2010-12-23 / Front Page

Executive Indecision

Politicians angle behind the scenes to determine county’s interim leader
Staff Reports

There seems to be a significant amount of confusion and disagreement among Putnam’s political leaders as to whom the legislature will name interim county executive on New Year’s Day. Legislator Mary Ellen Odell appears to have some support among the public and top officials. But others, including Legislator Mary Conklin, say Odell is not even being considered for the job and that current county executive Robert Bondi and county Personnel Director Paul Eldridge are the two contenders.

Amid all of the rumors and angling, many are wondering if anyone is in charge. Some say that former county executive elect Vincent Leibell, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, is still trying to influence county politics. Others, including a Republican on the county committee, critical of how the process is unfolding, has said that there is a lack of leadership and transparency in the county GOP.

Even though Odell appears to have some support in the legislature and was Leibell’s only challenger in the county executive race, Conklin told the Courier that, as far as she knows, the two names under serious consideration are Eldridge and Bondi. Conklin is likely to be named the new chairwoman of the legislature New Year’s Day after the GOP caucus, in a surprise move, voted out current chairman Vincent Tamagna, who will remain on the legislature.

Odell said she was surprised by Conklin’s assertion. “Some legislators apparently do not want to give me the opportunity to serve the county after nearly 11,000 people went out of their way to find me on a paper ballot in a county that traditionally only votes Republican, because of the message I brought forth: Get rid of the corruption and cronyism in Putnam County,” Odell said. “The guilty pleas of Leibell confirmed exactly what I said back on April 15 on the courthouse steps: Albany has allowed these fake foundations and trusts to be established as personal piggy banks for these politicians. I said it April 15 and I said it all the way to November 2.”

“Our message was spot on,” Odell added. “We just did not have the money to go up against the Leibell machine.”

Many Leibell critics have been suggesting that the Leibell machine lives on, despite the fact that the former senator will likely be heading to prison soon. Some speculate that either Leibell or Ray Maguire, his longtime lieutenant and former chief of staff, is still trying to control Putnam County. Conklin told the Courier that she has spoken with Maguire several times in the past weeks. She also said that she spoke with Leibell a few weeks ago.

Conklin, who is currently the treasurer of the Hudson Valley Trust, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit founded by Leibell, said, “Senator Leibell has never asked anything of me. He’s never influenced me in any way.”

Sheriff Don Smith, although never formally endorsing Odell, supported her against his rival Leibell during the race for county executive. “I don’t endorse candidates,” he told the Courier. “It’s no secret that I voted for Mary Ellen Odell, and not using my office, but as a person I absolutely supported Mary Ellen Odell and I still support her today.”

However, Smith admitted that either Eldridge or Bondi would be a good fit as well. “All three of them are my friends, all three of them I consider citizens of high integrity and principle, they would bring honor and dignity to the office,” he said. “The issue is one of process versus the outcome.”

Since this is the first time in New York State history a county-executive elect stepped down before taking office, the process has quickly become a source of contention.

Jim DiBella, Putnam Republican committee chairman, sent a letter to the county legislature offering guidance and encouragement during the decision process. “This is a time for leaders to lead and not to permit personal agendas to interfere with the difficult task of running Putnam County government,” he wrote. “The selection you make in this matter will show the public what you are made of. It will tell the electorate that you are motivated by either partisan politics or by their best interests.”

However, DiBella, the county’s Republican leader, did not offer his support, or the committee’s support, for any of the possible appointees during what has been called the “biggest problem to ever hit Putnam County.”

DiBella also offered criticism of the press coverage, which has sought to shed transparency on the backroom negotiations occurring since Putnam’s once iconic political leader pleaded guilty to two federal felonies. “Putnam residents have been subjected to article after article speculating about who the candidates might be,” he wrote. “I believe that those same residents have lost faith in our political leadership. Too often those interviewed on the street indicate a total lack of trust in our elected officials.”

Terry Polhemus, Philipstown Republican committee chairwoman, told the COURIeR that she obtained the signatures of three other town committee chairs— Anthony Scannapieco of Carmel, Bill Gouldman of Putnam Valley, and Adam Stiebeling of Patterson—forcing DiBella to schedule a meeting, per the committee’s by-laws. However, DiBella’s letter, offering no endorsement, was written and sent before a decision could be made at the December 22 meeting.

Polhemus believes that in leaving the decision completely in the hands of the legislature, the Republican committee passed on a chance to take control of the county’s future and mend party fences. “It is no secret that the Republican Party has been split for a long time,” she said. “Jim DiBella, as the leader, had an opportunity here to solidify us, to bring us together, and to offer leadership. By turning the reins over to other people, he has not healed the wounds. He has widened the gap … A chairperson is supposed to preside over a committee, not rule over it.”

“It is my personal opinion that Mary Ellen Odell is the next best choice,” Polhemus added. “But maybe it wasn’t other people’s opinions. That is why we should have had meetings. That is why we should have had a debate about it. That is why we should have come to a consensus as a Republican committee.”

DiBella told the COURIeR that he intended to hold a meeting all along, and that Polhemus and the three chairmen were jumping the gun with their formal request. “She did not have to do that,” DiBella said. “I had been talking to all the town chairs on a regular basis, advising them of what we were facing … What Terry Polhemus doesn’t know, is that I had already decided on having a meeting [on December 22], before I got that letter [from the four chairs]. So in essence, it wasn’t necessary.”

When it comes to committee decisions, DiBella said it is best to wait and hear what the electorate has to say. “There is the best interest of the voters and the community to consider,” he said. “What comes out of an executive committee meeting, if it’s done in haste, doesn’t always represent their best interests … We absolutely will endorse somebody, when the time is right. When a name gets a majority vote, that name would be recommended [to the legislature]. It is not just my decision and my decision alone.”

Polhemus appears to be facing some backlash from rival party members. “I was told by a fellow committee member last Saturday night that there are people within my own committee that are thinking about asking me to take a leave of absence while I deal with my ‘political issues,’ meaning my lawsuit,” she told the COURIeR. Polhemus is currently facing a defamation suit from former Philipstown chair Randy Chiera, the man she took the seat from. The suit criticizes Polhemus for making comments about Chiera at a committee meeting at a Cold Spring restaurant—because waiters and waitresses might have overheard her.

DiBella said that despite the disagreement with Polhemus over how the county executive endorsement process has been handled, he thinks Polhemus should have a chance to do the job she was appointed to do. “I wasn’t aware that she was getting any pressure like that,” he told the COURIeR. “The basic job of a committee leader is to choose someone to run for election and to help them. She hasn’t been given an opportunity to do that yet.”

“I hope we can all move on and bring a government that the people of Putnam County deserve,” Odell said. “Could we just stop playing politics?”

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‘No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.’ ~Hal Borland