By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO August 12, 2005 Sullivan County Manager Dan Briggs survived two back-to-back executive sessions one week apart, led by Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunninghams call for his ouster.
The first, held last week by the full Legislature, ran one hour, without Briggs in the room. The second, held yesterday also without him, was much shorter and concluded with his position seemingly more secure, though still uncertain.
According to legislators, Cunningham (a Democrat) was joined by another top legislator last week in calling for the removal of Briggs (a registered Republican). Yesterday, that unidentified person removed his support for the firing. A vote on the matter is expected for next week.
It is not known how many legislators currently support Briggs ouster, but some were willing to go on the record to state their view of his five-year tenure.
Cunningham himself would not go into detail but said there were a host of issues. The chairman was clearly disgruntled after an audit, which was released last month, faulted the county for some of its accounting practices.
We have a responsibility to assess the issues and management, he said.
Briggs said he had not been told about the chairmans desire to fire him until notified by the press. He still has yet to speak to Cunningham and said he has rarely been in communication with Cunningham since he took the helm of the Legislature last year.
Im here to do the best job, to the best of my ability, but you cant help but feel slighted, he explained this week. Do I feel there were ulterior motives? Absolutely. What they are, I dont know. I wouldnt treat anybody that way, nor would I expect to be treated that way under any circumstances.
After yesterdays executive session, Cunningham said, I have to work with him. It is in the best interests of the county that we continue to work together.
On Wednesday, Briggs called the effort to remove him hurtful and disappointing. These are the same people that congratulated me on the handling of the [government center] fire and the plan to fill the shoes of the head of the Department of Public Works [which he did for more than five months].
It certainly raises the question over their integrity and whether this is being politicized, whether there are those looking for jobs.
I have lived here my whole life, Briggs continued. My family lives here. I have the countys best interests at heart. . . . Their [legislators] lack of communication is somewhat disturbing. When I was up for [re-appointment as county manager], there was a purposeful delay. You treat people with the same dignity and respect that you wish to be treated with.
As for Cunningham, Briggs said, For someone who has supported open government, Ive never seen it more closed, and perhaps that is for a reason. I served as treasurer for 18 years and five years as county manager. In 23 years, I have never seen it more closed absolutely. And Ive been through many changes and many different personnel. They never communicate to me. Its run by a caucus and select individuals they bring in periodically.
Sullivan County Legislator Ron Hiatt (D) has been upset with the countys operations particularly over the last month, following the audit. He took specific aim at the Office of Financial Management.
The financial management people need to be more serious, he said. We have to know where we are financially to make decisions.
He said he wants the in-house auditors to be more independent, not just checking vouchers. He said they should have free reign and report to the Legislature, rather than the manager.
Im happy with Dan. I like him a lot. I was happy when he was appointed some years ago, said Hiatt. Business is business.
Briggs said the in-house auditors are autonomous and have the ability to do in-depth, random audits of departments within the county. Briggs said those audits will increase.
The $7 million discrepancy which was found last year in the departments of Health and Family Services and Community Services was located by the countys in-house auditors, said Briggs. He said there have been tremendous strides taken to ensure that the distribution of state funds is properly accounted for but said it is a complex system which will never be perfect. He said he has received a constant barrage of phone calls at home and in the office indicating support from legislators and others.
Sullivan County Legislator Sam Wohl (D) also said it was the management report from the auditors which irked him.
The management report speaks for itself, he explained.
On Wednesday, he said he had not yet made up his mind yet on how he would react to Cunninghams charge.
Briggs outlined the countys response to the management report yesterday and how he believed the county could best act to improve its accounting. In over 20 years of experience, he said the audit rated on the good side.
Financial Management Committee Chairman Jonathan Rouis (D) had called the report by Briggs a nice, thorough response.
Sullivan County Legislature Republican Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel stood by Briggs: He is a good man doing a good job.
Gaebel said that Briggs handled not only the crippling fire at the government center and taking over the DPW, but also three major floods which have rocked the county over the last year.
Communication is the big thing, said Gaebel.
He echoed the sentiments of Briggs that there is a lack of dialogue between Briggs and Cunningham.
He [Briggs] is open to communication, said Gaebel. Im not sure of the intent of the other legislators. He has handled some extremely difficult situations. . . . I am behind him 100 percent. . . . To ask Dan Briggs to step down would be a major mistake and would do nothing to move the county forward.
As far as he knew, the other Republican legislators (Leni Binder, Greg Goldstein and Jodi Goodman) were also supportive of Briggs, although he could not say that for sure.
Binder would not comment, and Goldstein did not return calls. Democratic Majority Leader Kathleen LaBuda refused to comment. Rouis, the vice chairman of the Legislature, did not return several calls as well.