After a tense election, where incumbent Supervisor Toni Hokanson bowed out of the running in the Democratic caucus won by her former ally Susan Zimet, town government in New Paltz began 2012 with three new faces and a chance for a fresh start.
Newly re-elected Zimet — who’d previously served as supervisor from 1996 to 2000 before becoming an Ulster County legislator — set out early in her term to right the wrongs she thought Hokanson had inflicted on the town. She accused her predecessor of fiscal mismanagement and lax recordkeeping — charges that would ultimately be validated by state auditors later in the year.
As such, when Zimet and her running mates Jean Gallucci and Kevin Barry took their seats on the Town Board, the first order of business was housekeeping. Board members began the year with a townwide spending freeze and a study of how to streamline Parks and Recreation Department spending.
Away from the board table, farmers and homeowners would get the last of funds raised by Flood Aid for victims of tropical storms Irene and Lee in February. But Federal Emergency Management Agency funds were also an issue for the town. Behind the scenes, the supervisor’s office discovered that the previous administration had not filled out paperwork properly to secure FEMA money for the town. Zimet’s efforts made sure $75,000 came back for storm victims.
Over the course of the year, the supervisor also helped follow through on other grants nearly missed through inadequate fillings — snagging $240,000 through a newly renegotiated public access deal with Time Warner Cable, getting a $7,500 greenway grant and a $13,000 environmental grant.
Town Board members responded early in the year to a plea for the creation of a dog park. They helped get a crossing guard at a busy intersection near New Paltz Middle School. They voted in a one-of-a-kind system to track and monitor open space gifted to the town. They voted to merge the town highway and buildings and grounds departments in an effort to save money.
Not everything that the new supervisor did during the year went as smoothly. Throughout 2012, Zimet’s administration had a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern of governance. While needed financial work continued at Town Hall, fast-tracked and ambitious plans were presented only to meet with delay or rejection.
Supervisor Zimet and Councilman Barry pitched the school district and village with the idea of a shared master plan. It didn’t happen in 2012. The two stepped outside of their jurisdiction and onto Board of Education turf by advocating that the middle school to be relocated to the high school campus. Key to that plan was one item: getting the school district to sell New Paltz Middle School to the town for use as a government center.
That bold springtime push forward also ended up getting Barry and Zimet in hot water. Because the councilman co-owns 19 acres of land near the high school — which hypothetically could be impacted by a district looking for space to create a New Paltz Middle-High School — Ethics Board members investigated to make sure Barry’s actions were aboveboard.
At issue was an April 10, closed-door meeting between the councilman, Supervisor Zimet, Superintendent Maria Rice and an assistant superintendent. During that meeting, the town officials advocated for their plan. Opponents saw something unseemly in that meeting and lodged a formal complaint with the Ethics Board. Ultimately, Barry’s name was cleared and the Ethics Board did not find him to have violated any town regulations. However, whatever merits the “middle school as government center” plan had were weighed down and delayed by the very public examination of the two officials’ behavior.
Chickens, flowers and swamps got their 15 minutes of fame during the spring as well. Advocates lobbied Town Hall to ask for a law permitting egg-laying hens to be kept in residential neighborhoods. While village officials eventually passed a chicken law, New Paltz Town Board members ruled against the fowl — at least for now. Hanging baskets of flowers became a heated issue as members of the town-village Community Improvement Team tried to hammer out a deal to hang blossoms along Main Street. At first, the local governments could not come to a resolution, but they eventually did — allowing for the continued proper placement of pretty petals.
In May, the town’s wetlands law — which passed under the tenure of Supervisor Hokanson — again came under fire through a lawsuit. Property rights advocates sued to overturn the law because it didn’t include a map showing the exact location of wetlands protected by the ordinance. In September, the greatest fears of local environmentalists came true when state Supreme Court Justice Raymond J. Elliott III annulled the law, finding it unconstitutionally vague.
As spring melted into summer, a fast food favorite got a new lease on life. Crews worked on Burger King to remodel and reopen the chain.
And while summertime came bearing the usual sunshine and warm weather, it also proffered clues to big issues looming on the horizon of New Paltz’s future. In July, developer Wilmorite dropped off reams of data and its official Draft Environmental Impact Statement to the town Planning Board. Slated for 42 acres near the SUNY New Paltz campus, the 732-bed student rental housing complex would become a key preoccupation for townsfolk in the fall and early winter.
Fresh from the televised and much-followed foray into town ethics law, board members had a prolonged discussion of how to fix the law so that it worked better. While leaving the core ideals intact, the proposed tweaks to the law revamp procedures for how the Town Board and Ethics Board communicate between themselves and with the public. Potentially, they could vote on that law in 2013.