Thursday, April 10, 2014

Let's talk money

It's nice to see an actual debate taking place over the mayoral salary. It was intellectually dishonest for the current mayor to give himself a significant raise in his first budget, expecting the fact that Trustee Rhoads made the suggestion to square the fact that he never mentioned it during his campaign. It was reprehensible for the board to reverse that raise in a surprise action late at night, which no one believed was not orchestrated (even the people who thought the raise a year earlier wasn't).

Having this conversation in public is a good idea. We all should know who is advocating because they like or dislike the current mayor, and whose arguments are rooted in a concern for the village.

You know what else would be good for political discourse? Not asking the Chamber of Commerce to moderate candidate events. They need to work with whoever wins, so they weed out questions that really need to be asked -- like whether a candidate is planning on budgeting a raise, or how one's personal relationship with another candidate might translate if they both shall win.

If we can't get our local paper to take on this task, how about the League of Women Voters?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Leading up to last night's Democratic caucus in New Paltz, I read so many polemics that I had to look the word it up make sure it really meant what I thought it did.  It did.  These attacks were lobbed at candidates I support, candidates I don't support, candidates I don't give a hoot about either way, and anyone perceived as having an opinion about anything, which could be inferred by as small an action as clicking a "like" button on Facebook.

This kind of communication accomplishes nothing of real value, of course.  In a community of this size, the people attacked regularly run into their attackers at My Market or Health-Carrot-Nutrition, making for awkward avoidance schemes.  Even if your candidates of choice win in an election, the wounds fester and lead to vengeance candidates being launched against them.

I am irritated to the point of ranting about this sort of thing, which any thoughtful person knows is a sure sign that I am as guilty as any of those there idiots.  It's irritating mostly because the people launching the attacks are desperate to shunt others into, well, "the other."  Two years ago some guy from Gardiner decided, based on my party registration alone, that I am a tool of planet-destroying evil, and still has no clue that I am a dirt-worshiping environmentalist who cares more about the environment than the majority of the present New Paltz Town Council.  He had to make me into the "other" because recognizing that people are complex makes polemics, and politics, harder.

What I'm waiting for is to be labeled part of the "Jason West cult" because I have, twice now, ripped into village board members known and unknown for nasty attacks.  Anyone who has mentioned the man's name around me in the last two years would quickly be disabused of that notion, or would be if their attack-mode brains could process more options than "yes" and "no."

I'm not the only target, and really I'm one of the least targets, but I'm an expert on me, so I'm the best example I have.  Of course, I spend less time pondering the impact of my words on others, so right now I'm going to rattle off a few thoughts that are decidedly not attacks.

  • Tom Nyquist has busted his butt making the bird sanctuary a gem.  If you haven't visited, you should.
  • I met Steve Auerbach for the first time last night.  He is thoughtful, well-spoken, and polite.
  • Bill Mulcahy draws political cartoons better than anyone in New Paltz, and expresses his views brilliantly in that format.  The New Paltz Times should pay him to do so.
  • If ever there is a serious threat to the environment, Susan Zimet is the kind of person I want in the trenches, because when there are battles and enemies and someone else calling the shots, no one can compare.
  • Jason West's knowledge of history and law should be cherished for the treasure they are.
  • Hector Rodriguez is an excellent parliamentarian.
Maybe we make out our neighbors to be pure evil because we feel bad voting against them otherwise, but we're grown-ups, and we live together.  Lying and polarizing is a short-term solution that makes for long-term problems.  Gossip and whisper campaigns are just as bad.  We need to recognize that all of our neighbors add something good to our community, and we need to be willing to look those neighbors in the eye and acknowledge when we don't agree.  

On Facebook, in the letters column, we are willing to speak our minds, but then we pretend that these aren't real life, and that those opinions we share have no impact.  They do.  If we would not say something to a person directly, we should not be typing it in a private email, or a public posting, or saying it to other people while clustered in the corner of our favorite wine bar.

New Paltz is a microcosm of this great nation of ours.  Let's try to remember that our community is filled with good, and that writing polemics is the very core of evil.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mayor West discloses he's bipolar . . . but to whom?

An article in the Times Herald-Record sports the ambiguous headline West discloses he suffers from bipolar disorder, which has caused several reactions of heartwarming support for his courageous admission around social media.  However, things are not what they seem.  The article states:

West sent an email to Village Board members Thursday, saying that he was diagnosed with the disorder in 2011.

He did not send an email to reporter Jeremiah Horrigan, nor did he post this information to Facebook, nor did he write a letter to the New Paltz Times.  What he did was explain to village board members why he was taking a leave of absence.

And somebody on that board shared the email with a reporter.

My feuds with Jason West are by no means private; he has been a real jerk to me without good reason, and he and I will never, ever be friends.  But this was a very low blow, and it offends me to the core.  I may not like the guy, but I like injustice a whole lot less.  That's why I scolded the village board for cutting his salary, even though I was offended by his raise.  That's why, when trustee Sally Rhoads whispered to me before that village board meeting that West had worked against my wife and I getting our sewer back, I dismissed it as the petty politics it was.  (I'm actually sure she was telling the truth, but Mrs. Rhoads is a strong woman, and if she'd cared about my family's welfare rather than its value as a political pawn, she could have overcome his resistance.)

We live in an purportedly enlightened society, but not so enlightened that some board member didn't think that the mayor having a mental illness would be news.  Point of fact, it's none of our damned business what the man struggles with; he can either do the job or he can't, and we get once chance every four years to evaluate our opinion on the matter.

As someone who has struggled with clinical depression for most of my life, I know that people are going to look at him differently.  He will see it, even if the people doing it don't.  We have a tendency to overcompensate when we don't understand a disability, which any chronic illness is, and it's even worse if that disability is invisible.

Bipolar disorder can well explain someone being a mind-blowingly rude jerk, just like depression can.  I've certainly ostracized my share of people when my chemistry is out of whack, but it's still my responsibility, and if I want to mend those bridges, I still need to do it the hard way.  Being bipolar doesn't excuse West for bad behavior, but it sure as hell isn't an excuse to treat him like crap, either.

I sincerely hope I didn't vote for the lowlife who told the press about this, but with my voting record, I probably did.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Lawsuit, here we come!

The village board loves a law suit.  Makes me glad that my tax dollars are going to attorneys rather than, oh, building a new sewer system.

This time, it's about Mayor West's salary.  A brief recap on that subject:

In 2007, after unsuccessfully pushing to get his salary boosted to $40,000 a year, Jason West was ousted as mayor after making a name for himself nationwide.

Last year, the village board decided to give themselves raises, for a job well done.  Trustee Rhoads swears that any pay changes must be done at budget time, but she has yet to explain to me why none of the candidates the prior year had broached the subject.  That Rhoads suggested it was, in large part, why it went through.

This past April, West asked for another 5-digit increase, and instead, the board pulled the rug out from under him.  He must have forgotten that he's only ever gotten raises when someone else does the asking.  I think he'll remember that now.

I joined with others, mostly supporters of the mayor, in denouncing the pay cuts which, like the raises the year before, I feel were morally reprehensible.  Let the voters decide if you're worth some extra cash, or deserve a cut, by proposing the changes before the election.  If you want to change someone's pay during their term, it should require a referendum, I believe.

He may irritate as many people as he ensorcels, but West is a studied man, so it's no surprise he found documents suggesting that the pay cut was illegal.  The village attorney was asked to chime in and, not surprisingly, found cases to support the pay cut.  This is what happens when people write laws to their benefit:  elected officials cover their asses, instead of protecting their constituents.

Early this afternoon, I encouraged the board via email to seek another comptroller's opinion.  The ones West produced referred to town officials, and they need one specifically addressing villages.  And I suggested that they ask about pay raises, as well as cuts, because I certainly don't expect West to go there on his own.

Instead, in an executive session which did not include the mayor, they did nothing.  "I was told a majority of the Trustees would rather have a lawsuit," he reported on Facebook.

I am not at all surprised.  After all, I pleaded with the board, and the mayor, to get the DPW to dig me a trench for a new sewer line, after an illegally-approved subdivision led to a house being built on my old one.  I offered to pay the three grand for the plumber, and wanted the village to dig and fill in the trench.  Instead, they told me too bad, so sad, and my wife and I had to sue.  Rest assured, the entire debacle cost village taxpayers far more than it would have to simply fix the problem the village created, but some members of the board chose to act out of spite, rather than protect the community.

A "majority" of the board, if there were four in the room, means three votes, correct?  So who voted what, I wonder?  And will there be accounting of how much this childishness is costing us?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Resident scandal

Jason West, it turns out, lives across the street from the village he is tasked with running.  It's the latest chapter in the continuing story I like to call Game of Chairs, until I realize that I'm not funny enough to be making up names for things.

The drama does have all the elements of fun political fight, though:  a charismatic mayor who inspires strong feelings one way or the other, a cadre of retirees seeking a return to the glory days when they were in power, a district attorney on the case, dueling legal arguments, elected officials too focused on their dislike of each other to ever get around to governing . . . who likes popcorn?

I've never met Ms Danskin -- I wouldn't know who she was if she cut me off with a shopping cart in Stop & Shop.  I do know that she counts herself among a group of people who never forgave Mr West for winning his 2003 election, people who have sought ways to get rid of the guy ever since.  And he's practically gone out of his way to give them the chance, it seems:  breaking the law early in his first term, getting ousted after only one term, fighting consolidation with the town . . . and now, by leaving the village entirely, albeit "temporarily," in his words.

Residency requirements seem like they shouldn't be too tough to enforce, but once you ask lawyers to write the very laws they will one day argue in court, nothing is simple.  An attorney I was once friends with taught me that if you don't want to have to commit to something, put it in writing.  Simple laws could be simply enforced, but time and again we've seen that the residency requirements for elected officials are slippery.

  • Brian Kimbiz wandered off for three months, justifying it by not taking pay, and the board found that booting him would be more trouble that it's worth.
  • Stewart Glenn bought a new house in Gardiner, and rented an apartment in the one he sold until his term expired.
  • Susan Zimet had her house for sale before she ever ran for her present stint as supervisor, and uses an apartment in the village to fulfill her residency requirement.
Common sense says that a person either lives here or doesn't, but common law is an entirely unrelated concept.  So the desire to chase after the mayor, when these other recent examples have been largely unchallenged, is clearly fueled by a dislike of the man or his policies.

Okay, I get that.  Mr West has described himself as impatient and short-tempered, qualities which have inspired no small number of allies to abandon him, at least temporarily.  I share those qualities with him, meaning that my clash with him was all but inevitable.  If you're a short-fused jerk in public office, you make enemies.  And if you make enemies of a landlord, and then move into a place outside of the village, expect your enemy to find out about it.

But the extra wrinkle here is the dimension of voter residency.  That's the part that actually got the Mr West targeted.  Voter law, says the village attorney, hinges on whether the relocation is temporary or not.  That's why we have absentee ballots, and mechanisms to allow homeless people to vote.  He signed candidate petitions, and voted, using his old Church Street address.  According to at least one attorney, that's okay.

On the other hand, we have the argument that using his old address is tantamount to fraud.  If and when he returns to a village address, it won't be that one, so isn't it a lie to claim he lived there when he didn't?

This is where we return to fun with attorneys, the game that everyone not wearing a Brooks Brothers suit loses.  West has, finally, retained his own counsel; based on past history and the mayor's current pay level I suspect it's a pro bono arrangement.  The village attorney is likely to continue to represent the village clerk and board, so he will probably be diverting some of his tax-funded time to this issue.  The district attorney's office, also paid for through taxes, will also be devoting energy to this investigation, which will surely take up the time of a judge or two along the way.

My guess is that, a year from now, we will know if Mr West will be allowed to complete his term of office or not.  What a utter waste of my tax dollars.

To Ms Danskin, Mrs Rhoads, Mr Dungan, and the many, many people who wish to see Jason West removed from office:  there is a tried-and-true mechanism to achieve your goal, called democracy.  Please use it.  I completely sympathize with your desire to get Mr West out of this village, and I understand that he keeps giving you opportunities to try again, but seriously, stop it.  This is wasting my money on a legal case that is by no means clear, because we keep letting lawyers write the laws.  I'm sorry you haven't gotten him out of office permanently, but if you'd find a decent candidate, I and many others would line up to help.  But don't grind my village government to a halt, and pick my pocket, because you don't like him.  Be a grown-up, and use the electoral process to unseat him.  If you can't get behind a single candidate in 2015, maybe it's time to find a new hobby.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Loss of the town web site

The town of New Paltz web site.  Wow.

How many years ago was it revamped?  Not many.  It was created in Joomla, a hard-to-learn system that no town employee ever really mastered, and even before it was hacked it was woefully out of date.

Now there are plans to spend something like $6,500 to make a site in Drupal, another system that, like Joomla, can be made to do anything, unless the thing you want it to do is be easy to update without having to relearn a lot of complex steps every time.

I worked on a Drupal site, and because I was paid to do it, I learned how, but it was hard for the non-techie.  I was once talked into allowing my own page be written in Joomla when I really wanted WordPress, and it was so ridiculously complex that I mostly abandoned it because it took me over an hour to post anything.  Kind of like the state of the town's site -- no one had the time or patience to post content.

Our supervisor found a company that specializes in municipal web sites, and has agreed to spend that money, plus a handsome amount for annual maintenance.

Meanwhile, the supervisors of Rosendale (already complete) and Marbletown are using a company based in Bloomingburg that's charging about $2,500 to make a town site that has a near-zero learning curve when it comes to adding new content.  And no annual maintenance fees, just a modest hosting fee, which the town could elect to pay to someone else, but will have to pay regardless.

I believe our supervisor, and her predecessor, failed to engage in a test of "what is it like to change a page or add a new one?"  Web designers, specialists as they are, invariably underestimate the complexity because they do this stuff every day.  No one ever asks, for example, a deputy town clerk or clerical assistant in the building department to spend a day trying to update the thing -- these people tend to be involved in the layout and collection of the information, which is very important, but the ongoing work is even more so.

It's not my intent to use this as a way to trash the supervisor -- I think it's a grave error, but one that many people make because they do not understand the many layers of the process.  It's unfortunate that she decided to spend so much more money than our neighbors to get a site that will likely be too hard to use for most employees, but I really don't think it was vindictive on her part, or manipulative on the part of the developer.  But I do not expect the newest, overpriced version of the web site to do much better than its prior incarnation.

When it comes to sites which must be updated by busy people for whom complex computer skills are not the priority, it's best to keep things simple.  This site will surely look snazzy and may well be easy to navigate, but I predict that updating it will soon become lost knowledge, kept only by the developer, and we will not see very much in the way of current information.

Is it too late to find another option?

Edit:  according to the comment by user Josh, I reversed things.  The old site was written in Joomla, the new will be in Drupal; my original text switched the two.  I have corrected the error, which was caused by trying to keep track of two hard-to-use platforms with similar-sounding names.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Anywhere but New Paltz?

The topic of the moment in New Paltz is . . . where do our elected leaders live?

It's not exactly a new topic, but it was hashed over again at the May 15 New Paltz Village Board meeting.  (The entire meeting is four and half hours, but this link is cued up for when the action begins.)

Take a look at the whole section, if you're interested.  If you're not, skip past Mrs. Rhoads explaining that she didn't challenge Mr. West's right to vote by asking the Board of Elections to have the sheriff check it out.  Zip over Mr. West explaining that his lease ran out and that he's been living out of the village since mid-January.  Ignore Mr Kimbiz using this as an opportunity to get offended at the very idea, and Mr West pointing out that he's lived outside of the village for less time than Mr Kimbiz was out west, not attending meetings or otherwise doing the work he was elected to do.

Actually, that's a good place to start paying attention -- it's right here.  If you think smackdowns are appropriate for public meetings, it's a good one.  And right afterwards, listen carefully as Mr Eriole, village attorney, and Mr West explain the residency laws, and exactly what the village attorney was asked to do.

First of all, the distinction between one's right to vote as a resident, and one's requirement to be a resident in order to serve in a public office, are quite muddled.  It may seem like the legal standards are the same from this conversation, but that isn't likely.

In fact, from what Mr Eriole explains, he consulted with Mr West about what he should do to respond to a potential challenge to his right to vote.  His right to vote, not serve.  In other words, Mr West consulted the village attorney -- who is paid by village taxes to advise on issues affecting village government -- about his personal enfranchisement.

The fact that this same attorney told me close to a year ago that village resources couldn't be used to benefit individual residents boggles my mind, but I suppose attorneys will do what their clients tell them to do.

So what we actually have here is our mayor admitting that he used village resources to explore his ability to vote.  Perhaps Mr Eriole should set up a table at the fire house, and advise any resident how to proceed in the case of a challenge.  Or perhaps Mr West shouldn't be using the village attorney for personal problems, and Mr Eriole, admitted to the bar in New York, Connecticut, the Federal and Supreme Courts should have known better and advised Mr West as such.

Despite the egregious lack of judgment Mr West shows here, I agree that we have a trend towards elected officials moving on out.  I'm tired of loopholes, like people with enough money to rent an apartment doing so to establish residency.  Loopholes, in my opinion, happen because most legislators are lawyers, and lawyers are trained to build in loopholes that they can they argue in court.

We need to get some solid, common-sense, intelligent, educated, non-attorney legislators in every level of government.  Attorneys are marvelous arguing the points of law, and I have been grateful for mine every time I have ever needed one, but they should not be writing the very laws that their colleagues then argue in court.  (I'm also not so sure about attorneys as judges, but my resolve is not so strong on that point and I would be more easily swayed on that count.)

Until that happens, we can have people like Susan Zimet, Stewart Glenn, and Jason West moving to anywhere but New Paltz and still serving, so long as the ambiguous standards are successfully argued in court.  But what Mr West did, essentially coopting the village attorney for his personal use, is clearly unacceptable.  That's exactly why I resigned from the ethics commission -- I was concerned one of these five people would do something stupid and I would have to judge them.  Now, it's not my problem to judge, but I will continue to ask questions.