Debate rages over new village manager
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO On the heels of an educational forum with NYS Committee on Open Government Executive Director Bob Freeman (watch for a story in this Tuesday’s Democrat), Monticello’s village board meeting on Monday started flush with a positive vibe.
By the time it ended two hours later, simmering rivalries had once more exploded, this time in front of a packed room that included District Attorney Steve Lungen, County Attorney Sam Yasgur and County Treasurer Ira Cohen.
The focus of much of the evening’s controversy was Village Manager Zachary Kelson, who was “reconfirmed” as village manager in a 3-1 vote by the board (Mayor Gordon Jenkins did not cast a vote, as is his usual custom).
Trustee TC Hutchins was the lone dissenter, while trustees Scott Schoonmaker, Victor Marinello and Carmen Rue affirmed Kelson’s appointment, which was originally made in an emergency meeting December 14.
Hutchins, Jenkins and many of the speakers in the audience took issue with that December 14 appointment, made without setting a salary or delineating job duties.
“How much are we paying the manager?” resident Tom Mack asked. “... Where’s his office? I’d like to know these questions.”
“We haven’t had any discussions to talk about payment,” Hutchins charged.
“I have no idea of anything that’s happening either,” Jenkins added.
Marinello and Rue frustratedly replied that Kelson’s salary was a topic of discussion at an executive session during the most recent December board meeting, but board members had agreed to table that chat until Village Attorney Jacob Billig could attend.
So up until Monday, Kelson was technically working for the village for free, until that 3-1 vote set his salary at $59,900 a year, retroactive to December 14 but with no health benefits, sick leave or vacation time.
Confusion reigned for the duration of the meeting over whether or not that $59,900 figure was for the rest of the fiscal year (which ends in June) or would be the amount he would reach in pay by next December.
Schoonmaker, Marinello and Rue had indicated during the meeting it was an annual salary as did Kelson after the meeting but later in the week Village Clerk Edith Schop said she had yet to confirm if Kelson would be earning approximately $5,000 a month or close to $10,000 a month. (Former Village Manager John Barbarite was paid more than $6,000 a month, in addition to benefits.)
Another item of contention at the meeting concerned Kelson’s length of employment. Though Rue said the appointment was permanent, she added that a formal search process will soon begin to hire a village manager.
That confused some, especially those who felt Barbarite’s firing and Kelson’s hiring had been manipulated by Rue, Schoonmaker and Marinello.
“What is the purpose of accepting applications?” asked resident Janette Williams.
“This looks real bad,” Hutchins said. “[Kelson] hasn’t even put in 40 hours since we hired him. Is he giving up his law practice?”
That kicked off another round of comments, often charging Kelson with spending little time on village business.
Even Barbarite offered his assessment, noting that former Village Manager Ray Nargizian logged more than 40 hours a week in the office and still needed to hire Barbarite as his deputy.
Kelson did not directly address that issue Monday, but said later in the week that neither the village manager nor even the Sullivan County manager have set hours of employment, yet he’s found he’s working on village issues sometimes seven days a week.
“I’m going to dedicate as much time as is necessary,” he affirmed, noting the job is not really 9-5 at a desk. “When issues need to be dealt with, they are dealt with.… The issue is not the hours. The issue is the job getting done.”
Often handling matters from his St. John Street law office, Kelson said he can spend eight hours a day or more on village business.
Complimenting the mayor for trying to keep control of a sometimes unruly crowd Monday evening, Kelson said he continues “to have my hand out in friendship to the mayor and all the trustees” asking them simply to allow him in the future to provide input when warranted.
But Kelson’s relationship with Jenkins has been anything but cordial, and Monday’s meeting also indicated tensions between Kelson, Hutchins and even Billig.
In the end, the board agreed to hold a meeting scheduled for last night to discuss Kelson’s duties, goals and hours. (See this Tuesday’s Democrat for a report on that meeting.)
In other business
Schoonmaker proposed adopting Robert’s Rules of Order as the guiding manual for conducting board meetings.
Hutchins and Jenkins disagreed, noting they hadn’t yet even read (or been provided with) the several-hundred-page book.
Citing a similar sentiment by the New York Conference of Mayors, Billig advised the board not to adopt a “cumbersome and hyper-technical” set of rules.
Nevertheless, Rue and Marinello joined Schoonmaker in voting for it, while Hutchins was again the lone dissenter.