Cayuga County Legislature Chairperson Aileen McNabb-Coleman thought last week's meeting was going to finish a bipartisan process started more than a year ago to establish an interim leadership structure for county government.
But a resolution to create and fill a new operations officer failed in a party-line Legislature vote on April 27, despite having been unanimously approved the week before by the body's Ways and Means Committee. The vote frustrated McNabb-Coleman, D-Owasco, who has been running the county government's day-to-day operations on her own since the start of 2020.
The goal of the new post, she said, was to have the Legislature chairperson still be in charge of day-to-day operations but have professional management support of an operations officer.
"Elected department heads have two deputies and in some cases three," she said in an interview Friday. "It's unconscionable to me why this body is denying its obligation to its constituents by refusing to enlist a professional to support the execution of many objectives that will enhance the lives of our community."
The vote was split 7-7, with independent legislator Andrew Dennison of Cato absent. As a result, the proposal did reach the number of weighted votes required to be passed.
Five Republican lawmakers were joined in voting no by Conservative Party legislator Hans Pecher of Genoa and independent Tucker Whitman of Sterling. All six Democrats supported the measure, along with independent Tricia Kerr of Auburn.
McNabb-Coleman said her time is stretched too thin managing 30 direct reports, over 750 employees and a $152 million budget without a deputy to assist. "All I can do is put out fires," she said.
Multiple Republican legislators initially supported the position at the committee level and in the December vote for the 2021 budget, which funds the job. The yearly pay for operations officer would be $75,000.
One of those legislators who voted for the post at Ways and Means and against it a week later is Paul Pinckney, R-Aurelius, who leads the minority Republican caucus. In an interview Monday, he said the GOP caucus met the day before the April 27 meeting and came to the conclusion that they were not yet comfortable with moving forward on the proposal because the job description is "too generic."
"I just want some clarity," he said of the post, which was approved in February by the Cayuga County Civil Service Commission. "It leaves ourselves somewhat open to something clogging the wheel down the road."
He said he could see himself supporting the new position with a few changes to the job description to make its duties more specific. He expects the caucus to meet next week and members will continue discussing the position.
But McNabb-Coleman said all legislators had ample opportunity to work on the operations officer job description prior to last week's vote. She described a process that started in February 2020 with herself, Democratic Majority Leader Legislator Keith Batman, Pinckney and Republican Legislators Tim Lattimore and Chris Petrus. They decided the county would build an interim leadership structure while lawmakers pursued a multi-year legal process to create a charter that could eventually lead to an elected county executive position.
Since 2019, county lawmakers have expressed an interest in moving away from an appointed county administrator in charge of daily operations after considerable turnover in that position. The county last had an administrator in spring 2019.
The February 2020 agreement set the foundation for the operations officer position to be put into the budget for 2021. After being funded, county civil service and committee reviews took place before the final full Legislature vote.
To see that work get rejected in a party-line vote with little warning was a shock to McNabb-Coleman, she said.
"This is a deliberate sabotage of operations and progress for the residents of this county and I refuse to accept it," McNabb-Coleman said. "It's time to step up. The people have invested in us as the Legislature. It's time that we, as a body, invest in them."
Pinckney took issue with McNabb-Coleman's characterization of the situation.
"I think that's way off track," he said.
He pointed to the fact that at the same meeting, the full caucus voted to support filling a secretary to the chairperson post.
McNabb-Coleman said that while having someone in that role will help, it does not address the bigger leadership void that she says is apparent in county government.
"Now we are in a state of paralysis," McNabb-Coleman said. "There is no talk of investigating a new form of government, and no investment in a strategic leadership plan."
Several lawmakers spoke during the meeting on why they were voting for or against the proposal.
Pecher said the county needs to get a better handle on its long-term leadership structure.
"I think we're putting the cart before the horse," he said, while also saying he worries that the operations officer would be "the administrator in disguise" and that he wants to avoid having to pay once again to buy out a contract of an executive-level employee.
Legislator Ryan Foley, D-Auburn, who chairs the Government Operations Committee that advanced the proposal at the beginning of April, said the operations officer job description was crafted so it would not be on the level with an administrator.
"We worked very hard to make sure we put in the job description ... that it has no decision making authority," Foley said. "It's simply someone that coordinates various department heads, and ultimately it entirely reports to the chair.”
He also noted the position would not come with an employment contract that could need to be bought out, like an administrator. And he said the overall cost of this structure would be less than what the county was paying for the administrator's office in 2019.
Whitman, while saying he's not against creating the position at some point, spoke about his discomfort with approving a new position at a time when county departments have often been told to wait on funding their new positions or initiatives.
"Sitting on the outside looking in, it kind of looks like it's time to grow government when it suits us not when it suits a lot of other departments in the county,” he said. "We're going on our third year without an administrator and you know thanks to the hard work of the chair, the department heads and a lot of the county employees, we've not had to close our doors, we are still functioning, we are still moving forward."
McNabb-Coleman, during the meeting, questioned that standard.
"What I'm hearing today and what I've been hearing is the county hasn't fallen apart, people are still coming to work, etc.," she said. "This is not an accurate measure of how successful our county is or can be."
Jeremy Boyer can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer