Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon politics: A need for stability and maturity

Editorials & Comment
Journal Inquirer
August 12, 2008

Town government in Vernon is edging toward fratricide again. This is the opposite of what the town needs.

Over the past 20 years Vernon has had nine mayors (Stephen Marcham served twice), most serving only one two-year term. Some were divisive; some were just not right for the job; some were good politicians but lousy mayors; some were good mayors and poor politicians.

Amidst all the change, the town suffered, because it takes almost two years to learn the job of mayor, and with each new regime came new priorities, cronies, patronage appointments, and grudges.

There isn't much patronage to be had, but it tells you something that three attorneys are now doing the job of town attorney.

And it tells you something that the current mayor, Jason McCoy, is trying to widen the patronage plums by redefining jobs formerly thought of as above or beyond patronage.

McCoy has appointed a local attorney, John Ward, who previously served on the school board and the Town Council as the temporary town administrator, which is similar to a town manager only with less authority. McCoy wants Ward to get the job permanently.

McCoy also has appointed the former mayor, and current deputy mayor and Republican leader on the council, Diane Wheelock, as the town's executive assistant. This job is basically to be the executive secretary to the mayor, but also, to some extent, the whole Council. Current Town Council member Nancy Herold served in the job, with great competence and diplomacy, for many years. She now works for Gov. Jodi Rell.


It is confusing, and bewildering. Think about it. Why do you have a town administrator?

To offer expert advice and to offer town leaders a detached professionalism that is not expressly political.

People who are trained and have a background in this field are hired, not only for technical expertise, but to give the mayor and council advice that is one step removed from politics.

Now you can't take politics out of local government, nor would that be a good idea. .. But sometimes you need to step back from politics to get some perspective.

That's not to say John Ward can't do the job and do it well. But it is not wise to pluck a manager from the local political ranks.

The Wheelock appointment is even more unwise. And that's not because Wheelock is unqualified to be the executive assistant. She is well qualified. But how can she function in an executive post that is also traditionally a non-political one, when she is a legislator and a politician? It's a basic conflict.

Wheelock needs to choose. She should either resign from the Council or quit the assistant job.

Keeping both is unseemly, unwise, and bad for the town.

Here is why: The town has had so much change and so much division over the years that town politics and government are in a constant state of turmoil and acrimony. Ill will, bad blood, and pettiness has lead to local government that, at best, is not as productive as it ought to be, and at worst, is sometimes incompetent or paralyzed.

Vernon needs stability, maturity, and professionalism in government, not more partisan backbiting and confusion.

Mind you, McCoy's appointments are not illegal. They do not literally violate the town charter.

But that doesn't make them smart, or right.

McCoy endangers his own administration and his own political future with recklessness like this, and he hurts the town because the chances of good government are diminished when there is instability, immaturity, and a lack of professionalism.

So that Republicans do not look at this matter as an attack on them, or their chance at the spoils, here is a reform for both parties to consider: Ban all conflicts of interest in town service. Forbid a council member from being in any way employed by the town and make the ban inclusive — Town Hall employees, and police officers, and teachers. That way you have total clarity and fairness.

Meanwhile Democrats and Republicans in Vernon might contemplate those three words: Stability, maturity, and professionalism. Those qualities build a road that leads to competence and civic pride. The road Vernon is on now is one of folly and embarrassment.