Putnam’s Leadership Dilemma
With former county executive elect Vincent Leibell going from the New York State Senate to the federal justice system on a corruption conviction, Putnam residents are left wondering who their next county executive will be. After the incoming legislature is sworn in on January 1, the nine representatives will appoint an interim executive, only to serve until a special election is held next November. The political world is never static, especially in Putnam, but right now it appears that Legislator Mary Ellen Odell, County Personnel Director Paul Eldridge, or current County Executive Robert Bondi will be selected to fill the vacant seat.
Out of those three, Odell has actually sought the office, having lost to State Senator Leibell in the November general election. She decided against running for reelection as a legislator last winter, and in a Republican primary battle, almost pulled off a shocking win over the much more established Leibell, losing by just two hundred votes.
Although she lost by a wide margin on election day, Odell received over 10,000 votes on the Independence Line, giving her reason to believe the people of Putnam want to see her in office. “If Leibell had been honest with the people ahead of time, people clearly would not have voted for him,” Odell told the Courier Wednesday. “I have received e-mails and lots of phone calls from people who are assuming that I will be appointed. But you can’t assume anything. It’s very curious how all the dynamics of this are playing out.”
Although the former state senator is awaiting his March sentencing, people in the Odell camp maintain that there is still a large faction of Leibell supporters who are wheeling and dealing behind closed doors, trying to hold onto and gain power. “There are a lot of opportunists out there and other folks are trying to maintain the power they had under the Leibell regime,” Odell said. “The head of the snake is cut off but the body is still moving. While a lot of the corruption goes away with Vinnie [out of the picture] there is still a lot to clean up.”
Legislator Richard Othmer, who said he is behind Odell “150 percent,” agrees that there is a strong push for power among those considered to be “Leibell people.”
“It’s like the wicked witch is dead and all the munchkins are popping their heads out,” Othmer told the Courier. “People are afraid to put Mary Ellen in as interim county executive, because then she’d have the home field advantage to run again next November … There’s a lot of jealousy … She’s an extremely smart woman, probably the smartest person on the legislature.”
Tony Scannapieco, commissioner of the Board of Elections and rival of Leibell, thinks that Odell deserves the job. “In my heart, Mary Ellen is the one that ran the race,” he said. “No one else had the intestinal fortitude to run against Vinnie Leibell … Now the Republican Party needs to purge all of [Leibell’s] stooges out so we can get back to business.”
Scannapieco was also head of the Putnam Republican party, until he was ousted by Jim DiBella in October— a move in which some saw the hand of Leibell.
Some have even suggested that Leibell, despite the conviction, would maintain some level of influence over the interim county executive. However, Putnam County Sheriff Don Smith, was emphatic when he told the Courier that Leibell will not be controlling Putnam from his prison cell. “I have both a great professional relationship and personal friendship with each of the leaders who have been identified as potential prospects for the interim county executive position,” he said. “I believe they all have impeccable integrity, are highly knowledgeable, and would serve the citizens of Putnam County well as our interim county executive.”
No Such Thing as Leibell People?
Despite what Odell supporters are saying, Legislator Dini Lo Bue of Mahopac doesn’t believe that there is a power struggle between opposing groups in Putnam. “Everyone is jockeying now,” she said. “And when I say that, I don’t mean that they are doing it as entity, as a Leibell group or a Scannapieco group. I just think it’s individual people that are saying ‘Hey, wait a minute, I can do the job’ … I don’t think there is a conspiracy behind it.”
Legislator Tony Hay, thinking along a similar line as Lo Bue, dismissed the idea of “Leibell people” and a push to hold onto power. “I believe very, very few, if any, knew anything of what [Leibell did],” he told the Courier. “There is nothing they are trying to hold onto, except their own personal integrity, which is now being questioned because they supported a man they thought was a very honest individual working hard for the people of Putnam County. And I think it’s absolutely disgusting that people and politicians out there are trying to paint a picture different than that.”
In the days after Leibell announced he would not assume the county’s top post, Hay’s name surfaced as a potential interim county executive candidate. But last week, the former chairman of the legislature said that he did not think a legislator would be selected, suggesting he was no longer interested.
An Apolitical Candidate
Hay told the Courier that numerous people have told him that they would not support Bondi—the 20 year incumbent—for another term, including a short term. “On behalf of the residents of Putnam County, I would recommend that Eldridge take the position,” he said. “[Eldridge has] over 30 years of experience in the county. He wouldn’t be walking into the position blind.”
Lo Bue would not say who she supports, but she did tell the Courier that the interim county executive should be someone who is “apolitical, in order to heal the wounds and have someone carry us forward for the year.”
Eldridge, who has been Putnam’s personnel director since 1977, apparently fits that description.
“I’m an apolitical person,” he said. “I’m not registered in any party. I’m unaffiliated.”
When asked if he would run in the special election if appointed, he replied “definitely not.”
“When I was first asked about it, I said that I thought Bob Bondi was the first, best option,” Eldridge said. “However, if for any reason, that didn’t happen … And I can be of some help, I’d like to do that. If that means being appointed county executive, I’d be willing to do it. As a matter of fact, I’d be honored to do it.”
If he was appointed, Eldridge told the Courier he would take a leave of absence from his post as personnel director, and would deputize two of his most qualified employees to work in his stead. Come next November, he said he will resume his post as personnel director, which expires in 2013.
Contracts with the Civil Service Employees Association, the Putnam County Police Benevolent Association, and the Putnam County Sheriff’s Employees Association are set to expire on December 31, 2011. The interim county executive and deputized personnel director(s) will be negotiating the new contracts over the course of the upcoming year.
Everyone with whom the Courier spoke regarding Eldridge spoke highly of him. But some expressed concern that he would be the appropriate person to lead the county through a tough time.
“He’s a nice man, but I’m not sure leadership comes from personnel departments,” said a Republican official who wished to remain anonymous. “We have three major issues coming down the pike in Putnam County—watershed, sales tax issue, and three union contracts to negotiate … I don’t see where his background gives him the expertise to negotiate sales tax and watershed issues. A loss on that could result in an increase in property taxes in Putnam County at a time when property taxes are already at crushing levels.”
So far, the county’s Republican Party, including Chairman Jim Di- Bella, has not declared support for any candidate.