Newly elected Ulster County Legislature chairman Terry Bernardo threw down the gauntlet, advising county executive Mike Hein that the legislature, “a co-equal branch of government,” intended to be players this year. The remarks in her inaugural address Tuesday, January 3, were met with rousing applause by the twelve-person Republican majority, less so from the eleven Democrats. “It was a little long, but she certainly made her points,” said Kingston mayor Shayne Gallo, among the standing-room crowd of about 200 attending the one-hour proceedings in legislative chambers in Kingston.
“You won’t hear the quacking of lame ducks from this legislature,” Bernardo said, an apparent reference to the 15 legislators who left office in December, among them former chairman Fred Wadnola of Lake Katrine. He did not attend Tuesday’s organizational session.
Hein wasn’t around to hear it, either, having previously been committed to a speaking engagement in Orange County for Democrat Frank Skartados, according to a spokesman. Skartados, a former assemblyman and a Milton resident, announced his candidacy on Tuesday for the assembly seat vacated by the death of Republican Tom Kirwan last month.
Bernardo, a Rochester Republican, though told by Hein that he would not attend the inaugural of the first woman to head the legislature, sounded clearly miffed by his absence.
“The fact that he was not here was very disappointing,” she said after her 30-minute speech. “Every other countywide elected official [including congressman Maurice Hinchey but not district attorney Holley Carnright] was here. Government can’t be a team if part of the team is missing. We’re the house of the people. Not showing up for us is the same as not showing up for the people.”
Hein, seen driving through the county office building parking lot shortly after the organizational session ended, was not available for comment Wednesday morning.
Bernardo, 45, was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the Republican majority in caucus shortly before the session started and elected 20-2, with eight affirmative Democratic votes. (Democrat Hector Rodriquez arrived shortly after the vote was taken.) She was nominated by majority leader Kenneth Ronk of Wallkill and seconded by Democrat Jeanette Provenzano of Kingston. Kingston Democrats Dave Donaldson and Peter Loughran, after mounting a last-ditch effort to deny Bernardo the chairmanship, voted against her.
Bernardo, in a speech interrupted several times by applause, said she respected the executive’s prerogatives. But she wanted the legislature much more proactive in making what she called “policy decisions.”
To some observers, Bernardo blurred the lines between legislative policy making and executive operation of the government under the 2006 charter when she suggested the legislature might call New York City Department of Environmental Protection officials before the legislature to explain why it has failed to clean up the Esopus after last year’s storms and why issues caused by leaking city-owned subterranean water pipes in Wawarsing haven’t been addressed.
Calling clean water “a policy issue,” she termed Hein’s efforts to negotiate with DEP ineffectual, “more like George Bush declaring mission accomplished,” she said.
“We took the DEP at their word. We’ll never do that again,” she said, to loud applause.
She also disparaged the Hein administration’s efforts at economic development, stating she was “appalled” at the loss of 150 jobs from a firm in Saugerties, announced last month. Lance Matteson, president of the Ulster County Development Corporation, said at the time that every effort was made to keep the jobs here.
Bernardo offered her support for two long-delayed major development projects, AVR in Kingston and the Resort at Belleayre at Highmount, while praising progress on the Diamond Mills project in Saugerties.
In other action, Bernardo named Langdon Chapman of Orange County as attorney to the majority, with Erika (Fick) Guerin of Saugerties as assistant. Guerin, no relation to the former assemblyman, was a Department of Environmental Conservation attorney during the Pataki administration.
While the county bar association sent Republican legislators a letter of protest over hiring an out-of-county attorney, Bernardo praised Chapman for his work as chief of staff to state senator John Bonacic on issues including Ellenville Hospital, Wawarsing’s dealings with the DEP, and state investments in the state-owned Belleayre ski facility in Highmount. She called Chapman a man with “regional vision.” The office has a $50,000 budget. Minority Democrats will again be represented by Christopher Ragucci of New Paltz.
Bernardo also named former legislator Fawn Tantillo as her confidential secretary at a salary of $51,083.
Ulster Publishing, the Daily Freeman and the Saugerties Post-Star were named official newspapers.
Former legislator Sue Zimet (currently town supervisor in New Paltz) organized a gathering of 15 former female county legislators in honor of Bernardo, the first woman to be elected chairwoman. Provenzano was the first woman (in 1993) to hold a leadership position in the legislature. She served as both minority and majority leader.++