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.