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Dec 13, 2019 2:39 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Village Board Clashes Over Staffing Shakeup

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren and trustee Mark Parrash at Thrusday's meeting.  DANA SHAW
Dec 18, 2019 10:39 AM



Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren’s ongoing plans to shake up the village’s administration may have been thwarted last week when Village Board members objected to his last-minute attempt to name a new village administrator at a meeting on Thursday, December 12.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Warren said he was going to name the village’s current deputy registrar, Mimi Michel-Guerra, to be the very first female village clerk in the municipality’s history. Hours later, at the Village Board meeting, however, he put her name forth for the village administrator position instead — to replace veteran Village Administrator Russell Kratoville.

But after members of the board objected, followed by a brief closed-door executive session, the measure was tabled. It was unclear whether or when the board will reconsider the appointment in the future.

The position of village administrator was created in 1991 by local law. “It is intended that the position be occupied by the village clerk who is in Village Hall on a regular daily basis,” according to the law’s legislative findings.

Mr. Kratoville currently holds the titles of village administrator, village clerk and village treasurer. He was appointed in 2018, taking the place of longtime administrator Stephen Funsch.

He said this week that the move to replace him came as “a total surprise.”

“The mayor and I have had multiple conversations about his confidence and happiness with how I’m doing my job,” he said. “We have had discussions about the workload, but nothing about any dissatisfaction.”

Asked why he’d fire Mr. Kratoville, who served as management services administrator for Southampton Town before his appointment to the village position, the mayor objected to the terminology.

“This is not a termination or a firing,” he said. “This is an appointment to fill a village office, where the prior term of office has expired.”

Mr. Kratoville was never reappointed at the village organizational meeting in July, when his term expired, and has been serving in a “holdover” capacity since the mayor took office.

Mr. Warren was scrutinized earlier this year when he fired Village Attorney Wayne Bruyn and, with the board’s approval, replaced longtime attorney Beau Robinson.

The mayor explained on Thursday morning that he lacked the authority to fire Mr. Kratoville, because Mr. Kratoville is a public officer, unlike the two attorneys, who were public employees. “I cannot relieve him of his duties,” the mayor explained.

Mr. Warren does have the power to nominate potential officials for consideration and approval by a majority of the Village Board members. A board appointment of Ms. Michel-Guerra would be a de facto firing of Mr. Kratoville.

A removal of one of his titles, with a reduction of his annual salary of $180,250, commensurate with the reduction of duties, as the mayor had first proposed, could spur legal action. Mr. Kratoville’s first year salary of $175,000 represented a $29,000 savings over his predecessor’s salary, because he chose to eschew village insurance.

Concerns about the legality of the mid-year staffing shakeup arose on Thursday night when Mr. Warren opened the board meeting and introduced a verbal resolution to appoint Ms. Michel-Guerra as village administrator, rather than village clerk, as discussed just hours earlier. The item was not listed on the agenda distributed in Village Hall.

The mayor cataloged his pick’s attributes, noting that she’s been a longstanding member of the village team for well over a decade, and is unanimously respected by residents and stakeholders. “We’re going to need someone who can help us accomplish our goals,” he said.

The appointment would have been through June 2020. Deputy Mayor Richard Yastrzemski seconded the measure.

But when board member Andrew Pilaro asked for discussion, Mr. Warren objected.

“You’re out of order,” the mayor interrupted. Contrary to Robert’s Rules of Order, which dictates procedures followed in municipal meetings, he called for a vote first, followed by discussion second — but was overruled.

Mr. Yastrzemski suggested the board adjourn to executive session several times, but Mr. Pilaro said it wasn’t necessary, as his comment didn’t pertain to a specific personnel issue — which would have required a private discussion away from the public. It had to do with the law, he said.

Referencing the 1991 creation of the position, Mr. Pilaro said he wanted to get a legal determination from Assistant Village Attorney Alexandra Halsey Storch as to whether the board could vote to split the administrator job from the village clerk job.

“I’d be happy to answer that question …” Mr. Warren said.

“Excuse me, you’re out of order,” Mr. Pilaro countered. “And I have the floor, and I directed this at the village attorney, and I’d like to hear her position … I don’t believe you have a law degree.”

In 2010, the law was amended, and it appears the clerk, treasurer and administrator positions were broken up, Ms. Storch said. However, she said she was still in the early stages of determining what happened after 2010 to confirm the procedures.

Mr. Pilaro asked if she would be writing a legal opinion for the board. When she assented, he made a motion to table the discussion pending the receipt of the written opinion. Trustee Mark Parash seconded the motion.

The mayor displayed minutes from 2015, 2017, and 2018 to back up the assertion that village administrator is a position separate from “clerk-treasurer.” In 2017, Mr. Funsch was appointed village administrator for a one-year term by Mayor Michael Irving, who also appointed him for a two-year term as village treasurer. There was no appointment of clerk, and there was no appointment of clerk-treasurer, the mayor said. In 2018, there was just an appointment of village administrator again.

“We’re just simply going for a clean, one-year appointment for the village administrator role tonight. On the advice of counsel, we’re not going to touch the clerk-treasurer role. That is a different role altogether. … We believe by resolution this is something that can be unwound.”

Mr. Kratoville would retain the clerk-treasurer title for the time being, the mayor suggested. He was willing to go into executive session to discuss the matter further.

Trustee Kimberley Allan asked to be recognized and said she appreciated the mayor’s reaching out to her two days prior. She said she very much values Ms. Guerra, but the village needs a comprehensive plan for its entire organization, and “we need better communication and collaboration.”

“The position you discussed with me is now different,” Ms. Allan said. “I’m hearing this for the first time, and I don’t wing it … I’m not saying no to Mimi, I’m saying, let’s understand Mimi in the broader context.”

She asked Mr. Warren what he wanted to accomplish, and how the appointment would further his vision. “We need to put it all together,” Ms. Allan said. She wondered what other positions the mayor was considering changing, what they’d cost and how they could expect to pay for them, and whether they’ve been evaluated against other needs.

“Let’s understand our village house collectively,” she said. “I don’t like to vote on something I just found out about a few minutes ago.”

Mr. Pilaro withdrew his motion to table the resolution, and the board moved to executive session.

The session lasted 25 minutes, and when the board returned to public session, the decision was made to table the appointment pending further legal consideration. Instead, the mayor offered another spoken resolution that, if adopted, would retain special counsel to look at every previous resolution passed by the board related to the administrator and clerk positions.

Again, colleagues complained about a last-minute measure.

“My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor,” Ms. Allan said. “Now I know how he felt … why do we have to rush everything through without thinking about it?”

That resolution was eventually tabled as well.

Speaking to the kerfuffle, Mr. Parash said of the mayor, “He does have an appetite for getting rid of people right now.”

Emphasizing that he thought Mr. Kratoville was “doing a great job,” Mr. Parash said the lack of communication from the mayor was frustrating and embarrassing.

“We are looking lame,” he said. “If you looked at us up there, most of us are wide-eyed,” he said, speaking to the surprise colleagues experienced on the dais.

“The narrative is, ‘Everybody is blocking me,’” he said of the mayor. “We’re not blocking him,” Mr. Parash asserted. He and his colleagues instead are “blindsided” by the mayor’s penchant for springing initiatives on them without discussion, he said. “People are asking a lot of questions, and the only person with an answer is the mayor.”

For now, the mayor’s answer is “not yet.”

Asked Friday morning over the phone why he switched plans from making a clerk appointment to making a village administrator appointment, the mayor was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “At this moment, I would like to leave the issue alone and do my best to work with the board.”

He said that by the end of the meeting and the end of a second executive session, he felt the group left “in a good state” with each other.

“It’s time to start working together,” he offered.

On Thursday night, community member Lydia Bonner echoed the sentiment. Asking board members to try not to let their emotions get the best of them.

“What happened here tonight,” she said, “I’m actually kind of embarrassed … We look up to you to run this thing for us.”

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