Community members gathered on Saturday afternoon to debate the pros and cons of reorganizing East Hampton Town government to be run with a town manager system.
The discussion, which took place at the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton Village—a municipality that is run through such a system—centered on whether hiring a town manager would be a more efficient way of running East Hampton Town, which is currently managed by a five-person elected Town Board.
A town manager would carry out the legislative goals of the Town Board, which would set policy. The idea behind creating the position is in part to free up the time of elected officials so they would not have to spend as much time managing the nitty-gritty details of town government, for which they may not have the skills. In theory, with a town manager on staff, Town Board members would have more time to focus on big picture initiatives.
Saturday’s talk was hosted by three diverse civic groups: the East Hampton Group for Good Government, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and the East Hampton Business Alliance. The three groups organized a panel with diverging opinions on the topic, which included guest speakers Steven Altieri, administrator of the Town of Mamaroneck; Larry Cantwell, East Hampton Village administrator who is vying for town supervisor this year; Zachary Cohen, 2011 candidate for East Hampton Town supervisor, who is also vying for supervisor this year; Howard Arden, supervisor of the Town of North Castle, which added a town administrator six months ago; Carole Campolo, a retired New York City government executive; and Barbara Jordan, a former president of the League of Women Voters.
The panel was moderated by former ABC correspondent and author Lynn Sherr.
Of the group, Ms. Campolo was the only panelist who opposed creating a town manager system in East Hampton, arguing that in 2009 the town handily dealt with “the biggest crisis of its history” with its current management structure. That crisis, second to the 1938 hurricane, she said, was a nearly $27 million deficit accumulated between 2004 and 2008 after it was discovered that money had been moved from dedicated accounts such as the town’s Community Preservation Fund and capital projects to pay for general expenses. Since then, under Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s administration, the town has been able to downsize departments and reduce staff levels from 400 full-timers to 300.
“This was all done without a $200,000 a year town manager,” Ms. Campolo said.
Before hiring another position, the town should take a hard look at the size of its current staff, Ms. Campolo suggested. She said the town employs about 300 people, a number that swells to as many as 450 in the summer—numbers that are far greater than towns of similar size.
“We faced the worst without a town manager,” she said. “I’m not sure why we would then look to increase our head count more.”
The guest speakers from outside of East Hampton Town offered a different perspective. Mr. Arden said he ran for supervisor in the Town of North Castle, a town in Westchester County, in part on the platform of creating a town manager/administrator. He said he took a 60-percent pay cut to afford the change, and the town eliminated medical benefits for elected officials. The town manager was hired in August 2012 at a salary of $135,000, according to an online article in the Armonk Daily Voice.
The change has been a successful one, Mr. Arden said, noting there’s been better coordination between departments. The position fills a need that can’t be met by the traditionally politicized structure of town government, he said.
“Politics is a beauty contest,” he said. “You’re not necessarily going to get the right person for the job.”
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Cantwell weighed in as well. Mr. Cohen said he felt the town manger position could be an educational one. He felt that currently there’s “no system really for managing across departments.” He also questioned how much time Town Board members should spend on day-to-day town government management. He said recently he chatted with Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who is liaison to the town’s scavenger waste plant, about a broken auger at the facility. The detail made him think about how Town Board members spend their time.
“I would say she’s become an expert now,” Mr. Cohen said about Ms. Overby’s knowledge of the scavenger waste plant. “But is that what we want our Town Board members doing, becoming an expert on day-to-day management on small department issues?”
Mr. Cantwell, a longtime administrator of East Hampton Village, is retiring this summer. He said his position grew “organically” years after he was appointed to his role as clerk/treasurer of the village in 1982, emphasizing that the town could possibly turn inward to locate a town manager instead of hiring from outside.
Ms. Jordan countered that a town manager should possess a specific skill set that includes a master’s degree in public administration. The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons adopted a stance supporting a town manager structure.
There is a need for a town manager, Mr. Cantwell said, especially if a legislative body is to have time to deal with big issues. A Town Board, and especially a supervisor, should spend less time “dealing with whether or not the pothole gets fixed.” He called the current schedule of a supervisor “exhausting.”
“You take someone like Supervisor Wilkinson,” Mr. Cantwell said. “Whether you agree with every decision he makes or not, he spends an extraordinary amount of time, and he’s a dedicated supervisor to his work. His work ethic is, you know, outstanding.”
Mr. Cantwell continued, “I don’t know how many hours a week he works, but my guess is he’s working 60 or 70 hours a week often. And that’s not even in a crisis situation.”