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Hire carefully ; Lesson from the Karla Thomas affair is to value competence over politics

Now that Mayor Byron W. Brown has finally parted ways with Karla L. Thomas, his frequently inept political appointee, the disgraceful episode should serve as a cautionary tale for any chief executive who prefers to hire well-worn political hacks over proven administrators.

Brown's practice is to promise a national search for key City Hall vacancies and then give the jobs to the folks who help his campaign efforts, Police Chief Daniel Derenda being one shining example. Thomas was another.

With Thomas, the mayor should have been sufficiently embarrassed as he placed her in a protected position only to watch her fail miserably on the public stage. That forced him to fire her but only after enduring weeks of hearings in which the warts of his administration were fully displayed.

Note to Thomas: Thanks just the same for pulling back the curtain on Deputy Mayor Steven Casey as City Hall's Machiavellian master, and for showing that you got your job the old-fashioned way, through political connections to the man in charge more than anything else.

She told a story that finely illustrates City Hall's patronage culture and her belief that the culture should prevail even for an appointee in over her head. Figuring that Brown had turned on her after one colossal blunder, she knocked on the door to his home one night to confront him. "Byron looked at me, and he said: 'I can't help you,' " Thomas recalled during the hearing held to determine whether Brown could fire her. "And I said: 'B, what do you mean you can't help me? What do you mean? I've been with you 21 years. What do you mean?' And he said: 'Karla, I can't help you.' "

By "21 years" Thomas was referring to their association in the Grassroots political organization that launched the mayor's career in government and politics.

Of course, that bitter conversation on the mayor's doorstep occurred after Thomas and her staff managed to continue paying health insurance premiums for 170 dead retirees, despite warnings and a Brown directive issued a year earlier to clean up her department. It ended up costing taxpayers about $840,000.

Perhaps Brown's single-biggest mistake was to place Thomas in a protected post, that of human resources commissioner. Such personnel posts often come with a state-required term of office, six years or so, so they overlap administrations and prevent the director from being too, well, political. In short, it's tough to fire them.

In practice, the personnel directors who serve chief executives in New York's local governments are paid to manipulate the civil service law so the boss can hire whomever he pleases while appearing to comply with the rules. Before being hired at City Hall, Thomas rounded out her resume by serving in the top personnel job at the Erie County Water Authority. Need we say more?

It's tough to find a silver lining in this story. Even with Brown trying to fire Thomas, she remained in her $91,000-a-year job until she had her termination hearing, and he could legally justify cutting her loose. Maybe the mayor has learned a lesson. We'll see when he hires a replacement. Some Common Council members are suggesting a real national search.

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