Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Herold breaks GOP ranks over Wheelock

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, August 7, 2008 2:09 PM EDT

VERNON — Mayor Jason L. McCoy and Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock drew harsh rebuke from within their own party Wednesday when Republican Councilwoman Nancy E. Herold broke ranks and criticized the pair for appointing Wheelock to the paid post of executive assistant to the mayor.

The reproach came during the public comment session of a special Town Council meeting to appoint an interim town administrator.

“It seems to me that it’s very inappropriate to apply for a position in town, and even more inappropriate to be the mayor’s assistant, when you’re in the same political party,” Herold said, adding that the position should be nonpartisan.

Before going to work in the governor’s office, Herold also held the secretarial post as executive assistant to the mayor, serving under eight mayors and four town administrators. She waited at least five years after leaving the town job before running for a council seat to avoid any conflict of interest.

“I can’t imagine what you’re thinking,” Herold told McCoy and Wheelock, suggesting, as Democrats have, that the hiring process was a sham. “I wish you well, but I think it’s so inappropriate,” a clearly upset Herold added.

When McCoy hired Wheelock last week, both he and Human Resources Director Dan Sullivan said 97 applicants applied for the position. Today, Sullivan revised the figure to 71.

A day-care operator who is closing her business, Wheelock will start the $66,979 job sometime before Aug. 25. She says she will resign as deputy mayor and perhaps caucus leader, but would retain her seat on the council.

Wheelock said after the meeting she was surprised by Herold’s comments and that they talked about it before she had applied for the position and got no indication there was a problem.

Herold is not alone in condemning the appointment, however, as Democrats have been crying foul since Wheelock was hired last week.

Democratic Town Chairman Tom DiDio is calling for Wheelock to step down from the council and wants an independent legal review.

Two legal opinions were released this week: One authored by Town Attorney Hal Cummings, who is also the Republican town chairman, and the other by the town’s consultant on labor issues, the law firm of Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck.

Both opinions stated that while some town-paid positions are banned to council members, there is no such restriction for the executive assistant post.

DiDio argues that the position didn’t exist when the charter was last revised in 1990, and if it had, it would also have been excluded to elected officials.

Prior to 1990 the position was secretarial.

“It’s been upgraded since then,” Wheelock agreed. “It’s not a clerical position, it’s more of an assistant. I’ll be assisting the mayor and the town administrator.”

Democratic Councilwoman Marie Herbst, who was mayor when Herold was employed as town secretary, said Herold was promoted to the job from within after working for 10 years part time in the assessor’s office.

“I give her a lot of credit,” Herbst said of Herold’s comments Wednesday. “It takes a lot of courage to stand up and speak out against your party for what you believe is right.”

In regular business, the Town Council unanimously appointed Gerald Drive lawyer John D. Ward to serve as interim town administrator for up to five months while a search is conducted to find a replacement for Christopher Clark, who resigned to take a similar job in Sturbridge.

Ward, 46, a Democrat, is a former Town Council and Board of Education member.

McCoy said he is not worried about finding a permanent replacement for the position, even though wealthier towns such as West Hartford also are now searching for a town manager.

As for putting Wheelock and Ward together, McCoy says “it’s a good fit.”

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