I guess it’s safe now to identify Ulster County’s latest dynamic duo. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein and Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo are conducting a relentless purge of the Catskill Mountain Railroad and anybody associated with it. Some are calling their behavior abuse of power.
I know, I know. It’s all for a good cause. Turning the mostly unused and decrepit rail line from Kingston to Highmount into a walkway into the Catskills could ignite a tourist boom. But do they really have to hound the railroad men to achieve their purpose?
Hein got in the first recent shot by releasing his moribund ethics board on the railroaders for alleged conflict of interest. The board, appointed by the county executive, concluded that two members of the CMRR should not have been appointed by the legislature to a railroad oversight committee. That issue, which I think could have been very easily settled with a few phone calls, had public humiliation as its purpose.
Last week the railroaders announced they planned to transport a few rusty old railroad cars parked near the trooper barracks on Route 209 into Kingston for refurbishment. This has been one of the railroaders’ rites of spring. But this year Hein sent health inspectors to the site. Surprise! It was discovered the old cars contained lead-based paint and asbestos. Holy health hazard! It was something nobody had noticed or cared about in recent years.
Then, just to hammer the message home the city got an order from a state Supreme Court Judge Christopher Cahill forbidding the movement of trains into town. As though that wasn’t enough, Gallo ordered a city dump truck parked on the tracks, just in case those ethics-violating railroad guys were of a mind to ignore a court order. (They weren’t).
It turns out that the mayor, an attorney, may have gotten some bad skinny from his legal advisors. After being shown the definition of “right of way” — one does not park obstructions on railroad tracks — Hizzoner sent the truck back to the barn.
Was this necessary? We’re talking about volunteers here, fellow citizens. We’re also talking about a prize pair of governmental bullies. God spare any of us the wrath of this pair.
And finally, in the interest of equal coverage, it would appear the railroad guys did a less-than-stellar job of public relations during the 20-odd years that they’ve controlled the tracks.
Enter former alderman Mary Ann Parker, a grudge-holder of some renown. Parker, who moved upstate a few years ago, returned to testify about the railroad in her old Midtown neighborhood at a meeting of the legislature last month.
Parker followed former CMRR president Earl Pardini to the podium. Working herself into a lather, the feisty ex-official recounted how she and neighbors had repeatedly requested the railroaders to maintain debris-strewn tracks in Midtown, as required by their lease with the county. She recounted that for several years neighbors collected dumptrucks-full of all manner of yucky stuff from the tracks.
“When we went to Earl Pardini and asked them to do what they were supposed to do, do you know what he said to us?” she said, her voice rising and accusatory finger pointing at Pardini, who was sitting just behind me.
“He told us to shit in our hats! That’s what he said,” she yelled.
I turned to Pardini, whom I had interviewed a few weeks before, and said, “If you see Earl Pardini, tell him I need to talk to him.”
“You’re not going to put that in the paper, are you?” Pardini exclaimed with a laugh. “It’s already been in the papers.”
I’ve been told by numerous sources that rancor lingers.
At last month’s county legislature meeting, the pros and cons over rail and trail went at it, with the better-organized trail people having much the advantage. It was quickly obvious that there is very little middle ground here. Trail people like her “don’t want a train running through my back yard,” a Shokan woman said. Rail people don’t seem to have such intense issues with nearby walkers.
Public forums tend to bring out the fringies, like the guy who spoke passionately about the “40 known toxins” contained in diesel fuel (which powers trains). He did not advocate taking 18-wheelers off the road.
Another speaker got chuckles when he talked about setting up “decrepit-free” zones for senior hikers.
A railroader expressed puzzlement over the grand plan to link Highmount with the Walkway Over the Hudson, some 35 miles to the southeast as the crow flies. “There is no connectivity,” he said. “What we have now are four incomplete rail-trails.” Sure looks good on paper, though.
Another railroader missed the point, I thought, when he spoke of the more than 600,000 tourists who took the trains to the Catskills from Kingston Point. In 1913. Nostalgia is not a plan.
I learned what “living on the wrong side of the tracks” literally means. The wrong side (poor side) was downwind of the soot and cinders from old-time locomotives.
I sat in on last week’s Kingston Common Council committee meeting on community development, one that dealt mostly with the question of what really happened to Jen Fuentes. Fuentes, recall, was the community development director summarily dismissed by Kingston mayor Gallo a few weeks ago. The committee was hoping to get some answers from the mayor as to his reasons and direction on the program going forward. Fat chance.
Gallo sent corporation counsel Andy Zweben, who told the committee (in executive session) that Fuentes served at the pleasure of the mayor and it was none of their business why he fired her.
The Freeman, with its customary fanfare, had announced it was live-streaming the committee meeting in the apparently mistaken assumption that the public might actually be allowed to observe the decision-making process of its government in its entirety.
‘Twas not to be. Zweben shooed everybody out of the meeting (except for aldermen) for a brief executive session. Upon our return, an obviously annoyed Zweben got in Freeman reporter Paul Kirby’s face for leaving the live-streaming device running during executive session. To my surprise, Kirby, a former colleague and tough investigative reporter, apologized profusely. It was a mistake, he told Zweben. He thought he had turned the device off for executive session.