Joshua Beams, a 2005 SUNY Oneonta graduate, was appointed as Otsego County administrator, effective Oct. 4, at a special meeting of the county’s Board of Representatives Tuesday, Sept. 7.
The position was originally approved in December 2019, but the hiring was delayed a year because of a 2020 hiring freeze at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The position was discussed in county government circles for decades, as Otsego County is governed by a group of 14 legislators and has no executive branch of government. The county’s Inter-governmental Affairs Committee studied governmental forms and executive roles for a year before approving the change in 2019.
Otsego County’s legislators began an in-depth look at crafting the county administrator position at a special all board workshop Monday, May 10.
The 14 board members listened and asked questions during a two-hour meeting as County Attorney Ellen Coccoma reiterated to them the details of the local law they passed in 2019 to establish the position and several experts on local governments that are using a county administrator gave their tips and suggestions.
“This is going to be a work in progress,” Coccoma said. “We’re going to probably impliment things now, then as we see how it works out, you may end up saying, ‘we need to change that.’”
A county manager, executive or administrator had been proposed to Otsego County by individuals and good government groups for more than three decades. The county’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee studied the prospect for two years, finally drafting a proposal to create a day-to-day manager who answers to the board. The administrator position passed in a November 2019 local law, with only three representatives against the plan.
Steven Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, Pat Cummings, NYSAC’s council, and Nick Mazza, who served as a county administrator for more than 20 years in Livingston County, gave their insights and took questions from the legislators.
The question was, “Do you think THEY will let the county administrator do the job?” They, of course, being the county Board
But the question misunderstands how the new county administrator job is envisioned.
Judging from discussions surrounding the new job’s creation, the county representatives aren’t looking for someone to tell them what to do. They’re looking for someone who will allow them to do what THEY want to do more efficiently.
The control of county government will remain in the hands of the 14 elected representatives, elected every two years from their districts, who are entrusted to act on their constituents’ behalf.\
Not such a bad idea.
For the past few weeks, a name has been circulating as a prospect for the county’s first administrator: Allen Ruffles, the Republican county treasurer who has just returned from a year-long assignment in East Africa with the New York State National Guard.
The position must first be advertised, candidates vetted and a vote taken. A better candidate may emerge. Regardless, he or she might benefit from at least a few Ruffles-like characteristics.
First, he had a varied background as a school teacher, insurance agent, banker (Key Bank’s former branch manager in Cooperstown), as well as a soldier, and the discipline that connotes. That should give him sympathy and understanding of a range of people.
Two, he’s a county native, with a family: wife Amy, daughter Mia and son Cooper, so he has a stake – a personal stake – in the middle- and long-term prosperity of the county. Being a native is not a requirement, but a candidate should have a plausible reason for coming here.
Third, he holds an elective office, so he would likely be sensitive to pressures county representatives feel, having to represent a varied voter base.
Fourth, he’s developed collegial relations with the county’s 20-some department heads, a group that – according to a survey county Rep. Meg Kennedy’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee conducted – is most resistant to the idea of reporting to a single boss.
That’s understandable: Most of us would prefer less supervision to more, but things are going to change. Ideally, he will develop the department heads into a team, focused on meeting the board’s directives.
Fifth, he has led preparation of two county budgets, and participated in two more as deputy to former County Treasurer Dan Crowell. It’s going to be a central function of the county administrator. Short-term, anyhow, his able deputy, Andrew Crisman, would ensure good relations with the Treasurer’s Office.
Sixth, Ruffles is not just experienced, but agreeable. Hard and soft skills, in whichever candidate is successful, is most important to ensuring the success of the new position. Put another way, building confidence, credibility and trust with all constituencies – the board, the department heads and the public.
Seventh, the county board, meeting Feb. 5, set the administrator’s salary at $100,000, considerably less than the $150,000 recommended to entice an out-of-county professional – $100,000 though, would be a nice raise for the county treasurer as he learns the new job.
That’s a lot of pluses.
Asked Monday about the chatter, county Rep. Andrew Marietta, the ranking Democrat, said he’d heard county board Chairman David Bliss mention Ruffles’ name in a meeting. “If Allen applied, it would be great,” Marietta said. “But it’s not a done deal.”
“I think a lot of Allen,” said Kennedy, whose IGA committee is handling the recruitment. “But it would be shortsighted of us to stop looking. There’s a lot to be gained by examining different candidates as they come forward.”
For instance, another potential candidate, former Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz, has been mentioned for the job, and brings an impressive, albeit different, skill set.
“It’s going to be a county board decision,” Marietta said. Not a Republican or Democratic one.”
That’s exactly right. Still, thinking about someone like Ruffles helps focus on what qualities would help our county’s first top executive succeed.
Where will you find a person who would know all about all 24 departments in the Otsego County system?
The department heads will be giving the manager the information that he or she needs. The department heads know the laws, state mandates and the ins and outs that apply to their departments.
We have a county treasurer and deputy that do a great job with the budget.
I see that the board is putting out the cost will be $150,000 for the manager. I bet this person will have a deputy and secretary so it could be over $200,000. The manager is just another layer of government.
Think about it: If the board gave one of the board members a raise, but not $150,000, and the job of working with all the department heads and taking information they need back to the full board, it would be less cost to taxpayers.
Look at the City of Oneonta. It is on a third manager in a short period of time. The county is much larger, with a lot more different departments and covers many more miles than the city does.
The unfunded mandates are going to keep coming from New York State and this board will have to deal with where all the money comes from for the unfunded mandates.
Sheila Ross is retired Otsego County Republican elections commissioner
Why does John Lambert, son of Cooperstown and now a county judge, keep coming to mind in the past few weeks?
Raised in that village, he was a good student and guard on a top CCS Redskins’ basketball team that won two regional titles in the late 1980s. He graduated from Hartwick College in 1992, and earned a J.D. from New England School of Law in 1998.
Then he came home, practiced law, and with wife Katie began raising a family. He created the firm of Lambert & Trossett, and was elected to the county bench in 2009. Anyone who sees him preside has to be impressed by his gravitas, humanity and common sense.
An outstanding citizen, native born, and there are many such sensible people among us. Start making up your own list. Great party game.
So, when it was argued during the county board Dec. 4 debate over creating a county administrator position that no one of quality could be recruited and, if he or she were, could be kept here, it rang hollow.
What about all the graduates honored annually with Clark Scholarships or help from Oneonta’s Dollars for Scholars? What about the 2,000 graduates sent forth annually from SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College?
We’re talking about thousands of young, energetic, outstanding people, smart and educated, who know the county, love the county, and might be attracted back as county administrator, thrilled to make their Otsego County a better place, now and for years to come.
Like whom? Well, not John Lambert, he’s spoken for. But someone LIKE John Lambert. Let’s keep him in mind as the process of recruiting our first county administrator moves forward.
ONEONTA – Kay Stuligross has come a long way, baby.
Growing up in Oberlin, Ohio, in the 1940s and ’50s, the daughter of a college professor, her mother sometimes wouldn’t vote “because she didn’t want to cancel out my father’s vote.”
Raising a family in Oneonta in the 1980s, she and her husband, Hartwick College Economics Professor Jack Stuligross, agreed her time would be better spent raising their five sons instead of holding a fulltime job.
While attitudes of the time may have kept her from a fulltime profession, there was one constant for the inquisitive, engaged woman, who retired from the Otsego County Board of Representatives in 2018: The League of Women Voters.
In the 1960s, she met her husband at college in Detroit, and they married “a year and a month to the day” after their first date. In fact, “I set my wedding date on our first date. It was a good marriage, providential.”
After obtaining a master’s, he joined the Federal Reserve in Dallas and, realizing he was the only one in the office lacking a Ph.D., soon enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, moving Kay and two babies to Norman.
Grocery shopping her third day there, she found the local League of Women Voters’ “Voters Guide” in her shopping bag.
In those days before websites and Facebook, it was common for local Leagues to submit written questions to candidates; the answers would be published in a booklet. “Based on their answers,” the newcomer to the Sooner State said, “I knew who to vote for.”
Even today, age 80, retired to The Meadows, a complete-care community in Lansdale, Pa., she declared in a telephone interview the other day, “I don’t want to vote a straight ticket. I want to be informed.”
She joined Norman’s League, and became involved in collecting local data for a nationwide League study of poverty.
A newly minted, Ph.D., Jack got a teaching job at Central Missouri State, Warrensburg; Kay joined the League. He moved to Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisc.; she joined the League there and, when they departed for Hartwick in 1981, she was president.
“I came prepared to look hard at government here,” Kay said. She soon joined the League of Women Voters, Oneonta chapter, and in the next decade served as president, and also on the League’s state board for two terms.
Her husband died in 2006, struck by a car while riding a bicycle in Southside Oneonta.
In 2007, she decided to run for the county board and was elected, and said her intent was, if possible, to see professional management achieved. In 2009, she was also appointed to the city’s Charter Revision Commission, which created a city-manager job, with mixed results.
Naturally, she declared she was “pleased” on learning the Otsego County Board of Representatives, almost 30 years after the local Leagues’ recommendation, created a county administrator position Wednesday, Dec. 4, by an 11-2-1 vote.
“We need a trained administrator,” she said. “The board members are hardworking, dedicated people, good hearted people who want the best for their county and the taxpayers, but don’t really haves the experience to do it.” (Except, she said, farmers, some who have run sizeable operations before joining the county board.)
“No school board would act without a superintendent,” she said, “and they are much smaller than the county.”
In 2007, David R. Brenner of Oneonta, former county board chair (who then served as city mayor), conducted a study of professional management for the county board, and offered options to pursue.
At the time, however, the representatives were angry and divided after minority Democrats reached an agreement with Republican Donald Lindberg, Worcester: He agreed to caucus with them; in turn, they elected him board chairman.
While supporting the concept of professional management, Brenner recommended against acting at that time: Bringing a manager into such a rancorous situation would guarantee the innovation’s failure.
“It would not be successful until most of the board is firmly on board,” Stuligross recalled Brenner concluding.
Today, with Republican David Bliss’ relatively benign, bipartisan approach, the time may be right. But Stuligross had some advice.
One, department heads will have mixed feeling, appreciating someone who can resolved issues day-to-day, but apprehensive about closer oversight.
“It is important the board not cause confusion by letting department heads come to them,” said Kay. “They must reinforce the administrator is in charge.”
Two, the board must let the administrator fulfill responsibilities outlined in the contract, but should also ensure the “full performance” clause is met.
In particular, “the ability to work with others is crucial,” she said. “Somehow,” before hiring, “they need to observe or otherwise learn about the candidates’ interpersonal skills”
COOPERSTOWN – If – as is anticipated – Dave Bliss is reelected chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives at the organizational meeting Thursday, Jan. 2, one of his first acts will be to name a committee to recruit the first county administrator.
In an interview, he said he sees no reason why county Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, who led the effort to create the new position, shouldn’t chair the search as well. “She’s done an excellent job,” said the Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield Republican. “I don’t see any reason to make a change there.”
Serving on the board of NYSAC (the state Association of Counties) gives her contacts and easier access to information that will help guide the recruitment process as it did the two-year study that preceded the county board’s 11-3-1 vote Wednesday, Dec. 4, to create a professional position at the top of the organizational chart.
The county board included $75,000 in the 2020 budget, also approved Dec. 4, with the idea it will take until mid-year to fill the $150,000 position, ($100,000 salary plus benefits and expenses.)
For her part, Kennedy called the vote “monumental,” adding, “it’s exciting – and a little scary at the same time.” That excitement was echoed by long-time supporters of the concept.
Former county board chairman David Brenner (and later, Oneonta mayor) said he was “very pleased” at the vote, and he praised his current successor: “This fellow Bliss, he’s been outstanding.”
Noting the current chair’s 25 years as Middlefield town supervisor, Brenner said, “He’s an old hand, and this looks to me like a skilled hand at work. He’s selective about what battles he cares to discuss. He’s picking the right priorities.”
Also expressing satisfaction was Kay Stuligross, formerly of Oneonta, now retired in Lansdale, Pa., who ran for the county board in 2007 specifically to see a professional administrator hired. The next step – hiring the right first person – is critical she said: “If we get someone who can’t do the job, it will set us back 10 years.”
At the Dec. 4 meeting, former county board Chairman Kathy Clark, R-Otego, held up Allegheny County’s failure – it has had three county managers since 2016, and the job is again vacant – as one reason for her nay vote.
And her former vice chairman, Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, who didn’t attend the critical meeting, has argued $150,000, the estimated cost of the cost, will become double that and more at a county administrators adds a deputy and support staff.
County Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, also voted nay.
On the first point, Kennedy said much depends on the success of the hiring process and how the county board welcomes the new hire. “I don’t want to micromanage the new administrator,” she said. “I want to pave their way to establish their authority within the county dynamic.”
She said “our action as a board” will determine success, and anticipates the county reps “becoming a stronger legislative body,” more firmly setting priorities to ensure the county’s best future.
Bliss said he anticipates periods of stability and periods of turnover. “Find one that works, and they end up staying for a long time. Then there may be two or three more before they find the right fit again,” he said.
Both representatives said the ballooning of county manager budgets can be misleading, often simply reflecting how existing resources are adjusted to fit the new model.
COOPERSTOWN – Three decades of striving ended today as the Otsego County Board of Representatives, 11-2-1, created the position of county executive.
In a half-hour of give and take, it was clear that, despite and lopsided vote, starkly contrasting outlooks remain.
“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.
Editor’s Note: This Letter to the Editor is published on www.AllOTSEGO.com, as the Wednesday, Dec. 4, vote on creating the position of Otsego county manager will occur before this week’s editions of Hometown Oneonta and The Freeman’s Journal to to press. Any responses may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and will likewise be published as soon as they are received.
To the Editor:
At the recent public hearings regarding a County Administrator hosted by the county there were several interesting statements made by those advocating for the position. Several were in direct conflict with each other.
One such example was the topic of the “day to day” operations of the county. Hiring an administrator, they contend, would give the board reps “more free time” and they could then focus on the long-term goals and planning.
First, I did not run for this office to be awarded “more free time.” Secondly, the Administrator’s job description calls for him/her to “act as day-to-day primary operations director” and to “execute long- and short-term planning.”
COOPERSTOWN – Reacting to the news a vote on creating a county administrator may come by December, Republican County Chairman Vince Casale said fine, but it should be done by shrinking county government in other ways.
“I fully believe the addition of a county manager is a good idea and is needed,” Casale said. But “I believe it should come with additional reforms, such as term limits and reducing the size of the county board.”