As the City of Oneonta has demonstrated, moving to a city manager – or county manager, the issue of the day – can be “fraught.”
(That’s the word of the day – or year – all of a sudden, every reporter is finding every situation “fraught,” filled with possibilities for undesirable outcomes. It’s the “Where’s the Beef?” of 2019.)
Wednesday, Nov. 6, the Otsego County Board of Representatives, after almost two years of study, was scheduled to vote on a job description and resolution to create the job. The resolution would set a public hearing for the next meeting, Dec. 4, and at that point the county reps could vote.
Before then, county Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Mount Vision, who has championed the effort as chair of both key committees, Intergovernmental Affairs and Administration, said two public information meetings will brief citizens on the innovation and allow discussion and input.
The county board chair, David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, supports creating the county-manager job, but said he wants to make sure the job description is non-specific enough to give the county reps a big enough talent pool and flexibility in picking the right person.
As it happens, two local examples exist that allow lessons to be drawn.
In Oneonta, the city Charter Revision Commission that met in 2009-10 was determined to prevent the hiring of a “good ol’ boy” from the local power structure for the job.
So the job description specifically requires an MPA – a master’s in public administration – which narrowed the talent pool, and may have contributed to the failure of the first two city managers, before the position was stabilized under George Korthauer, a veteran administrator from Petoskey, Mich., who’s been able to pretty much avoid controversy in his two years on the job.
It’s been argued the MPA provision prevented executives like Joe Forgiano, then-retiring executive vice president at MeadWestvaco, Sidney, from being considered. (It’s unclear if he was ever asked if he was interested.)
But you can think of other eminent Oneontans, people like retired SUNY Oneonta president Alan Donovan or former mayor John Nader, who, lacking an MPA, might have stepped in nonetheless and performed superbly.
Then there’s Village of Cooperstown, where Teri Barown was seamlessly promoted from village clerk, and has been effectively operating since with nary a ripple.
The village administrator position had been created in the 1990s, but never filled. And in September 2016, recognizing more day-to-day oversight was required with downtown projects multiplying, Mayor Jeff Katz and the trustees simply promoted her.
It’s worked out great, (plus the village saved some money). Barown knew the trustees, knew what they wanted and what they would resist. She is knowledgeable, diplomatic, with a fine-tuned sense of customer service.
No problemo – not a one.
With such lessons to draw on, Chairman Bliss brings a commonsense outlook to the county manager job description.
Crafted with the help of NYSAC, the state Association of Counties, it’s not surprising the MPA provision is included, and others as well. That’s the sea NYSAC swims in.
But a range of work experience combined with a range of credentials appears to tilt toward the Cooperstown model rather than the Oneonta one.
That’s good, because too much narrow-gauged professionalism can also, little by little, squeeze out democracy.
School superintendents are a case in point: For instance, every school board resolution begins with “on the recommendation of the superintendent of schools,” as if boards of education can do nothing that their hired manager doesn’t suggest or endorse.
Given the requirement that superintendents implement ever more precise and far-ranging law and regulation, even they lack much leeway in determining what local schools teach and how.
And remember, 30 years ago, when voters could reject school budgets and spending would
actually be cut. Today, schools are required to provide so much of what goes on in schools, local boards of education can only cut things like the basketball team, which nobody wants.
You don’t need to go to Washington D.C. to find Donald Trump’s “deep state.” It’s alive and well at 89 Washington St., Albany, the state Department of Education, and in every school district in the state.
Also to watch for: Oneonta’s city manager system – to give him credit, Korthauer’s professional, low-key approach has settled things down – seems to have sapped Common Council’s motivation; committee meetings are routinely cancelled due to lack of a quorum, and it’s been months since any Council member has proposed a notable initiative. (Maybe the new cadre elected Tuesday, Nov. 5, will change that.)
The advantage of the existing county board is that it’s close to the people, and responsive … although not always as efficient as it might be.
It’s that inefficiency – Vice Chairman Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, mentioned expensive change orders on county jail renovations that keep surprising the county reps. A county manager, presumably, would put a better chain of command in place.
Kennedy, who is learning about statewide networking after recently joining NYSAC’s board, hopes the county manager will be able to seek out best practices and novel initiatives statewide to help fix local problems – with our challenged rural emergency squads, for instance.
Following the Teri Barown model, is there someone already at the county who could step up to the job, MPA or not? Karen Sullivan, the planning director who ends up in charge of much of county innovation, would certainly be a contender (although she says she doesn’t want what, at least at the beginning, will be a daunting job.)
Acting Treasurer Alan Crisman, IT Director (and Milford village mayor) Brian Pokorny, Personnel Director Penny Gentile, even current Clerk of the Board Carol McGovern come to mind as promising prospects after a sufficiently rigorous interview process. Working for an MPA while on the job might be a sensible requirement.
Bliss and county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, a former vice chair, are also concerned about mission creep. A county manager, budgeted at $150,000 a year, might conclude he or she needs a deputy, then secretarial help, and before you know it we’re up to $250,000.
Bliss is determined stay on top of that. After all, the county already has $116 million worth of brain- and firepower. That should be enough.
At base, the world’s a complicated place – and that goes for local government as anywhere else. The right amount of expertise and executive ambition could serve the county well.
It’s not a slam dunk, no guarantees; but Coach Bliss understands the vagaries involved in playing the game. And to listen to him, we can hope for, not a NYSAC cookie-cutter solution, but one that can pursue local opportunities while reducing local challenges.
The point, in the end, is a happier, more efficient Otsego County.