“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.”
— Franz Kafka
The revised leadership structure of Ulster County government under county executive Pat Ryan is taking shape. The executive team consists at this point of an amalgam of old hands and new faces. That’s no surprise.
Responsibility for getting through the all-important budget season for 2020 lies mostly with the old hands. The operations team is headed by Deputy County executive Marc Rider and budget director and finance commissioner Burt Gulnick. Clint Johnson has been promoted to county attorney by Ryan.
The new executive’s office has been asking the department heads what they do and what they are trying to accomplish. This prolonged get-acquainted tour is a nod to a management technique called performance management, which starts with defining a job and getting it done.
Meanwhile, addressing the so-called Big Five problem areas which Ryan identified in his inauguration speech has been a major center of attention for the new administration. Considerable system disruption may be involved.
His priorities, Ryan had said in that June 7 speech in the county courthouse in Kingston, included a Green New Deal for Ulster County, tackling the opioid crisis, growing and diversifying the county economy, redefining the justice system to emphasize rehabilitative and restorative elements, and making county government more responsive and responsible.
Here, Ryan appears to be giving a nod to the thought that government is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. His message represents a change in approach from that of the Hein administration. Ryan’s style has been more reminiscent of business management than public administration. He’s a problem-solver. He sets measurable goals for improvement in problem areas and deploys personnel toward meeting those targets.
Despite facing another election in November to confirm his status for a full four-year term, Pat Ryan’s overwhelming electoral victory against Republican opponent Jack Hayes on April 30 has given him a mandate. Though no future election can be taken for granted, the re-run between the same two on November 5 probably won’t lead to a different outcome, with Hayes not expected to campaign actively.
The portfolio of John Milgrim, the highest-ranking new appointee in the Ryan administration, will include communications and new policy initiatives. Milgrim’s no new face to Ulster County, having worked first in Ulster County for the Middletown newspaper and then in Albany as bureau chief for the Ottaway papers. He then commuted from Ulster County to work in various communications, management and oversight positions in state government in Albany. In his first week at his new job in Kingston, Milgrim last week expressed happiness after 19 years at not having to make that daily Thruway commute any more.
The 37-year-old Ryan’s initial county appointee, to an assistant county executive’s post, was campaign worker and New Paltz Councilman Dan Torres, 29, who holds a master’s from Marist and worked for ex-county comptroller Elliott Auerbach and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.
Ryan has appointed veteran county health department official Vin Martello Director of Opioid Prevention Strategy, with a goal of cutting county opioid fatalities by half in two years. An award of a $2.5-million state grant through Columbia University and an additional state allocation of $216,000 will help the county meet that goal.
Another appointee is Assistant County Executive Anna Markowitz, who spent seven years on the advance team at the Obama White House. She previously founded a non-profit that specialized in educational enrichment program.
Former Marine Britany Dubner, who will be involved in outreach and strategic planning, will join the Ryan strategic planning team.
Tim Weidemann was promoted from a county economic development functionary to assistant deputy county executive and was given the impressive title of Director of Innovation. Replacing the Hein-created Division of Accountability, Compliance and Efficiency headed by Lisa Cutten, the Department of Innovation team presently consists of only of its leader. Torres explained to the Daily Freeman, a local newspaper, that his colleague would work with entities at various institutional levels, focusing on data and providing “a new way to evaluate what we’re doing.” The overall goal is to make county government more responsive and more responsible.
The Green New Deal program will pursue the goal of county-owned facilities achieving one hundred percent renewable energy by 2030 and increasing private conversions from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Various county departments will work together on action projects that improve energy efficiency and climate resilience.
A partnership involving Ryan, sheriff Juan Figueroa, the county Probation Department and other law-enforcement authorities will tackle the job of maximizing the rehabilitative and restorative elements of Ulster County’s criminal justice system.
It’s not yet clear how Ryan intends to go about growing and diversifying the county economy. He has a great interest in workforce training, and he’s been talking about infrastructure partnerships between the county and local governments.
Two obvious tasks await attention. One is the continuing in-depth evaluation of the performance of the various departments, a complex process that can involve connections to state agencies and independently elected county officials. The other involves systemic organizational change: disruption, innovation, engagement and transformation. An important consideration for Ryan’s appointments is whether they advance the accomplishment of one or more of his top five priorities.
Further appointments are likely in the near future, Milgrim has predicted