It occurs to me sometimes as I listen and record debate at public sessions of the county legislature and other elected bodies that the casual observer might actually believe minds and hearts are affected by what is said.
Confounding observers is the debates’ timbre and tenor. Important public issues are being discussed, sometimes loudly! More often than not, final decisions have been taken long before the formal vote, rendering debates little more than good theater or, as legislators like to say of their opponents, “grandstanding.”
This not to say some truth does not emerge, some light is not shed amidst the heat and blather. Only that for legislators, it doesn’t much matter. Those few who do their homework most likely have standing views reinforced. Otherwise, sheep follow leaders.
A case in point was last week’s Democratic caucus just prior to the regular monthly session of the county legislature where among other subjects the “Ellenville Million” was discussed. The Ellenville Million, a spin-off of the Buffalo Billion, comes from the fertile mind of County Executive Mike Hein.
Having failed to convince the state to locate a casino at the old Nevele south of Ellenville — though that failure had many fathers and political considerations — Hein suggested the county front the $1 million the state has committed to Wawarsing to offset the impact of the casino it approved near Monticello. Given the glacial pace of state funding, Hein proposed that the county appropriate the money from surplus, to be reimbursed by the state at a later date.
It’s interesting that chronically depressed Ellenville, after being virtually ignored by the county, is now the recipient of what amounts to emergency funding. Was it to assuage the despair the region endured after losing the casino bid? A looming election year? Both? Hein was scheduled to do an “Ellenville Million signing” in the village this week.
Typical of Hein packages — which rarely have loose ends — he appointed an Ellenville-Wawarsing advisory committee to prioritize projects and then recommended giving authority to oversee and dispense funding to the Ulster County Economic Development Alliance, which he also appoints, thereby bypassing the legislature.
Legislator Ken Wishnick of New Paltz, possessor of a talent for raising seminal questions, wondered about that at caucus. “By charter, the legislature is responsible for reviewing any expenditure above $50,000,” he said, “but here we’re prepared to vote for a million-dollar transfer.” Wishnick’s query didn’t change any minds, but it at least goosed the debate. An amendment to the enabling legislation will require the alliance to report quarterly to the legislature, for what that’s worth.
Some legislators raised the old slippery slope, “precedent” arguments, while broadly hinting that they and their constituents would be perfectly happy to accept a million of county dollars for hometown projects. To that the administration could offer two cogent responses: the Ellenville Million is “state money” and Ellenville has long been the poor man of Ulster County.
The million dollars from Hein won’t be enough. Members of the hometown Hein committee made no bones about it being mere down payment — exploratory money, as it were — and that many more millions would be necessary to advance its recommendations.
Most eloquent in speaking to the long-term needs of his community was committee member the Rev. Julius Collins, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church. “It’s easy to speak for something when you really believe in it,” he said later. Amen, brother.
It was all for show, however sincere on the part of recipients. The die had been cast days, if not weeks before.
Aware of how the executive works his magic behind the scenes, I whispered to a nearby legislator to ask if he had gotten “the phone call” over the weekend. He shook his head at first before whispering back with a grin, “guilty as charged.” The final vote was 21-2, with the retiring Wishnick and Tracey Bartels voting in the minority.
Kingston mayoral debate
The eagerly-awaited faceoff between Democrat mayoral candidates Shayne Gallo (the incumbent) and Steve Noble (the challenger) wasn’t the barn-burner some had hoped for, but there were some sparks.
For sure, it drew a huge crowd at Monday’s League of Women Voters-sponsored event at Temple Emanuel in Kingston. Reporters usually confer with each other, and others, to estimate attendance, but in this one people kept filing in after the 7 p.m. announced start time. Eventually, we settled on “about 250,” though I thought there were at least 300, including numerous standees.
Noble supporters hoped the thin-skinned mayor would blow his top under pressure. It didn’t happen. Facing perhaps the largest audience in his career and with his political future on the line in the Democratic primary on Sept. 10, Gallo did seem to display some nervousness. You see, he has this verbal tic, OK? He says OK when he makes a point or responds to a question. By my unofficial count, Gallo said OK 29 times at Monday night’s session.
Gallo supporters hoped the inexperienced Noble might wilt in the spotlight, say something stupid. That didn’t happen either. Despite eager supporters leaning forward in their chairs, both held their fire, though Gallo, “in all due respect,” corrected Noble on a few items.
The crowd broke down into thirds, with Gallo supporters in one section, Noble’s backers in the other, Hatfields and McCoys. The rest were made up of curious citizens, who may or not have decided on either candidate. In that sense, Monday’s session was useful.
Gallo has done a lot during his almost four years in office, though few buy his repeated contention that Kingston was a basket case before he took office.
Noble spoke more to his philosophy of government, making it obvious he represents the more liberal wing of his party. He came across as confident and assured.
Noble’s father Gary, a licensed electrician, took it all in from a seat in the audience.
“What did you think?” I asked him afterward, meaning how his son presented himself.
“What the hell do you think I think?” he replied, displaying some of that fabled Noble temper. “What do you think?” he said, eying me suspiciously as if I might be a Gallo man.
I said I found Gallo strong on specifics. “It’s an impressive record,” I said. “Steve was a bit light on specifics, but I liked his approach.”
“Specifics?” Gary Noble retorted. “How can he have specifics? He [Gallo] doesn’t even talk to him. He doesn’t talk to my brother, either, and he’s the alderman-at-large.”
With brother Jim running beside nephew Steve for alderman-at-large, the topic of nepotism had to raise its head, and it did.
Gallo, after repeatedly attacking Noble since June on that subject (his wife Julie is also a city employee) took a more circuitous route Monday night.
Speaking of his late father, alderman-at-large Bob Gallo and his brother, late mayor T.R. Gallo, Shayne Gallo said, “Our family history isn’t about nepotism, it’s about legacy. We didn’t have two people on the payroll.” (Actually, it was only one; the late mayor hired his brother as an assistant corporation counsel, a job Shayne Gallo kept during the Jim Sottile administration.)
Responded Noble, “They [legislature and executive] are two distinct branches of government. I could not think of a better person to take over for me should it be necessary.” (The alderman-at-large succeeds the mayor when a vacancy occurs.)
People are always asking about winners and losers after these events, but I apply a different standard. To me, it’s whether candidates accomplished what he or she thought they had to do.
In that sense, Gallo did a better job than Noble.
The Republican Party bosses that nominated Fred Wadnola for town supervisor in Ulster town and Linda McDonough for town clerk might have second thoughts after McDonough’s scathing press release/Facebook post earlier this week which attacked incumbent Republican Jim Quigley.
McDonough, who took one for the party in a hopeless campaign against Democrat comptroller Elliott Auerbach, but carried the town of Ulster in 2013, was rewarded with appointment as clerk in March and then the party’s executive committee’s endorsement last month.
But while Wadnola, a former town supervisor, reminisces about the good old days, McDonough has been going after Quigley hammer and tongs. In a press release this week, she accused Quigley of “lying” about circumstances surrounding the sudden resignation of 17-year clerk Jason Cosenza last February and of failure to keep proper records. Cosenza, now a corrections officer at the county jail, suffered a few spanks as well, though McDonough says she’s “sorry” the former clerk chose not to endorse her.