Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Democrats block appointment of Kleinhans as public works director

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Saturday, August 1, 2009 1:16 AM EDT

VERNON — Council Democrats are vowing to block the appointment of former Republican Councilman Robert Kleinhans as public works director.

Kleinhans, who ran for mayor in 2005 but lost to Democrat Ellen Marmer, had been chosen by Mayor Jason L. McCoy as a replacement for former Public Works Director George Fetko, who left for a similar job in Ellington this year.

His hire failed during a council meeting in July.

In a memo to council members, McCoy said Kleinhans has extensive experience in construction and property management at his Vernon-based company, Bunnell Construction Co. Inc.

“As vice president of Bunnell Construction, he was in charge of supervision of trades and employees, budgets and purchasing,” the memo states.

But Democratic Councilman Michael Winker, who has been Kleinhans’ most outspoken critic, said Kleinhans is unqualified for the job, for which 60 people applied.

Winkler accused the mayor of creating a political shield around Kleinhans’ appointment by including in the motion to hire him the full-time appointment of interim Tax Collector Terry Hjarne.

“Time and again Mayor Jason McCoy has given important town jobs to unqualified Republican cronies,” Winkler says in a letter to the Journal Inquirer, referencing what Democrats have called a pattern of favors to McCoy’s political buddies that began last summer with the hire of then-Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock as his executive assistant.

Winkler’s letter goes on to say that McCoy “sacrificed the promotion of an excellent town employee in a failed attempt to push through a bad appointment” by linking Kleinhans and Hjarne.

Hjarne’s appointment also failed during the July 21 meeting. All four Democrats, including Winkler, opposed the appointment, along with Republicans Dan Anderson and Nancy Herold.

Five Republicans, Deputy Mayor Brian Motola and councilmen Harry Thomas, Sean O’Shea, Dan Champagne, and Bill Campbell, voted for the appointment.

“When it comes to any appointment from the mayor,” Motola said Friday, “I think can this person do the job. …Is the mayor’s recommendation the best recommendation for the town?”

Motola said it’s rare for council Republicans to object to department head appointments and pointed to an incident in 2006 when Marmer promoted former police Cpt. James Kenny to police chief.

“We only abstained from the vote because we felt Marmer didn’t follow the hiring process correctly,” he said.

Kleinhans, who lives in the Niantic section of East Lyme, served on the Town Council from 1997 to 2005. He is on the East Lyme Board of Selectman.

A Web site advertising a now-defunct political consulting company started by Kleinhans and local Republican John Anderson boasted of the two consultants’ efforts to elect McCoy in 2007.

“Jason (McCoy) won by 1,300 against a two-term popular mayor in a Democratic town,” the site stated. “We’ll show you how we helped him do it.”

The site has since been removed.

Meanwhile, David Tomko has served as the Public Works Department’s interim director, working on a part-time basis. It’s unclear when a full-time replacement will be hired. The council’s next meeting is Aug. 18.

McCoy did not return calls for comment.

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