A former county employee and candidate for the county comptroller’s office said last week she believes politics was behind her dismissal earlier this month. But County Executive Pat Ryan said that Lisa Cutten’s removal from her post was simply him following through on a campaign promise to eliminate duplicate services in county government.
Cutten has worked for Ulster County since 2006 when she was hired as county auditor. After the new charter eliminated that post, she went to work for County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach. Later, she worked directly under former county executive Mike Hein as deputy budget director. She was then tapped to head up Hein’s office of Accountability, Compliance and Efficiency (ACE). The ACE team was assigned to monitor county finances while reporting directly to the county executive.
In May, Auerbach announced that he was stepping down to take a post in the office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Cutten and Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley CEO March Gallagher both announced plans to seek the Democratic nomination for a November election to fill out the remainder of Auerbach’s term, which ends Dec. 31 2021. On June 27, The Ulster County Democratic Committee voted to hand the party line to Gallagher. Five days later, on July 2, Cutten said she was called to a meeting where, she said, Ryan “invited me to resign.”
“This happens a few days after the caucus with no warning, no conversation with [Ryan],” said Cutten. “It was pretty clear that it was political.”
Cutten said no one in county government had outright told her to drop her bid for Comptroller. But she recalled an incident at meeting of a town Democratic committee that in retrospect appeared ominous to her. Cutten said she was explaining her position at ACE while making a pitch for the committee’s support at the caucus when one member — a Gallagher partisan — asked, “So the county executive can fire you?”
“I did not understand the seriousness of that at the time,” said Cutten who declined to specify which town committee the remark was made at or who made it. “I thought it was more of an academic question.”
The last casualty of the Hein-Auerbach War?
County officials deny any political motive in Cutten’s dismissal. Instead, they say the ACE team was dissolved because it duplicated many functions of the comptroller’s office. Over the course of Hein’s decade-long tenure he waged a public and at times bitter war with Auerbach over the duties and powers of their respective offices. Some in county government saw the ACE team as a means for Hein to undermine Auerbach’s oversight of county finances and serve as a base for the argument that Ulster didn’t need a comptroller at all. Cutten, who had 19 years into the state retirement system, said some people saw her role as “Hein’s comptroller” — a characterization she disputed.
“The division I headed up was created by [Hein] because he thought there was a real need and it had real value,” said Cutten.
In a prepared statement, Ryan said the dissolution of the ACE unit was an example of following through on a core campaign promise to improve efficiency in county government. Ryan said the decision to reassign members the ACE team came in the process of developing a new “innovation” unit to use data and research to improve how county services are delivered.
“I saw an opportunity to repurpose an existing team, the ACE, that had significant overlap with the Comptroller’s Office,” wrote Ryan. “County taxpayers should not have to pay twice for the same service.”