Criticize county executive for lack of transparency
Prompted by Legislator Nancy Montgomery, Putnam lawmakers last week criticized County Executive MaryEllen Odell for not informing them when top employees leave or move to other posts, or when remaining staff members assume multiple roles to fill vacancies.
The dissatisfaction emerged during the Aug. 9 Personnel Committee session in Carmel, where Montgomery, whose district includes Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley, called for an explanation of staff changes.
“I don’t know what’s going on, and it makes me suspicious,” said Montgomery, the sole Democrat on the nine-person Legislature. “If we were just informed, there wouldn’t be this suspicion.”
Legislator Paul Jonke of Southeast, who chairs the Personnel Committee, said he found it “uncomfortable” to send a memo to a high-level employee only to discover the person no longer works for the county.
“I wish we did get the courtesy of knowing, at the very least, when a department head or someone with a major role with the county either switches positions or leaves,” he said.
Another committee member, Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, agreed that “it would be a practical thing, to be apprised. Often, we hear things on social media or in the street.”
Uncertainties began to surface July 14, when Montgomery wrote Odell asking about changes in the Planning Department. The legislator noted that, on a county message earlier that day, John Tully, deputy commissioner of Highways and Facilities, had identified himself as the interim planning commissioner.” The planning commissioner had been Sandra Fusco.
A day later, Odell replied that the county charter says a county executive can “exercise supervision and control over all administrative departments, offices and agencies of county government. The only time my office is required to apprise the Legislature of a new appointment resulting in a staff change is where the charter requires that such an appointment be confirmed by the Legislature.”
Montgomery asked the Personnel Committee to discuss the issue at its Aug. 9 meeting; she listed jobs, including those of the planning commissioner, Climate Smart coordinator and Soil and Water Conservation District manager, that had experienced turnover in the last year.
But when Jonke requested that Paul Eldridge, the personnel director, attend the meeting, Odell objected.
Again citing the charter, Odell said that “the administration is under no obligation or duty to notify the Legislature of day-to-day staffing changes or changes in individual employee assignments.”
When the committee met, Jonke said legislators don’t need to know of day-to-day operations but that concerns arise “if we have major players, important people, and we find out a month later that ‘by the way, they don’t work here anymore.’ ”
Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel, who is not on the committee, suggested that legislators who have concerns consider revising the charter. Nonetheless, he said that “when a major change is made, we should be notified. It’s no big deal.”
The situation indicates that “we don’t have expertise; we don’t have leadership” in various offices, Montgomery said. “We’re just bombarding other employees and piling on work.” She questioned whether some employees got multiple titles — and salaries — to boost their pay levels before Odell leaves office Dec. 31. (She cannot run again because of term limits.)
Montgomery had pushed the county to join the state Climate Smart program, which it did in 2019. “Climate Smart was our [legislators’] initiative. We weren’t even given the courtesy of being informed when we lost our coordinator and a new one had been appointed,” she said.
As to the identity of the present senior environmental planner, Montgomery said: “We don’t know because we haven’t been informed.”
Vincent Tamagna, a Philipstown resident and former Republican county legislator who is Putnam’s transportation manager, became the Climate Smart coordinator in 2021, when Lauri Taylor resigned. (Taylor also had been Soil and Water District manager and senior environmental planner.) According to materials for an Aug. 25 Physical Services Committee meeting, Tamagna now oversees the Soil and Water Conservation District. He is out of town but on Wednesday (Aug. 17) told The Current he could discuss Soil and Water District matters after his return on Sept. 3.