader leadership throughout the community.”
    He cited coastal erosion, groundwater contamination, the septic waste disposal problem, and East Hampton Airport as “big issues that affect everybody in the community. The supervisor and the board should be spending their time thinking about, solving, and having a vision about how to resolve these big issues that impact the entire community, and less time with how the pothole gets fixed.”