AUBURN — The Cayuga County Legislature Thursday approved the appointments of several department leaderships positions, including one vacated earlier this year and two newly created, though not all unanimously.
Acting County Attorney Christopher Palermo — selected after the position was abruptly vacated by longtime County Attorney Fred Westphal earlier this year — was unanimously appointed county attorney, with a term to end December 2019 and a salary of $115,875.
"I'm very excited. Humbled, honored," Palermo said after the meeting.
Legislators also voted to hire a director and deputy director for the recently created Department of Public Works that combines the county Highway, Buildings and Grounds, Parks and Trails, and Weights and Measures departments, as well as a new director of the Office of Emergency Services.
Retire Army Lt. Col. David Leo Gardner was appointed to the DPW director position at a salary of $103,000, while former Tompkins County Deputy Highway Director Carl Martel was appointed to the deputy position with a salary of $97,000. W. Douglas Whittaker was appointed as the part-time director of emergency management at $30,000.
Several legislators, Aileen McNabb-Coleman, D-Sennett; Benjamin Vitale, D-Montezuma; and Ryan Foley, D-Auburn, voted against the resolutions for the DPW positions, citing concerns with the budgetary impact or the hiring process. Legislator Chris Petrus, R-Brutus, voted in favor of both, but questioned whether the change had been communicated appropriately.
After interviewing two candidates for the director position during an executive session of the Legislature's Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, the hiring committee authorized County Administrator J. Justin Woods to seek to change the previously approved but vacant highway division general supervisor into the deputy director position, Woods said Thursday.
Vitale and McNabb-Coleman both said they were not comfortable voting for a position that had been so rapidly introduced and which also was not advertised for.
"The whole process was done wrong," Vitale said.
Additionally, McNabb-Coleman said, under the approved structure of the DPW, who is hired as a deputy should be up to the director.
"I don't think it's our decision," McNabb-Coleman said.
Woods responded during the meeting by saying hiring Martel as deputy had been discussed with Gardner, who thought they would work well as a team, he said.
After the hiring committee interviewed both Gardner and Martel, it was decided to change the deputy position as the combined administrative and technical skills of the pair complemented each other and allowed for more to be accomplished, Woods said.
"They really were the package we were looking for," Woods said after the meeting.
The shift from general supervisor to deputy director also followed all the proper procedures, Woods said, including bringing the change before the Cayuga County Civil Service Commission, which met on Wednesday.
In terms of budget impacts, Foley questioned Woods assertion that the change, along with the elimination of a budgeted medium equipment operator position, would result in a net savings of approximately $15,000 in the 2019 budget.
"If we're justifying it by saying we're cutting this then in two or three years we hire an MEO then we didn't really save anything," Foley said. "This is how government grows."
Legislature Chairman Patrick Mahunik, I-Auburn, said any reintroduction of the position would still need legislative approval and pushed back against Foley's claim that the county's spending was out of control, noting the recently passed budget stayed below the tax cap and had not added significantly to the fund balance.
Woods said the capital planning capabilities Martel brings outweigh the need for the MEO position, but he is also licensed to operate heavy equipment should the need arise.
In the military, Gardner served in positions including interim director for resource management at the U.S. Army Reserve Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and chief financial officer/comptroller at the U.S. Army Cadet Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, according to a county press release about the hires.
Martel, a structural engineer, has experience overseeing capital projects and with bridge and road construction.
Prior to his appointment as acting county attorney, Palermo worked as an assistant county attorney and a social services attorney with the county. He also previously served as a Cayuga County legislator, Sterling town justice and as a Sterling Town Board member.
Although Palermo originally said he was not interested in pursuing the permanent position, he changed his mind after discussing it with his family and becoming more comfortable after a few weeks in the acting position.
The Legislature previously removed Palermo from the search committee from the position when he expressed interest in being hired.
Whittaker recently retired from a 40-year career in firefighting and emergency services, including as captain of special operations at the Syracuse Fire Department and as chair of public safety at Onondaga Community College's Public Safety Training Center.
Similar to how former St. Lawrence County Highway Superintendent Bill Dashnaw was brought in as a special consultant to reorganize the county's highway department, Whittaker will develop a reorganization for Emergency Management and E-911.