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Satish B. Mohan -- 17 months later Supervisor finds it hard to deliver on promises made when he was elected

On the night of his stunning election as Amherst supervisor, Satish B. Mohan was explaining how he planned to deal with opponents of his pledges to cut town taxes and spending.

"I will shame them," he said.

That was November 2005, and Mohan and scores of his supporters were celebrating in front of Amherst Town Hall.

Now, 17 months later, Mohan's clashes with other Town Board members have been well-documented. But his interactions with another key group -- town employees, especially unionized workers -- are less known and might be causing more damage.

*The town is missing out on at least $42,000 a month in savings because highway workers refuse to switch to Amherst's new health insurance provider. The union blames Mohan for the impasse, saying he refuses to agree to a formula for sharing the savings. So far, Amherst has lost out on more than $700,000.

*The Amherst Police Club -- which won a court battle against Mohan when he refused to hire three new police officers -- charged town leaders with bargaining in bad faith, and the two sides have resorted to mediation after failing to agree on a new labor contract after months of negotiations.

*When Mohan suggested the town could save money by eliminating the deputy or assistant administrators' jobs in some departments, Amherst's department managers began forming a union. Adopting the name Amherst Administrators Association, the group petitioned the state for the right to represent department managers and their deputies. But because the petition contained "procedural errors," a spokesman for the Public Employment Relations Board said, the union does not yet exist.

In some senses, it's an old story.

Reformers typically have a hard time making government work, says Canisius College political science professor Michael V. Haselswerdt.

"The way we set up government in this country, it requires people to talk to each other and work together. And a reformer comes in as a white knight and runs into the fact that not a lot of other people share that," he said.

Even in the best of circumstances it's difficult to make changes, Haselswerdt said. And there's another problem about what voters expect.

"Usually what stands out is that expectations for change are pretty high, given the campaigns that precede the election of a reformer. And it's just very difficult to meet those expectations," he said.

Of course, a reformer always has the option to ask voters to elect officials that are more friendly to his ideas, Haselswerdt said.

"I just think [Mohan] is misguided on a lot of issues, and he gets involved in things that he should not," said Edward Guzdek, head of the Amherst Police Club.

Guzdek and others critical of Mohan say they know town workers who are devastated by low morale and fears for their jobs and futures, but, "They are afraid to speak up."

In contrast, he said his union role protects him from any job retaliation.

Mohan responded: "This is the environment they want to create so [as] to shut me up."

Regardless of which view is correct, low morale and fears of future job losses or cutbacks in town government seem to have affected many Amherst employees since Mohan's election, but few of them speak publicly.

Because of confidentiality rules, Mohan said he would not discuss personnel matters. But he said it was department heads who suggested to him that they do not need deputies.

Most of the complaints are from "a defensive point of view," Mohan said, adding: "We have made no changes . . . but they are afraid that we will do something."

Some critics also say Mohan distrusts key longtime town employees and prefers instead to take control of the town's everyday affairs.

The pattern was set when Mohan spent much of his first week in office signing hundreds of checks to town workers and vendors. Critics complained that the supervisor has more important work to do, but Mohan said: "I believe in trust, and verify."

Political influence also complicates the picture.

Many town employees are active in political parties or know someone who is. A prime example is the Amherst Conservative Party, which for years has had a stronghold of supporters among the 157 Highway Department workers.

As a result, employees often have multiple layers of job protection, including political connections and civil service protections.

Mohan's election platform was hardly secret but was splashed across a series of large, often full-page campaign ads in The Buffalo News in the months leading up to the election.

Two months into his term, "Impeach Satish" bumper stickers began appearing on employee-owned vehicles parked outside Police Headquarters. Guzdek said that the police union was not involved in the protest but that individual town employees were expressing their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Guzdek and other critics say that Mohan is a darling of the local media and that the public service unions have been portrayed in a negative role.

"The feeling of our membership was . . . the way we're portrayed was we were all doing something wrong. We were these overpaid public employees. It was almost like we were robbing the system," Guzdek said. Not long after his victory, Mohan asked for a recess in labor talks between the town and unions until after he took office.

"He wanted to be in on all negotiations. He wanted to know what was going on, what was being bargained," said Christopher J. O'Neill, president of the Amherst Highway Employees Association.

But O'Neill said his problem then became how to get Mohan to return to the negotiating table. O'Neill sent three registered letters to the supervisor before receiving a response.

"So I had to go to the PERB and file a charge against him to force him to the table," O'Neill said. "During the [October] storm, I suspended negotiations because we had a job to do. We're there to do a job, and that comes first."

When talks finally resumed, Mohan took over as chief negotiator for the town, replacing Personnel Director Robert P. McCarthy.

But in contrast to McCarthy, an experienced, low-key negotiator who was on good terms with union leaders, Mohan "came in acting like a bull in a china shop," O'Neill said.

Mohan acknowledged the negotiations were delayed, but he declined to comment further, saying the two sides have a confidentiality agreement.

Mohan, with McCarthy at his side, is continuing to meet with the union, but O'Neill said the union will continue to hold out until Mohan agrees to a formula for sharing the savings from the town's new health insurance.

"We're perfectly willing to go to a single carrier, but we're not going to just give in. That's where the word negotiate comes into play," he said.

Others complain that Mohan, who is on leave from his job as a University at Buffalo engineering professor, often treats subordinates and volunteers serving the town like students.


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