Photo: Peter Blasl

We’ll soon have public hearings on two proposals intended to improve government in our town: term limits and a four-year supervisor tenure. I’m not writing to oppose, but rather to point out that if these are the answers, we’re asking the wrong questions.

In my opinion badgeHere’s what Riverhead voters really need to know: How can we ensure our town is run by an executive with the right mix of specialized training, management skills, and leadership qualities…all proven in public sector work?

It sure isn’t our present method of choosing a supervisor, which — viewed objectively — sounds comically stupid. (Remember, this is a critique of the process, not anyone currently or formerly in office.)

1— Find at least two locals with all the expertise and skills needed to properly manage a town with 200 employees and a $93,000,000 budget…but who are presently doing something else.

2— Ask these people to set aside whatever careers they’ve built, for the next 2 to 12 years, so they can run for office. (One will serve until re-election efforts fail; the other will resume his/her day job.)

3— While serving as chief executive, they’ll also need to run the town’s legislative branch, which means wrangling four part-time elected officials who — however bright, dedicated and hard-working they may be — typically have little or no experience managing a town (or even a business).

4— Require that the supervisor abandon some town duties with each run for office, soliciting donations from people and businesses he or she governs (even from town workers they manage) to fund the campaign.

5— Repeat every two years.

It’s a recipe for failure, and changing to four year terms won’t help. Truly qualified local candidates for the supervisor’s job don’t exist; when we get a good one, it’s a fluke.

Riverhead needs a professional town manager, and must look beyond town borders to find one.

To achieve this is simple: a) eliminate supervisor as a full-time job (it’s not legally required); b) have the supervisor set agendas, run meetings, and perform other prescribed duties, but at the same term and salary as other councilmembers; c) hire a full-time town manager, selecting from candidates that have studied and trained for this role, spending their careers learning local government operations in a variety of suitable venues. People with real expertise, and a lifelong commitment to this profession.2016_0225_town_manager

From a fiscal standpoint, there will be little impact. When the supervisor’s salary is that of a councilmember and the deputy supervisor post is eliminated, we can offer competitive wages.

The town manager will report to the Town Board — which retains complete control of law and policy — with levels of professionalism and continuity that are not possible today.

Department heads will know they’re working for someone who has worked in similar roles, truly understands their jobs, and can help supply the resources they need.

The town manager will be a critical buffer between inherently transient politicians and permanent staff. It’s unhealthy when town employees feel at risk in election years, wondering which way the winds will blow. They’ll be less distracted when judged more on merit and less on loyalty.

As for our finances: every town budget for nearly 20 years has been prepared by a private-practice, small-office lawyer who swapped his shingle for the supervisor’s desk. Smart guys, all … but lacking in the operations knowledge needed to steer a ship of our size. Few lawyers are schooled or practiced in the nitty-gritty details of running a town. Intelligence, dedication, and hard work can’t substitute for experience.

Overspending, underestimating revenues, the landfill debacle, betting on the housing boom (borrowing against the CPF)— everything that brought us to the cusp of bankruptcy, while our taxes soared, happened on their collective watch. Granted, these were complex issues with no simple solutions…even in hindsight. I still believe firmly that an experienced town manager would have guided our board to better decisions.

For example, would a manager have headed off the landfill reclamation? Probably not…but he or she would certainly have done a better job vetting engineers, and—most important—made sure enough insurance was in place to protect the town. That was a $20,000,000 mistake, yet nothing has changed in town government. How many more “goofs” can we afford?

A town manager was suggested once before…but only in conjunction with changing Riverhead’s “town class” designation— a topic so complex, arcane and boring that discussion put even its proponents to sleep. We don’t need such dramatic change, just a new position.

Here’s my proposal: this November, let’s hold a referendum that can actually make things better. We can vote on term limits for council members, but let us also choose “smarter” government. We’ll still elect a supervisor as our top legislator, while enabling the town council to hire a seasoned pro as our top administrator — someone who really knows the ropes, and won’t have to learn on the job.

There’s no downside.

The biggest mistake we can make is failing to consider constructive change. Only a fool would say our current system can’t be improved.

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Larry Simms has a home in South Jamesport, and owns a firm that makes patented construction products used on large commercial and government projects.

 

 

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