There’s a movement afoot in Gardiner to begin changing the terms of some elected town officials from two years to four, set in motion by a request from superintendent of highways Brian Stiscia. At present, only the town clerk serves a four-year term.
Reelected without opposition in November 2015 to his second term, Stiscia had been a Gardiner Highway Department employee since 1993. “I was lucky enough to have a lot of on-the-job training. I can’t imagine somebody coming in without a lot of experience,” he told the Town Board at its May 3 workshop meeting. Citing the relatively short season each year when the weather is favorable for road repairs, he noted, “It’s distracting every two years to take away from your daily chores to run a campaign…. It would be more suitable to be focused on the day-to-day.”
Most of the board seemed to view Stiscia’s request favorably. Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic had already queried town attorney Paul Kellar about the legal procedure for enacting such a change. According to the letter that Kellar had sent her in response, “It would be prudent to enact a local law at least 60 days before Election Day,” Majestic said, since a referendum would be mandatory.
But councilwoman Laura Walls, herself a former town supervisor, wanted to explore taking Stiscia’s proposal a step or two further. “Years ago we got the clerk position to be four-year, and there was good reason for that,” she recalled. “Frankly, I think there’s good reason for the highway superintendent and the town supervisor as well.”
“Looking to the future, the stability of leadership and staff is very important. That’s difficult on a two-year cycle,” Walls argued. “It’s the administrative component that you want to be more stable: budgeting, long-term planning, asset management.”
Councilman David Dukler, who served multiple terms on the Board of Education of the New Paltz Central School District before running for Gardiner’s Town Board, endorsed the concept of longer terms based on that experience. “The school board terms are three years. I found that there was a big learning curve, even though we had support from a big professional staff,” he said. “Governance is a tremendous amount to learn. In the long run, we’re better-served by people who can develop that kind of competence over time.”
Councilman John Hinson said that he had the “opposite opinion,” at least when it came to lengthening the term of the town supervisor or Town Board members. In particular, he expressed discomfort with the idea of a town supervisor whom voters “can’t hold accountable after two years.”
For her part, Majestic acknowledged that both sides had valid arguments. “There’s a lot to learn,” she said. “But if you get somebody bad…” The supervisor also noted that past efforts to extend terms had always been rejected by Gardiner voters when more than one position was included in the same ballot measure. “If you do both of these [highway superintendent and town supervisor] at the same time, they both fail.”
Several officials expressed concern that the advantages to be gained from greater experience in office and enhanced institutional memory could be lost if more than one four-year term ended on the same date and a full slate of novice officials were to be elected simultaneously. “The question becomes, ‘How do you stagger them?’” said Walls.
She suggested that some sort of public debates on the issue be organized, expressing the hope that longer terms and higher stakes might actually spur greater voter engagement. “From the electorate’s point of view, that makes it a more serious decision,” she said. “It would be good to give the voters a choice,” said Gardiner Democratic Committee chair Mike Kruglinski from the audience.
No action was taken at the workshop meeting on proposing a local law to change any terms of office in Gardiner, but Majestic indicated that further discussion would follow. At Walls’s suggestion, Stiscia agreed to research other Highway Departments in the county and find out what term lengths are typical for elected superintendents. “I plan on being here a long time,” he said.