Onondaga County Kontroler’s Office


In the year 6, Chinese candidates for political office had to take civil service examinations.  Currently, levels 10-15 are clerks; level 1 is premier.  The theory behind civil service is, first, that it will protect government employees from being fired every time the elected offices change political parties and, second, that it will enable the government to hire the most qualified workers without regard to patronage, thereby assuring the taxpayers that they are getting their money’s worth.  A system is only as good as the people running it.  If corrupt politicians are running it then it won’t be a very good system.

After the death of my fiancé in 1974, I realized that I needed to focus on a job with security, benefits and a pension.  Since I was unable to get a college degree because of my learning disability, I turned to civil service.  Civil service testing is run by the state, with the exception of the entry level typist I position, which is run locally.  The typist I test consisted of a short set of questions and a typing test, administered weekly.  The Personnel Department would rank the successful candidates, certify the list, and send it to any department heads that had vacancies in the job title.

The test was easy, I did well, and I soon became employed in a temporary position in the Onondaga County Comptroller’s Office.  I was not temporary; the position was.  In order to create a new position, a department head might have to go through the legislature or some budgetary process, but about all it took to create a temporary position was being on good terms with Ned Gusty, the director of Personnel.  And since the comptroller, David Elleman, wrote the checks for all county business, everybody stayed on pretty good terms with him.  Not to mention that the comptroller is an elected official and what politician doesn’t stay on good terms with everybody?

So I worked as one of two receptionists in the Comptroller’s Office, where it is pronounced kontroler.  Every morning around ten o’clock, Dave Elleman would bid us farewell and go off to the cafeteria in the Public Safety Building where he would meet the other department heads for coffee.  In the afternoon, he would go out for a long lunch, come back smelling of liquor, put his arm around me and tell me jokes that I didn’t think were funny, then shut himself in his office, presumably to take a nap.

The office was run by Richard Sheeran, deputy controller.  Dick was a pretty decent guy—reasonable, fair-minded, somber but with a wry sense of humor.  One day he called me into his office, which had glass walls from the waist up, to assign me the task of getting his bookshelves organized.  We sat down on the floor, out of sight of the work force, and he explained the organizational system.  Then he continued to silently sit there, finally wondering aloud if he might just remain there the rest of the day.  What boss hasn’t had days like that?

Any time anybody spent any money for the county, paperwork would be submitted to the Comptroller’s Office where it would be verified, charged to an account, and sent for payment.  Periodically, two plates with authorized signatures would be sent out to the printer and returned with the paychecks for all county employees.  The red-haired Italian lady in the corner office would sort the checks and dispense them to runners from each department, who would take the checks back to be handed out to employees.

The head auditor, Bob, was a man who said nothing but noticed everything.  His desk was across from Dave Elleman’s office.  The head accountant was a genteel lady who never got upset about anything.  When I asked her how she maintained her pleasant demeanor, she smiled gently and pleasantly and said, “Every day on my lunch hour I go across the circle to Mass at the cathedral.”  We all find ways of coping.  I, in addition to answering the phone, greeting visitors and typing letters, processed a lot of travel vouchers because the accountant liked the way I did them.  For example, someone traveled outside the county on business then submitted a voucher claiming breakfast the day of travel.  I’d call the airport, find out what time his plane left and disallow the charge.  There’s no need to lie and rip off the taxpayers.

One day I processed a monthly mileage claim from a woman who worked in the Dept. of Social Services and did home visits.  Her first trip every morning and her last trip every afternoon had the same address.  I checked and found that she was billing the taxpayers for driving between her home and the office.  Nice work if you can get, but you can’t get it if Annie’s checking your claim, so I looked further.  Her first charge every afternoon turned out to be McDonald’s or other restaurants; we were paying for her to go to lunch.  I flagged the voucher and took it back to the accountant.

A few weeks later, I asked the accountant how that had played out.  She smiled beatifically and said that would be a question for Mr. Sheeran.  When I asked him, he laughed and replied that when the woman was called on the carpet of the DSS commissioner, it turned out that the lengthy mileage sheets she was writing up every month weren’t even for her own car.  She was driving a county car and refueling at the county gas pump.  Was she fired?  No.  Was she required to pay back the money she’d stolen?  No.  She was reprimanded and sent back to work.  Was she somebody’s daughter or wife?  Who knows.

The daughter of the Van Duyn Nursing Home’s director worked in the Comptroller’s Office on her summer vacation.  She wanted a job, her dad talked to somebody, who talked to somebody else and there she was.  She was a nice girl; I don’t remember what work she did.  The girl who worked next to me as co-receptionist was the daughter of an old school classmate of Dick Sheeran’s.  One day she came out of Sheeran’s office and said to me, “You’re next.”  (To be continued)

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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