Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
McCoy appoints Wheelock and Ward to town jobs

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 12:07 PM EDT

VERNON — Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy today appointed Deputy Mayor, Diane Wheelock to be his paid Executive Assistant, causing uproar among Democrats who say she only got the job because of her political connections.

The job was left vacant by Charlotte Adams who left two weeks ago to work in the Ellington Town Clerk’s office.

McCoy also chose a former Democratic councilman and school board member, John Ward, to serve for two months as interim Town Administrator, replacing Christopher Clark who leaves in two weeks to take a similar job in Massachusetts.

Wheelock, a former mayor and daycare operator who says she plans to give up her business to take the Executive Assistant job, beat out 97 other applicants for the 35 hour a week post. She will start August 25 and be paid a salary in the range of $51,105 to $65,028.

According to McCoy, a search committee consisting of town staff, including Human Resources Director Dan Sullivan and Finance Officer James Luddecke, whittled down the list of applicants to four from which he chose Wheelock.

McCoy said today “there were some very good candidates for that job” but he picked Wheelock because he knew she was more familiar with the inner administrative workings of the office, understood the Town Charter, and had a history with the constituency that was unrivaled.

As for Ward, McCoy said he plans to ask the council to lengthen the posting past his two-month emergency appointment that starts Aug. 11. Ward served as a school board member from 1997 to 2003 before being elected to one term on the town council.

Salary figures were not available for Ward early today, but McCoy said he would like the Gerald Drive lawyer to apply for the permanent position.

“We have to go through the entire selection process, but I’m definitely thinking of him for long term,” McCoy said.

While Democrats said they are pleased with Ward’s appointment, Wheelock’s new job is another matter.

They classified it as political patronage.

“I think she should resign from the town council to be more non-political — that would be the right thing to do,” Democratic Town Chairman Tom DiDio said, adding that Ward would be required to resign any committee membership for the same reason.

When she applied for the job, Wheelock said that she would resign from the deputy mayor position on the council and Republican caucus leader as well, but would remain a councilwoman as others have simultaneously held paid town jobs and elected office.

She cited Republican Councilman Dan Champagne as an example. Champagne is a Vernon police officer who recuses himself from council votes affecting public safety.

Democrats say the two can’t be compared, however, as Champagne was hired as a police officer first based on experience and test results, then later became an elected official.

“When I look at something like this, and that she hasn’t been involved in an office kind of a job for years, it’s nothing more than political patronage,” Councilwoman Marie Herbst said. “I would like to see her resume, and would like to know if any testing was done.”

Democrat Councilman Michael Winkler had another concern.

“I think it’s a shame that Vernon will lose her independent voice,” he said, adding Wheelock’s “judgement is sometimes better than Jason’s and she will probably be talking to him during the day about the issues. She’ll already have had her shot to express herself, and at night at Town Council meetings she’ll be quiet and loyal to her boss. We won’t hear her ideas.”

Even if she were to step down from the council, Herbst said she thinks it would be too soon to take a town paid job and may violate ethics codes.

When Herbst was mayor she hired Nancy Herold to the position Wheelock is now taking. Herold, a Republican who was elected to the council last November, now works in the Governor’s office.

Herbst said that Herold had 10 years of administrative experience when she was hired for the town position, and waited at least five years after leaving it before running for a council seat to avoid any conflict of interest.

“She did that because she felt it should be an apolitical job,” Herbst said of the executive assistant post, adding Wheelock is “a sitting elected official and I have a real problem with that.”

McCoy said that Wheelock is more than qualified and will do a good job.

“I don’t have a big enough staff to have somebody collecting a paycheck for nothing,” he said. “If they don’t do the job, then I have to.”

Copyright © 2008 - Journal Inquirer