By Annette Hinkle
Arthur Malman, co-chair of the East Hampton Group for Good Government, who discusses options for an East Hampton Town manager position in advance of a forum on the topic this Saturday.
Why might a town manager make sense for East Hampton?
It’s a dysfunctional form of government because in most organizations, you have a president and a board of directors. Here, we have a five person board who act as both CEO and are in charge of administration of the town.
The council members have four years — the first year is “get to know you.” The second year they’re getting some stuff done. Then the learning curve’s all over because new people are coming in to take seats. The supervisor is elected for two years. They take office in January, by June they know where all the offices are and so they have six months before the next election cycle starts.
It’s kind of like Congress, isn’t it?
But in Congress, all they have to do is discuss policy. Here they’re dealing with complaints and administrating all the departments. If you had a corporation and I told you you had two chief executive officers, your first thought would be, “That’s strange. I hope it can work with two.” This is even stranger — there’s no chance of working with five.
Forgetting the political agendas and assuming — as is often case — board members are willing to work night and day, it’s an impossible situation. Besides listening to constituents and coming up with policies and catching up with mega issues, they’re also meeting with the community advisory boards, dealing with the budget and a plethora of committees.
While I think we have a good board and people who are willing to serve, they are very frustrated. If you look from the bottom up, a lot of town employees are also frustrated because the department head reports to the board. Does that mean he listens to board member A, B, C, D or E? Then you have the reality. If the head of the department doesn’t like the board policy or their town board liaison, they sit there and bide their time – in two years we’ll have someone else.
So how might a town manager position function better?
On one end — with a public referendum — a town manager is fully empowered to do a great variety of things including hiring and firing people. At the other end of the spectrum, you could hire a person who is really like a chief administrator reporting to the board and supervisor who’s keeping track of what’s going on. If there’s an interdepartmental new project, it’s making sure the departments meet and talk. The initial reaction is of course they already do that — but they really don’t. It’s not a criticism, its jut how it is.
Where we have a person grab hold and shepherd a project through we have had great success. I think the town has reasonable control now of finances and budget. The powers of a town manager or administrator are solely those the board seeks to delegate to that person. Depending on the competence of that person and of the board, they may decide certain items which are often taken care of by the board will be taken care of by that person or vice versa.
What sort of candidate would make a good town manager?
There needs to be a selection process run by the board to find the right person with the right skill sets for what they want that person to do. A heavy duty financial person is one skill set. If they want departments to work together, that’s another skill set.
You need someone with some expertise running organizations, but also with a business background, finance or combination of those. This stuff is complex, its not quite analogous to running your own business. Here you have unions, civil servants, elected officials, a group of rules, budgetary constraints and lots of laws and requirements people have to comply with.
It’s important the person be politically independent and protected. If you have a town administrator who has contractual protections and you’ve hired the right person, they’re likely to tell you the emperor has no clothes.
You recently added a speaker to Saturday’s forum – Howard Arden, the town administrator of North Castle in upper Westchester. What will he bring to the table?
We were happy to get him because they adopted the town administrator/manger position in October. He has the experience of how you get where East Hampton is to a town administrator — the political trade offs and the practical problems you run into.
He said there were some bumps they didn’t foresee, things they had to tinker with — but it’s a dramatically better system than what they had in September.
I can’t think of anyone’s experience that will be more beneficial. He’s just lived through it.
The East Hampton Group for Good Government (GGG) public forum on “Town Manager Options for East Hampton” is Saturday, May 4, at 3 p.m. at the East Hampton Emergency Services Building (North Main and Cedar streets). Co-sponsoring organizations are the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and the East Hampton Business Alliance.