Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council hires Kleinhans as public works director

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 12:02 PM EST

VERNON — In the Town Council’s first meeting since the municipal election, majority Republicans approved the appointment of former Republican councilman Robert Kleinhans as the town’s new public works director.

Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy sought to appoint Kleinhans to the post in July, but two Republican council members, Dan Anderson and Nancy Herold, broke ranks to join minority Democrats in blocking the hire.

The appointment again sparked intense debate among councilmen — specifically Democrats — who railed against the hire as one of McCoy’s most egregious political appointments to date.

“He has no — virtually no — experience managing people,” Democratic Councilman Michael Winkler said. “He has no experience in the public sector. …When he gets down there, he’s not going to be the kind of person who’s going to thrive there and not the kind of person people want to work for.”

Republicans, meanwhile, say Kleinhans’ experience in the private sector, combined with an ambitious vision for the town’s future, more than adequately prepares him for the job.

“There are various examples in which Mr. Kleinhans has supervised employees,” Republican Councilman Sean O’Shea said, adding that the town might benefit from an outside voice.

Anderson was the only Republican who joined three Democrats voting against Kleinhans’ appointment Tuesday.

Kleinhans has owned and operated Bunnell Construction Co. Inc. in Vernon since 1991. He is a developer and property manager, serves on the town’s Economic Development Commission, and is a member of the Rockville Downtown Association’s board of directors.

Kleinhans, who lives in the Niantic section of East Lyme, served on the council from 1997 to 2005. He ran for mayor in 2005 against Democrat Ellen Marmer, but lost. He also has twice sought a seat in the state legislature and failed. He is a former deputy first selectman of East Lyme.

Council Democrats said Kleinhans’ appointment was a foregone conclusion when McCoy put him up for the job this summer. The department had been without a fulltime director for nearly six months, when its longtime chief, George Fetko, left for a job in Ellington.

In recent months, McCoy has shown unusual determination to hire Kleinhans, who ran a now-defunct political consulting business with Republican campaign manager John Anderson, boosting the effort to elect McCoy in 2007.

In July, McCoy combined the hire of Kleinhans with Tax Collector Terry Hjarne in a move critics said was an attempt to shield the mayor’s friend with an innocuous, straight-forward appointment.

When the appointment failed, McCoy did not offer another candidate for the job until Tuesday, and Kleinhans himself wrote a letter to the Journal Inquirer praising his own qualifications.

“I offered not to take the position because I was a choice that I knew would be politically volatile,” Kleinhans wrote. “I certainly knew it would be controversial. But after following all the rules, the mayor told me I was the best choice for the job and he was willing to take the heat for the long-term good of the community.”

McCoy also has maintained that Kleinhans went through the town’s hiring process like all job candidates. Hjarne was hired unanimously by the council this summer.

McCoy said today that Kleinhans’ salary range will be between $88,000 and $92,000 annually, but his employment terms have not yet been set.

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