When Bill Wilkinson took office as East Hampton Town supervisor four years ago, he was a businessman to the core. Now, in the waning days of his administration, he will exit a businessman.
“I don’t think it could have been done without it,” the outgoing leader, 64, said of the key role his corporate background played in his running the town for two terms, freeing it from a financial morass. From his approach to problem-solving and his values of zero-based budgeting, accountability, using metrics to guide decision making and treating your business as you do your own checkbook, the Republican said he gleaned everything from his time in the private sector, which included a post as the senior vice president of human resources at the Walt Disney Company.
“The bigger the problem, the bigger the challenge, the more enjoyment I get out of problem solving,” he explained as he leaned back in his chair in his sunny corner office overlooking Montauk Highway one day last week. The first box of packed belongings sat on one side.
Despite this approach, his time in office was not all smooth sailing.
Mr. Wilkinson swept into the supervisor’s seat on “Team Wilkinson,” a trio that included fellow Republicans Theresa Quigley and Dominick Stanzione. Four years later, all three are clearing out of Town Hall. Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley, the deputy supervisor, followed through on their desires to serve no more than two and one term, respectively, and Mr. Stanzione failed to win reelection.
Mr. Wilkinson’s first term, in 2010 and 2011, was defined by the financial crisis, which included inheriting a deficit of some $27 million. But because of his team’s approach, East Hampton was able to solve that crisis and to put disciplines in place to prevent it from happening again, he said.
But his second term, in 2012 and 2013, saw a different dynamic in his team, he explained. Mr. Stanzione became a swing vote. “So the priorities we had discussed didn’t seem to be the same for the second term as the first,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I also saw that the public saw that the crisis was averted, or solved, and then started looking at issues in a different light, because the focus was off the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
Mr. Wilkinson continued. “I always thought that the more educated you were, the more affluent you were, the more liberal you were in your thought, the more inclusive you would be. I always thought that,” he said.
“It’s the opposite here. It’s the biggest disappointment that we have people that don’t want to be inclusive. We have people that don’t want to listen to alternatives. … And as a result, the attack on you is not on the content of your message, but more on your personal style—that’s pretty disappointing.”
As he reflected on his leadership, Mr. Wilkinson spoke of his love for spontaneity. That’s why he released agendas so late, he said, so the minority Democratic members of the Town Board would act in the moment, not get direction over the weekend from their party.
One current underlying his comments was a concern that the financial turnaround will be reversed.
“I will tell you right now that I fear that those same decisions that we confronted are going to happen again. There’s an atmosphere of enabling for that to happen, and that bothers the heck out of me.”
An outgoing message he offered was for the incoming administration to remember that a third of the town’s population is seniors who have a tough time paying taxes, with the other two-thirds including many working people just trying to make a living out here.
As he looks to the new year, Mr. Wilkinson said he envisions doing something entrepreneurial, possibly even advising other governments about the types of financial hurdles East Hampton surmounted. He also said he would miss serving as police liaison and showing up at emergencies in the middle of the night. Anyone who knows Mr. Wilkinson knows that he was especially fond of his Police Department. “I love them,” the supervisor said.
As for what Disney character he most relates to, the former Disney HR executive said he had never been asked that question before and found it hard to choose. He then gazed up at an illustration of one such character, Grumpy, over his doorway.
“They obviously thought I was Grumpy when I left up there,” he said with a laugh.