Planning v. ‘Dealing With It’
Explored; Also, Redistricting
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Three decades of striving ended today as the Otsego County Board of Representatives, 11-2-1, created the position of county executive.
“You talk about planning,” said county Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, and longest-serving board member. “You can’t plan when you’re going to get a flood. You can’t plan when a bridge is going to go out. You can’t plan when a road washes out – we’ve had two of them on the east side of Otsego Lake. You deal with it.”
Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, who is finishing his first term, took on the rebuttal: “Our talents are hamstrung by a lack of coordination, a lack of planning, a lack of overall coordination.
“We have one of the larger road networks in our region, and yet we have no capital improvement plan to maintain our roads,” he continued. “We have millions of dollars in physical assets, and no capital improvement plan for our buildings. We contract with a number of organizations, but we have no point person monitoring their performance.”
McCarty praised the county board as it is, adding: “All you have to do is your job … You people underestimate yourselves.”
But Lapin said, “It’s not a binary choice. It’s a matter of: Can we do better?”
In addition to McCarty, the other nay vote was Kathy Clark, R-Otego, the former chairman. Clark’s vice chairman, Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, who has been outspoken against the idea of a professional manager, absented himself today.
The aye votes included three Republicans, chairman David Bliss, Town of Middlefield; Peter Oberacker, Schenevus, who served on the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (IGA) that developed the job description, and Dan Wilber, Burlington, a former department head.
In addition to Lapin, Democrats voting aye were IGA committee members Andrew Marietta, Fly Creek; Michelle Farwell, Gilbertsville, and Liz Shannon, Oneonta. They were joined by Andrew Stammel, Town of Oneonta, and Vice Chairman Gary Koutnik and Adrienne Martini, both from the City of Oneonta.
Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, IGA chair, rounded out the ayes, saying, “This county board has a tremendous amount of determination and fortitude … The county administrator is going to work with these individuals to build something that’s bigger than we are.”
The next step, after the board reorganizes in January, will be for Bliss to name a “transition committee” to begin the search, Kennedy said. The 2020 budget, also approved today, includes $75,000, the estimated half-year expense of a county administrator, with the idea that the search would take at least until next summer.
By acting today, the board’s last meeting of its two-year tenure, incoming county reps – Democrats Jill Basile and Clark Oliver from the City of Oneonta, succeeding Koutnik and Shannon, and Republican Rick Brockway of Laurens, succeeding Clark – will not be required to make a decision right out of the gate on an issue that will be unpopular in some quarters.
In choosing an administrator, the IGA rejected two other options: An elected county executive, who would have assumed much the board’s executive power, a step that would have required adoption of county charter. And a county manager, with perhaps hiring and firing powers.
In his comments, Bliss emphasized the new hire will be an “administrator” – someone who will “administer” to achieve county-board initiatives.
A half-dozen people spoke a the public hearing. Those favoring a county administrator included Jeff Woeppel, the Bassett administrator. David Petrie, Town of Hartwick, and Carl Wenner, Fly Creek, the former Otsego Town Board member, spoke against it.
Lacking hiring and firing powers – although conducting annual reviews of departments heads – will fail to give the new hire sufficient clout to succeed, said Clark. No CEO of a $120 million private company could succeed under those circumstances, she said.
She also pointed out challenges small counties are facing in keeping the top job full: Allegheny County’s manager retired in 2016 after a quarter century. His successor resigned in July. The man hired then quit in October, requiring that county board to bring back the second one “per diem” to help with the transition.
Another issue that surfaced was changing the size of the board: With a county administrator, is a board of 14 members making $14,000 each and a chair making $22,000 really necessary?
“I think it is something to examine,” Stammel said. When the Census results come back in 2021, “we should consider changing the number of representatives.”
Some warned against over-expectations, with Farwell saying, “I don’t thnk anybody here has the illusion that this person will be Superman who can solve all our problems and we’ll never make a mistake again,” adding, “it’s still the best decision we can make right now.”
The void between past and future that began the discussion resurfaced at the end, when Bliss, in remarks supporting the change, recalled a past board creating MOSA, the four-county garbage-collection system, only to have a later board take it apart.
McCarty fired back: “I don’t think you can sit there and blame the county reps for MOSA. Back in those days, DEC came in and shut down all those landfills and they (county reps) had no place to go. I don’t think you should blame previous boards: It was the way it had to go. We’d have to do the same thing today.”
“I’m not blaming them,” said Bliss. “They did the best thing they could at the time. And that’s what we’re doing today: acting on the best knowledge we have now.”