By Claire Walla
When the 2011 Southampton Town budget was passed last month, it came down to three votes. And when Russell Kratoville was hired last week, it came down to three votes and —depending on who you talk to — little else.
The incident stirred public outcry, bringing a flock of citizens to town hall on Tuesday, November 30, to protest Kratoville’s appointment to the job of general services manager. The job, which had been eliminated in town supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s tentative budget, was restored by the board’s Republican majority —Nancy Graboski, Jim Malone and Chris Nuzzi — when they voted to pass the budget November 20, effectively adding a six-figure job back into the town budget.
Nuzzi defended the appointment, saying “The more I see [the changing faces at town hall], the more I see the serious need for some sort of stability at town hall to provide continuity in service.”
However, Throne-Holst disagrees, saying the position has been “proven ineffective” and adds an additional $150,000 (including benefits) to the town budget.
“It’s troubling that we would not fill lower positions in the highway and human services department, which, without a doubt, affects our service delivery,” she said.
In fact, according to a resolution adopted by the Southampton Town Board in 2000, when they voted to hire Kratoville, the town board’s Republican majority broke town policy.
That resolution, “Hiring Policy for Management and Professional Positions,” states that in order to fill a vacant position, the town must first form a selection committee made up of a town management services administrator, a department head and/or direct line supervisor, a personnel assistant, an affirmative action officer and at least one town board member. This committee, in addition to the personnel department, is responsible for advertising the position both locally and out-of-state.
Ultimately, the policy states: “The Town Board shall conduct interviews of the finalists proposed by the selection committee,” and “any member of the town board may request that a proposed candidate appear before the entire board for a second interview.”
“I was not aware of any committee formed by a majority of town board members [for the purpose of filling the general services manager position],” said the town attorney Michael Sordi.
Throne-Holst (Ind.) and councilwoman Bridget Fleming (Dem.) claim they received no word on Kratoville’s hiring as general services manager until a press release, issued on Monday, December 1 by Southampton Town Citizen Advocate Ryan Horn, declared it. This was one day prior to the board’s formal vote, which passed by a vote of three to two.
According to Nuzzi—who along with fellow Republicans Malone and Graboski voted to hire Kratoville —Throne-Holst had met with Kratoville in her office the week prior to his hiring. As for Fleming’s involvement, Nuzzi said, “I believe she received correspondence from him [Kratoville] the week before” the press release was sent out.
“I had no idea this individual [Kratoville] was in the running,” said Throne-Holst who denies having met with him as Nuzzi claims.
Nuzzi added that he was not aware of the town’s Employer Hiring Policy.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of that policy,” he said in an interview after Kratoville was hired.
However, Sordi explained that town policies are not legally binding. Because the town board created the policy, he said, with a three-vote majority the town board has the authority to side-step the details.
For some, this incident bears resemblance to the Republican strong-arming that made headlines after the recent budget debate, during which the town’s Republican trio introduced a series of last-minute resolutions to the supervisor’s tentative budget and, with little time for debate, proceeded to vote-in these changes.
According to Throne-Holst, it’s not so much the three-vote majority that’s cause for commotion, it’s the lack of transparency that concerns her. Throne-Holst said that despite repeated attempts to meet with her fellow board members, they only convene during town board meetings and work sessions, or when she is “prodding them to answer phone calls or running into them in the halls.”
When discussions take place without her or other council members’ knowledge, she added, “then it’s not majority rule so much as a hijacking of a process.”
“Five of us have been given public trust,” she explained. “And when we purposefully exclude others from being able to fulfill their duties, that is a troubling reality to consider.”
To Nuzzi, the matter is a little more simplistic.
“The bottom line is, at some point a voting majority makes a decision,” said Nuzzi. “But once a decision is made, we’ve got to coalesce around that decision and make it successful.”
Nuzzi also noted that he’s been the minority vote on a number of issues, but he’s never made a big fuss over it.
“Frankly, I don’t think a hiring decision should be the focus of continued discussion, unless that individual doesn’t seem to be working out,” he added.
Like Throne-Holst, Nuzzi expressed frustration over the way decisions have been handled at town hall, but for different reasons.
“The way I see it, it’s either her [Throne-Holst’s] way, or else,” he said. “That’s not a way to build consensus.”
Nuzzi wouldn’t say whether or not Throne-Holst was purposefully left out of the decision-making process regarding the hire of Russell Kratoville, instead, he reiterated his point that she had met with Kratoville the week before his hire.
Moving forward, Nuzzi added, “We need to work to address the bigger picture items, [like continuing to support small businesses and lowering taxes] which aren’t being addressed because politicians continue to point fingers [at one another].”
The supervisor said she is currently working on a new policy that would ensure more transparency and more institutional deliberation at town hall.
“I hope for a fresh start in January,” she said.
When asked whether or not a three-vote majority could override such a policy, the supervisor sighed.
“Yes, is the unfortunate answer to that,” she said. “But I hope at the very least it will give everyone an extra layer of pause to think twice.”