April 18, 2007
In East Hampton:
Workers Accuse Town Of Patronage Hirings
The East Hampton Town Parks and Recreation is a dumping ground, awash with patronage appointments.
There has been a systematic effort to remove Latino seasonal workers and replace them with insiders and friends of those connected, and a policy to punish whistleblowers and silence critics.
A number of current and former department employees have come forward to level these charges after a town official said the department had been in disarray for years because the department head had been out on an extended sick leave.
However, Pete Hammerle, the town board's liaison to the department, reiterated the position that some employees were slacking off and turned bitter when a new boss tried to reel them in.
Several employees complained last year when Michelle Leach was appointed to a supervisory position in the department despite the fact that she was very young (mid-twenties) and that there were other veteran employees equally qualified.
"She was supposed to manage the youth park, but she was never there," said Jorge Kusanovic, a veteran employee with the department. "I don't know what she did." In fact, Leach was serving as a lacrosse coach for East Hampton High School simultaneously, a fact that her superiors were apparently well aware of. "That's all she talked about," Kusanovic said.
Last year The Independent asked the town to provide department records and payroll records. Leach, whose father, Barry, is a member of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, abruptly resigned shortly after.
"It was all of a sudden. She was tipped something was going to happen," Kusanovic said.
Not so, said Hammerle. He denied that Barry Leach's standing in the Democratic Party had something to do with the hire — all five town board members are Democrats. He said Leach was "absolutely not" patronage hire.
He said the department was for a time in disarray because workers took advantage of the absence of Ken Scott, the superintendent who had battled a prolonged illness. Scott, in a letter to The Independent, scoffed at that explanation, however. He said the department ran smoothly under his replacement, Dan DeMai. "The men worked just as hard or harder," agreed Eugene Shaw, who works for the department, in a letter to this newspaper.
Robert Difusco, the assistant superintendent of the department who has been suspended twice, and others interviewed said the trouble at the department started when Bob Rodgers was named director despite lacking credentials for the job.
"I was the assistant superintendent," Difusco said. "They didn't make him superintendent because he didn't have the qualifications."
"When Scott got sick Rob was supposed to take his place," Kusanovic related. "Out of nowhere comes Rodgers — the town board created a position for him. Most of the people who get jobs there know someone, either a political or a friend connection."
Not so, countered Rodgers. "What I have expertise in is I run multi-million dollar companies with 300 employees," he said.
Hammerle said Rodgers was working for the town as a maintenance mechanic — an entry-level position — but had previously been employed as a manager for Home Depot. Jennifer King, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, confirmed a Robert Rodgers was "an associate"— an employee — for the company but declined to discuss specifics.
"We were looking for someone strong in management, while Rob was strong in recreation. After four years of absentee management some employees were setting their own hours." Difusco countered that Rodgers "knew nothing about parks and rec — nothing."
Difusco clashed with Rodgers, as did Leach, according to sources. Difusco was eventually suspended, ostensibly because he was also working as a part-time coach at Ross School, though sources said that was commonly known.
Hammerle acknowledged that he went to bat for Leach to allow her to coach at the high school because she had already committed to it. He said it was the only time he intervened in department affairs.
Difusco returned to work two weeks ago only to be suspended again, this time for taking excessive days off. "I had days coming — Scott was sick for years and it was never an issue." Difusco said he had been tending to his parents, who have been ill.
Caitlin Fields quit her job in the department in March after four years because she said, "I couldn't take it anymore."
"It's a terrible environment [in which] to work," Fields said. "It's sad. When you work with kids it's supposed to be fun."
She said the recently hired employees "have no passion. How could they get hired? They don't have qualifications, so I wouldn't be surprised if they knew someone."
Fields said Difusco was an enthusiastic employee. "Rob worked well. The kids loved him. He had a passion for his job."
The Parks Department wasn't the problem," Rodgers said. "It was the Recreation Department, where Rob was."
Hammerle said Fields was disgruntled because she wanted to switch from part-time to full-time but didn't want to do the work assigned to her.
Tom Horn, who served as president of the local CSEA union, said he had heard from some department employees that Difusco wasn't working many hours during his tour of duty. "I went and asked Ken Scott. He said, 'they aren't here on Friday nights like Rob is. They aren't here on Saturdays when Rob is running the soccer program. They aren't here on Sundays when Rob is conducting a coaching clinic."
Both Kusanovic and Fields said five Latino seasonal workers were let go to make room for insiders. Horn said Kusanovic complained to him but that the union couldn't go to bat for the Latino workers because they were part-time and thus not eligible to join the union.
Rodgers hired his own son for $25 an hour, more than an employee doing a similar job who had worked for 15 years, Kusanovic said. Hammerle said the younger Rodgers "did a great job for us" and pointed out Kusanovic's daughter also works in the department.
Hammerle recommended two of those hired, two sources said. "These guys shouldn't even be around kids," one added.
"I never heard of them," Hammerle countered when told the names of the pair. "I don't get involved in that stuff."
One source claimed that town employees who fail drug or alcohol tests are routinely reassigned to the parks department. "There were a couple guys. One had an alcohol problem. We put him in the Parks Department and he's doing wonderfully," Hammerle acknowledged.
The final straw for Fields was when the town hired Colleen McGuire, who sources said was the sister of a town cop and a friend of a town board member. Another applicant was far superior, numerous sources said. "She had her rec degree," Difusco said of the other applicant. "She was a no-brainer. We just all assumed she was a shoe-in."
On the Civil Service exam results for Recreation Leader dated 8/13/2004 McGuire's name doesn't appear on the list, but Kusanovic is ranked at the top with a score of 85 (Leach also scored 85 on the exam). Rodgers nonetheless unilaterally decided on McGuire, Kusanovic and Difusco said.
"To even comment is ridiculous," Rodgers said. "I hire who I want to hire, and she is doing a fantastic job."
Kusanovic has filed four grievances with the local union, but none have been heard. "They've done nothing," he said. Exasperated, Kusanovic has filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee.
Kusanovic said he asked Bob Pease, the current head of the town worker's union, for support from the union after he was passed over for the position given to McGuire. He said Pease told him he had been "canvassed" — given a form to fill out and turn in if he was interested. Kusanovic denied he had been canvassed and said his file does not contain the form.
"It's the typical old boys' network," he said of being overlooked.
Horn said "the usual practice" was to give those employees interested "the courtesy of an interview."
Ironically, Rodgers was a union official before his promotion to the Parks Department. The current union head, Pease, is also getting promoted, again to a new position the board created. Horn said there is "an appearance of a conflict" when a union head is negotiating on behalf of the workers and at the same time entertaining an offer for a better position with a presumably higher salary.
In fact, all four union officials elected by the rank and file have left or are leaving their union posts.
The board has created a number of well-paying management level jobs in recent years, and charges have been leveled they were created to reward supporters and insiders.
"They want department heads that are just `yes men' and boy, with a couple of department heads, that's exactly what they have," wrote Shaw in a letter to this newspaper two weeks ago. Shaw has since been called on the carpet, according to sources. That too seems to be the pattern, as Kusanovic and Fields attested to.
"As soon as I opened my mouth they treated me like crap," Fields said.