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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New Paltz village elections 2013

Cohen 124
Rocco 335
Kerr 180
Rotzler 252
Serdah 62
Kerrotzler 2 (not counted)
3 other votes cast not counted.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A gadfly is not the same as a candidate

I'm a gadfly -- I poke, I question, I wonder about flaws in the New Paltz political class.  This is not a unique pastime, and plenty of people with a lot more smarts than yours truly have embraced the hobby.  Some, myself included, have even run for office in the hopes that we could speak truth to power from within the power base itself.  And that is where most local gadflies fall flat.

When you're a gadfly, by definition you focus on the negative.  What's the point of questioning something if it works and everyone is happy with it?  This is a dangerous mindset, because you only get noticed when you're complaining.  People in New Paltz mock the gadfly that they disagree with, or call him rude or bombastic, or stop returning his calls.  Some of us are well-qualified for the role because we're already rude and abrasive, but others have those traits thrust upon them.

Being a gadfly isn't a terrible basis for becoming a political candidate, but once you make the decision to run for office, New Paltz voters are pretty clear that they want you to switch gears.  Complaining about the opposition is nothing new, because at least 75% of the politically engaged citizens are doing that already.  Sure, a small sliver of people who hate your opponent will nod their heads and pull the lever on that basis alone, but New Paltz voters often want something more.

What they want is substance.  What is your vision for the office?  (Saying that you think having a "vision" for position X is a load of pretentious crap counts as a vision.)  Do you have any thoughts on the problems facing the incumbent?  (This is a popular question, but one I don't give much weight to, because armchair quarterbacks don't have enough information to make meaningful decisions.)  What do you feel the big challenges ahead are?  What attributes do you possess that will help you tackle these still-unknown issues?

Contrasting oneself to one's opponent is necessary, but it's part of a bigger package.  You can't sell yourself as the "everything sucks guy" and expect to win the votes of more than a couple score of curmudgeons.  Moreso than the country at large, people in this community are thoughtful and engaged.  In 2011 two candidates got lackluster returns largely because they focused too much on what was wrong with their opponent and not enough on succinctly summarizing their own assets.

There are always going to be people that cast a vote based on gut, or personal relationships, or the malleability of the candidate.  I'm not one of them; I've voted against friends and for people who are self-righteous jerks.  My personal feelings about you have little to do with your ability to serve the community.  My sense is that New Paltz has a lot higher percentage of folks who, like me, vote based on qualifications other than the ability to be a gadfly.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The enemy of my enemy

"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer," we are told, as well as, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  Nothing like old proverbs to heighten suspicion and paranoia.

This week, I was greeted warmly by a village trustee as I arrived at the board meeting on Wednesday.  After I delivered a joint statement about why it's not okay to manipulate pay for political reasons, I wonder how many of the trustees now consider me an "enemy."

The fact that I don't believe in intra-term pay changes for elected officials, even when it involves sticking it to a mayor who decided I had categorized him "friend" and decided he'd rather have me in the "enemy" column, apparently puzzled them.  I'd been opposed to last year's pay hikes, so maybe they thought that I'd agree that two wrongs make a right.  After all, I was told, they have to set the pay during the budget process.

No one has explained to me why they have to change pay for officials whose terms aren't expiring at the end of the current budget year, though, or why we don't have a law expressly forbidding that practice.  (I think I differ from some of those who decried the pay cuts in that, if they had only applied to the two trustee seats with terms expiring this year, I would have had no objection.)

But I'm digressing when should be just placing my thoughts in context.  My theme for today is enemies.

I understand better where I erred with Jason West, in that helps me understand all these petty political fights a bit better.  My insight comes from studying the Delphic maxims, wisdom which has been handed down from the ancient Greeks.  One of the maxims can be translated as:
"If you are a stranger, act like one."
The Hellenes considered people to be friends, enemies, or strangers.  The latter were treated with cautious courtesy, such that a stranger knocking on the door would be given food, drink, and a chance to wash up before they were even asked their purpose.  Friends were people you could trust, and enemies had interests which were counter to your own.

I didn't see it at the time, but I gave West the impression that I thought we were friends, when we were strangers.  I try to be kind and courteous whenever I can, always guarding against the inner Long Islander who is more than capable of being . . . well, let's call it forthright and outspoken.  Maybe I tried too hard not to come off as a jerk, and in his mind, tipped it the other way.  Presuming friendship too quickly is a mistake, as is treating someone as an enemy when it's undeserved.  Both happened here.

That kind of balancing act -- determining if we are friends, enemies, or simply strangers -- happens all the time.  That village trustee, who greeted me so warmly this past Wednesday night?  That trustee expressed gratitude that I had a sewer line again . . . after saying nothing publicly to help that happen.  Is that silence the action of a friend, or simply a stranger?

Now, I may be categorized by some of the trustees as an enemy because I told them that I disagreed with them on an issue, and I did it even though the main victim of their actions hasn't treated me with the courtesy that any village resident should expect of his mayor.

That's because I am loathe to classify someone as an enemy myself (a lesson that didn't come quickly), and I prefer to get people off that list as quickly as possible.  I'm even more reluctant to consider someone a friend.

Imagine how politics in New Paltz might function if we looked at each other as strangers, rather than as friends and enemies.  Strangers can't betray one another, because we are guarded against them.  Likewise, we don't presume strangers are up to something, so we are more likely to judge their actions and ideas on their own merits, rather than on our bitter, personal histories.

It would make it trickier for the popularity contest we call election day, but I really can't see any downside for the community if we treated each other with guarded courtesy for a change.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Politics hits village paychecks

In a surprise move last Wednesday night, the New Paltz village board voted to return trustee and mayoral salaries to the levels they were a year ago.  What's amazing is that the reasons for doing so were even worse than the ones that justified voting themselves a raise in the first place.

Check out video of the meeting, which I have cued up to start at 1:55:30, which is when the discussion begins.  Then come on back for some context and analysis.

Recall that back in 2006, after getting a raise from $8,000 to $25,000, Jason West was rebuffed when he asked for the job to be defined as full-time, with a $40,000 salary and benefits.  He expressed at the time that he would have to go back to painting houses, and the village would not get as much of him as it needed.

Somehow, it survived.  West lost an election, and then won the next.  Apparently unaware that the job description and pay rate was the same as it had been, the returned mayor did recall how heavily his request to a second large raise had factored into his defeat, so he got trustee Sally Rhoads to make the pitch for raises all around a year into his new term.

At the time, I denounced the idea of midterm raises, as did some trustees.  Stewart Glenn expressed then, and this past week, the same argument I did:  elected officials know how much the job pays when they're running for it, so they should either put the idea of a raise into their campaign platform, or defer any increase until past the next election.  (A comment on the post linked at the beginning of this paragraph claims that West stated publicly in 2011 that he would neither seek nor accept an increase in pay, but I haven't confirmed that.)

Which brings us to this week, when four trustees voted to strip themselves and the mayor of last year's boost for the coming year, and knock the big job back to a part-time position.  Last year the arguments for the the raises had to do with attracting the right sort of people, acknowledging how hard the jobs are (our village board meets at three or more times a month and spend far more hours doing their jobs than I have ever understood), and so forth.

But this time around, in voting to roll back the reasons, the effectively said it was because they all think Jason West is a lazy jerk.

I'm going to put my cards on the table here:  I don't like Jason West.  I supported his return to office after six months of questioning him to see if he was a better man for his years off, but soon thereafter he decided he didn't have the time to talk to me about village business . . . despite having appointed me to a volunteer board.  When I called him on it, he likened me to a stalker, and when my sewer line was destroyed by village incompetence, he told me to get a port-a-potty.

I read Pride and Politics, Erin Quinn's book about the same-sex weddings (which is apparently out of print), and it was obvious that West did the right thing for the wrong reasons:  he wanted to officiate at a friend's wedding, plain and simple.  To help those friends, he told the village attorney for find a legal justification for marrying them.  Because I'm not a friend, when my family needed help, he told the village attorney to handle me.  (In the end, that decision cost the village close to $9,000, when all I wanted was a couple of days for the DPW guys to put back in what the planning board had illegally allowed to be taken out.)

So as someone who doesn't like Jason West and doesn't think New Paltz needs a man like him, let me state clearly:  the village board was wrong to cut Jason West's salary.  It was wrong for two big reasons:

  1. Just like a raise, it may be legal to push the cut through mid-term, but it's completely inappropriate.  Don't change the terms of the employment contract, period.  It's nice to see it rolled back because it was the height of hubris to pass the raise in the first place, but who on earth is going to run for a job if they are committed to four years and have no clue how much they're going to make each year?  Running for office is a balancing act:  can I afford what the position pays, and is it a reasonable trade-off for the power I will wield?  Candidates need to be able to make that determination.
  2. It's immature.  I plan on voting against West in 2015, but I don't spit in his face when I meet him on the street.  That's what the board has done, because they don't like him.  He has resisted consolidation efforts, almost certainly to protect his own job, but he's raised perfectly valid points along the way.  If you didn't know who he was when you voted for him, like me, then you'll just have to act like an adult and put up with him for another two years.
Incidentally, this problem is by no means just a village issue.  Sue Zimet shouldn't have gotten a pay raise, either, and when Mike Nielson got one as highway superintendent back in 2010, he sent them a letter telling them to take it back, saying in part, "When I ran for my current position I understood the length of term and compensation provided. Bearing that in mind I respectfully request that the salary of the Superintendent of Highways remain at the current level for the entirety of my current term."

Nielson's letter was never discussed at any public meeting, and his request was ignored.

Nielson also pointed out all of the arguments regarding attracting the best people to the job, and in fact suggested that a higher salary for that position was appropriate . . . for the next term.  That was the only time I have seen an elected official in this town who really cared more about the community than his own political future.  I really hope we can find a way to attract more like him.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Resolving to do . . . SOMETHING

Hector Rodriguez must really be pining for the days when being minority whip of the Ulster County Legislature meant something.  He remembers when the legislative branch ran the show, before that pesky county charter gave a lot of that power to the newly-minted executive branch.  But rather than returning to grade-school social studies lessons to learn what representative are supposed to do (craft legislation, provide a check against the power of the executive), he's spending his time on "memorializing resolutions" designed to create headlines in an election year.

To be fair, most of what the legislature does these days is in the form of resolutions, and a good deal of them are of no legal consequence.  The best-publicized of these was February's anti-SAFE Act resolution, which drew a huge crowd and no small amount of criticism for spending taxpayer money on holding the hearing at UPAC, when Ulster County has no official role in gun-control policy.  That dog-and-pony show came fast on the heels of a Democrat-backed one supporting the new state law, which died a quick death.

Despite the fact that the gun-control resolution was the most expensive, not to mention most visible, in recent memory, there was some justification given for it.  The SAFE Act was passed, like so many state laws, in the dead of night and without any time for public input or meaningful debate.  Legislative Terry Bernardo claimed she wanted to give people a voice in that process, and a number of other counties in the state have done the same.  The people who showed up for that event largely derided anyone who supported stronger laws, even a woman whose son had been shot in the street, but they had their say.

But Mr. Rodriguez has taken politics to a new level of pointless, by crafting a resolution which calls for something which had already happened.  If his measure had passed committee and the full legislature, it would have resulted, I'm assuming, in a strongly-worded letter to the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency telling them to cut off tax breaks to Skate Time 209, owned by Chairman Bernardo and her husband, Len.

The IDA, I'm guessing, would have sent a letter back saying, "Do you read the papers?"

Background on the Bernardo/IDA kerfuffle

The IDA, the same body considering a payment in lieu of taxes for the Park Point project, granted tax breaks to Skate Time 209 back in 2004.  When Len Bernardo ran for county executive in 2007, Mike Hein ran him over the coals about not living up to the jobs promises made for the rink.  It was purely political, targeting just that one business, and it worked; Hein won the election.

Since then, for a variety of reasons including having a lot of free time during the recession and pressure from the state, the IDA has performed a review of every single active application to see if it's living up to expectations.  The Bernardos' business was one of those caught in the net.  IDA members say the rink promised 26 jobs, and the Bernardos say they "projected that many.  They also missed their filing deadline this year, so they aren't providing proper documentation.  TLB Enterprises, the actual corporation, was asked to voluntarily give back future savings of about $8,000 or have all of its remaining tax breaks cancelled.  The Bernardos rejected the offer and their tax breaks were yanked.

Litigation is almost certain, and the betting money is saying that the Bernardos will win in court, but lose in the court of public opinion.

So why this resolution?

Memorializing resolutions, as I've said, are always symbolic.  Our county legislature can't change state gun laws, or keep a mosque from being built somewhere in New York City, or even tell the IDA what to do.  If you agree with one, you say it's about sending a message.  If you disagree, you call it politics and say it's a waste of time.

In this particular case, the resolution is beyond pointless.  The IDA has already taken the action that Mr. Rodriguez is calling for.  What message are you trying to send, when it's a fait accompli?

It's simple:  no one on the streets of District 20 has a clue what Hector Rodriguez is doing to pull his paycheck, and he needs to bolster name recognition in advance of November.  Instead of studying the charter of learning what role a legislature is supposed to perform, he is opting for political masturbation.  There's nothing wrong with masturbation, but I'd prefer he not do it with taxpayer money.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Missing the (Park) Point

One of the many "Tax Park Point" signs around town.
New Paltz, whose residents positively beam when they can collaborate on a common goal, but at the same time are often so eager to fight that they will dress each other down for agreeing poorly, is missing a golden opportunity to bridge a longstanding gulf.

Signs protesting the Park Point project cropped up seemingly overnight this past weekend, and after reading so much about my neighbors' feelings online and in the paper, I was interested in knowing what it was all about.

The website on the signs,, points to a petition to the IDA asking that this mammoth project not be given a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) instead of paying based on its assessed value.  Woodland Pond, the senior community which was built in a wetland and pays pennies on the dollar of its assessed value, and yet continually cries poverty, is a recipient of a PILOT agreement, which is typically awarded with the reasoning that whatever project is being built will bring in enough jobs and economic activity that the deep discount will offset the loss in property taxes.

I've had a number of people point out that the petition contains grammatical and factual errors and misleading information, and some of them won't sign because of that.  For example, taxing this project won't actually add a million dollars to the school's budget.  School districts and other property-tax authorities decide how much money they need, and then it get divided among us landowners based on how much the town assessor says our homes and businesses are worth.  So an extra million would save the rest of us a few bucks.

It's the savings that are key, here, because the petition is being championed by (gasp!) local landlords.  Property taxes are a big deal for landlords, because they are harder to get around paying.  Income tax deductions are plentiful, and the unscrupulous landlord who collects rent in cash and doesn't report it saves even more, although I imagine at a much higher risk of being audited.

So the group of people which actively opposed the middle school renovations are now arguing in favor of the children.  It bothers some people, but I say, "Who cares what their motives are?"

New Paltz is a community of politically-active intellectuals.  That means that no good deed goes unpunished, because no matter the idea, someone and their friends will think it's terrible and fight you on it, tooth and nail.  Republicans and Democrats.  Village and town.  Landlords and homeowners.  Students and residents.  Farmers and cowhands.  We are always drawing lines and looking for things to fight about, and for me at least, it's tiring.

In fact, I'm getting tired right now just thinking about how I will get taken down a peg for this view.

What matters is that, at this point in time, the bulk of concerned citizens of New Paltz don't believe that Park Point deserves a PILOT.  It's an opportunity for collaboration, but anti-Park Point activist told me, "That ship has sailed."  I urge that friend, and others who are hesitant to work with landlords, to take a step back and consider whether your grudges are what's important today.

And to the landlords themselves, particularly those who wrote the petition, please consider the legitimate criticisms of its wording for what they are:  a desire to ensure success.  Misspellings and poor grammar always undermine the message, especially in a community built around the ivory tower.  Misrepresentations, intentional or not, will both turn off the critical thinkers who might otherwise offer support, and be used by the true opposition against you.

As it happens, I don't believe that the landlords' real concern, that of new competition undermining their ability to make a living, has much merit.  Rest assured, the college will continue to add far more students than it can ever house, even if all of New Paltz is eventually shoved into its poured concrete maw with scrabbling glass pyramids of greed.  In truth, I think building it at all is a terrible idea for this community.

But on the question of taxation, I wholeheartedly agree:  if this abomination is to be built, let it be taxed like the rest of the land in New Paltz.  Fair is fair.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Practice what you preach, please

As I have said before, opponents to consolidation have some good points despite the fact that some of them have their own agendas.  But despite this being a college town, apparently no one in this debate has a clue how to educate.

A letter to the New Paltz Times a couple of weeks ago put forth a beef with the process:  the writers would ask specific questions about the finances, and be told to watch the videos of the meetings if they wanted an answer.  It's not unreasonable to be irritated by that sort of response; it's lazy, it's obfuscatory, and it ignores the fact that residents who didn't have the time to attend those meetings aren't going to have the time to watch them, either.

On top of that, the New Paltz Government Efficiency Project site, which should be the central repository for all of this information, is "undergoing maintenance" as of this writing, and has been for days, if not longer.

I thought the solution to this overwhelming sea of data would be New Paltz Fact Check, the blog set up "in order to inform public discourse, policy, and decision making by providing factual, objective analysis of issues important to New Paltz," according to its about page.  But if there's analysis, objective or otherwise, I can't find it.

What I see instead is a vast number of links and documents, many of which wouldn't be available to the public otherwise.  Internal emails, commentary from a Facebook group, public comments, and letters to the editor all in one place.  It's useful to have all this information in front of me, but where's the analysis I was promised?

The problem of analysis, or lack thereof, plagues both camps during this debate.  Don't we have a college in New Paltz?  Aren't there tenured professors and licensed teachers packed thickly in our voter rolls?  Isn't there anyone willing to step up and walk the voting public through the numbers, rather than just expecting us to wade through gigabytes of data without context?

It's unacceptable to champion either viewpoint in this cause without providing meaningful education to the voters.  It's disingenuous for the "yes" camp to expect the public to support this initiative when largely we don't have the time to dig in to the mounds of data.  It's hypocritical for the "no" camp to complain about this lack of analysis, claim to do something about it, and then just add to the problem.

Voters in this community are getting the message that we aren't bright enough to comprehend this mammoth problem, but the truth is, we just don't have as much time on our hands as the volunteers and elected officials (not to mention the paid consultants) do to wrap our minds around it.

Here's an unambiguous request to any and all who are invested in the consolidation question:  don't insult the voting public, educate us.

Friday, February 15, 2013

No good idea goes unpunished

I first expressed support for unification in 2008 or thereabouts; I have always believed that simplifying our lives by having one less government to deal with made a tremendous amount of sense.

Of course, I wasn't factoring in the human element.

The egos and personalities which strut across the New Paltz stage make it damned near to impossible to come up with a solution that will work.  Much of the information put forth by the pro-unification factions is correct.  On the other hand, many of the concerns expressed by the keep-it-separate crowd are legitimate and should not be dismissed.  It's bloody hard to figure out what information to discuss when there are so many people pushing hidden agendas.

Does our mayor want to keep his job?  Of course!  He himself told me that the village is the largest entity he would be comfortable running, because he can "keep it all in my head," in his words.  He knows every drainage grate, he said to me, and couldn't imagine being an effective elected official on a scale where that's not possible.  So there's no question that Jason West is going to fight tooth and nail against consolidation.

But to suggest that West's information and arguments should be entirely discarded because he has an ulterior motive, or because he is arrogant and condescending, does not serve this community well.  Don't consider the source, just evaluate his rationale.

How about Susan Zimet?  She is unabashedly in support of a merger, and doesn't have any personal stake the way the rest of us do, because she doesn't even live here.  Succeeding in this drive will put a feather in her political cap and, in all likelihood, be used as evidence of her wonderfulness when she pursues higher office.  And pursue she shall:  Zimet has always been ambitious, and returned to town government more because the county legislature lost power in the charter government than out of a burning desire to clean house.

Does this make her positions on unification automatically worthless?  If you consider the source it does, but considering the source does not do justice to the information itself.  Like West, Zimet's talking points and actual data must be carefully looked at, whether you like her or not, whether you trust her or not.

There are other players, as well.  One group makes a logo to support a unified government, another group makes a parody, and suddenly people are talking about consulting attorneys over it.  That sort of talk is shameful, because involving attorneys in a neighborly disagreement squelches free speech.  Many of West's opponents (and Zimet's, to a lesser extent) have used the "fascist" label; the fact that the same people who call their opponents dictators seek to silence the opposition with litigation is sickening.

The fact that this process is inordinately complex makes me fear that no good will come of it.  If you want to ruin a good idea, create a committee to study it.  We created around ten committees, so I'm thinking we really wanted to make this idea unpalatable, or at least incomprehensible to anyone with a day job not dedicated to policy questions.

Unification should be simple.  In this iteration, it's been made anything but, and its supporters are trying to ram it through at breakneck speed without answering perfectly valid questions.  Unless something really big changes, and very soon, I think we would all be better off firing each and every one of our town and village board members and starting over once we've cleaned house.

Friday, February 8, 2013

SUNY puts religions on a (slightly more) even playing field

SUNY New Paltz has announced it will not close for Jewish holidays any longer.  This opens the door to real religious freedom on the campus, and should be celebrated by members of all faiths.

The idea that a public institution, open to all, should close its doors for the sake of an observance of a single faith or group of faiths is one of those traditions that's been carried on for so long that most people don't even question it.  Most peoplewho practice a religion in this country, after all, follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, those which intellectually descend from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham; these include the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic sects, among others.  Among those, Judaism has the smallest number of worldwide adherents, but closing of educational institutions in particular for its most sacred holy days is quite common in some parts of the country.

Closing for a religious observance makes sense in some cases.  I am familiar with a coffee shop that closes for Yom Kippur because it's located in a religious enclave, and the owners recognize that it doesn't make business sense to open up if 95% of the customers won't be showing up.  But generally speaking, shutting down completely because some members of the community will be engaged in observances isn't a sound practice, because it's not practical to close up shop every day that's sacred to some amount of the community.

By electing to close for the holy days of one religion, the college sent a message, intentional or not, that it valued members of that faith differently.  In truth, members of any faith can opt out of work or class obligations for religious reasons; the college is, and should be, accommodating of those requests.  But in a society that takes a long break for Christmas and closes down every autumn for a couple of high holy days, an 18-year-old freshman could easily feel uncomfortable requesting time for Ramadan, Vesak, or Samhain.  Are those days less important, because the student or staff member must make a request?  Not to the adherent, they're not.

Of course, there remains the question of Christmas, which is one of the least important days on the Christian religious calendar, but is given tremendous weight by our society.  (If you're a serious Christian, you're far more interested in the messiah's resurrection than his birth.)  For good or ill, Christmas has been secularized and subsumed by our consumption-dependent economy.  As a minor religious observance it doesn't deserve the "holiday break" it gets any more than other holy days, but as a secular celebration of gift-giving it's probably going to have a special place for a long time.  (Those Christmas traditions which are most commonly trumpeted by retailers, such as the trees, the gifts, the lights, and the carols, derive from non-Christian practices that have been conflated with the messianic birth celebration over the centuries, so other than the confusing misuse of the name, they have nothing to do with Christmas as it was originally intended by Christians.)

I hope that Jewish members of the campus community see this decision as liberating, rather than an affront.  Without the undue weight given to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews should feel more comfortable asking for accommodations to observe Pesach, Purim, Sukkot, and other major holidays which never were given to campus closure.  And it should make it much easier for members of other faiths, even more thinly represented than Judaism, to similarly embrace their faiths without awkwardness.

Good job, college.