Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Council winnows list of town administrator applicants

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 10:07 AM EST

VERNON —Two town administrators, a top-level administrator in Springfield’s Department of Public Works, a New Jersey Economic Development Coordinator, and a three-term first selectman were among the final candidates for Vernon’s full-time town administrator’s post that went to John D. Ward last week.

Ward, a local lawyer who was appointed to the position last summer on a temporary basis, was tapped by Mayor Jason L. McCoy to fill the $90,000-a-year town administrator’s job full time last week, despite heated partisan objection from Democrats on the council, who accused the mayor of giving preference to Ward over a host of well-qualified candidates.

Moreover, former Windham First Selectman Michael Paulhus, who served from 2001 to 2007, said this week he was never contacted for a interview with the search committee, despite being one of six finalists the committee planned to interview in December, according to a schedule of candidate interviews.

Democratic Councilman Michael Winkler, who abstained from the vote on Ward’s appointment at the council’s meeting last week, claimed the mayor’s previously stated preference for Ward shrouded the search committee in bias. The committee, which was comprised of three Republicans, one Democrat, and the mayor’s subordinates, could not have acted independently, he said.

Committee members and Human Resources Director Daniel Sullivan have denied that charge, and have maintained that the search was independent, and conducted appropriately, that Ward was the highest rated candidate of all the finalists.

McCoy also downplayed his role in the committee’s interviews at the council’s meeting Jan. 20, which were conducted in his office. He said he was not present for all interviews and may have asked possible candidates only one or two questions.

However, a candidate who interviewed for the job said that the mayor was an active participant during his interview, asking questions related to the job and town business.

When asked why Paulhus was never contacted, Deputy Mayor Brian Motola, who was on the search committee, said he was informed by the town staff that Paulhus was unreachable despite their attempts.

Sullivan declined to comment on if he or his staff had called the former first selectman, and said questions about the search process should be referred to the mayor. When pressed on why the mayor —who has previously said that he had no role in the search committee’s work — would be qualified to answer questions about the process, Sullivan again refused to comment.

McCoy, who did not return calls for comment this week, has had a long-standing gag order on town employees, prohibiting them to speak on record to the press since early last year.

This is not the first time that a McCoy appointment has riled Democrats on the council, who’ve charged that the mayor is stacking town jobs and local commissions with political friends and not qualified candidates.

Last summer, McCoy tapped former mayor and then-Councilwoman and Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock to be his executive assistant at an annual salary of $67,000, the top of the pay scale for that position.

The hiring angered council members in both parties who accused the mayor of political patronage in hiring Wheelock, who formerly owned a day care business and last served an administrative assistant in the 1970s, according to her resume.

"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," said Republican Councilwoman Nancy Herold, a former town executive assistant, who had worked under eight different administrations.