Crotonblog has been wracking its collective brain to find a phrase that sums up the May 7th village board meeting. We think we have found the most appropriate expression to describe the tone of this meeting. Coined by newspaper editor Benjamin Russell on the occasion of President James Monroe’s goodwill visit to Boston in 1817, the phrase of choice was first used in the Columbian Centinel [sic], Russell’s newspaper.
Students of history will immediately recognize the term. “The Era of Good Feelings” was Russell’s way of describing the period that started in 1815 and lasted until about 1824. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party was dissolved and no longer attacked the president, nor was it being attacked in return. With the nation united behind the unusually named Democratic-Republican Party, the American political scene would never again see the amicability of this uncommon period.
Fast forward to the May 7, 2007, village board meeting in the Stanley H. Kellerhouse Municipal Building. As an indication of the low level of public interest in Croton’s affairs of state, when the camera panned the audience, it revealed once again that the number of attendees could be counted on the fingers of one hand. With the return to the dais of Trustee Tom Brennan and with his majority now securely in place, formerly tense and grumpy Mayor Greg Schmidt was a model of good manners and decorum. Gone was the domineering Teuton ogre, interrupting the comments of others and riding roughshod over their words to impose his views on them. Instead, he was almost giddy over his newly returned power, thanks to the presence of one sometimes obstreperous trustee and the other pliable “whatever you say, Boss” trustee. On several occasions he was so pleased with the situation in which he found himself, he emitted a high-pitched giggle like a kid with a new Christmas toy.
The evening really belonged to the two speakers. Nancy Shatzkin explained the financial ins and outs of the Housing Network’s project called Symphony Knolls. By now, she is an old hand at the game of shepherding these low-income projects through the quicksands of governmental red tape. Crotonblog salutes her for her quiet competence in the face of uncounted hazards in which something could go wrong—and often does.
Crotonblog could not help noticing that the recent overpainting of the wood-veneered walls of the meeting room in which official municipal business is conducted had entirely altered the room’s atmosphere. The change was, therefore, not entirely unwelcome. Walls that should have been clad with antique pine or dark mahogany in keeping with the age and venerable quality of the building had been inappropriately covered with el cheapo pecan-veneered paneling. Such woodwork would have been more appropriate in a suburban home’s basement recreation room complete with New York Yankees pennants, a Ping-Pong table and wet bar plus a pair of pink plastic flamingos outside on the lawn.
The choice of two light tones of paint for this august village hall, however, may present future upkeep problems. Crotonblog earnestly hopes that the original wood veneer paneling was adequately prepped to ensure adhesion of the paint, and that the finish will stand up to the hard usage that such a public meting room receives. One unanticipated result of the painting project was the increased intensity of the light in the room, making Mayor Schmidt’s bald pate gleam as though it had been polished with Turtle Wax, and almost requiring that spectators wear sunglasses. If the light in this room is maintained in the future at this level, Crotonblog would not be surprised to learn that the mayor has become a newly inducted member of the Hair Club for Men.
The evening also marked the return of Robert Wintermeier, a veritable ambassador of good feeling, who proceeded in typical lengthy fashion to heap encomiums on the mayor and trustees. First he apologized for not being able to participate in the budget process. Next he thanked the entire board for reducing the budget from an increase of 10 percent to 6.95 percent, or about 3 percentage points. He described this as commendable and added imperiously in his usual peremptory fashion, “And I would have expected nothing less.” He then criticized Crotonblog for expressing unhappiness over the unjustified massive raises doled out to management staff with no explanation of the basis for their beneficence. He mistakenly had the impression that executives had their salaries reduced. What was reduced, by one percent, was the size of their raises. Had any other administration been as generous in such a princely fashion, he would have been squealing like a stuck pig. In Robert Wintermeier’s book, at least for now, the Schmidt administration can do no wrong.
Nor was he bothered by the fact that the village government has never been transparent or forthcoming in revealing to the public the salary structure on which employees and management are rated and reimbursed. For example, Crotonblog wonders does each job description have a salary range and a sequence of progression once the top of a range has been reached? Mr. Wintermeier seemed to sense that something was rotten in Denmark—and in Croton—by suggesting that the village institute salary caps instead of raises for management employees. He also proposed that salary freezes be used to prevent indiscriminate raises, and that bonuses be used to reward employees for exemplary performance.
“A lot of people don’t realize what you [the village board] go through in preparing the budget,” he said. This statement is unfortunately all too true. The budget initially proposed by the village manager is prepared based on a “wish list,” or “gimme list” supplied by the various heads of departments. This is presented to the village board for paring down—a procedure that invites the inclusion of lots of fat that can be cut to give the impression of due diligence and fiscal responsibility.
If the village board were genuinely serious about keeping expenses to a bare-boned minimum, it would fix on a target percentage above which the budget would not be allowed to go. And if Mr. Wintermeier had the expertise in these matters he purports to have, he would recognize this as standard business practice. Instead the village engages in a process that everyone knows is as formalized as negotiating for the purchase of a rug in an Istanbul rug bazaar or the mating dance of the bird of paradise.
By the way, if it is the village manager who prepares the chock-full-of-fat initial budget, Crotonblog wonders where does the always-generous raise for the village manager come from (see: Klaatu Returns to Planet Earth. Lands in Croton-on-Hudson Instead of Washington)?