Hugh Reynolds: Courting controversy

Pete Loughran. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Pete Loughran. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

The Ulster County Legislature may not be the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it has its moments. And it’s all-local.

After limited discussion on the sales tax agreement between the city and the county in May, the major money matter to cross its bow, the solons fell over each other debating bricks and mortar last week. The relocation of the Family Court facilities from Uptown Kingston to suburban Ulster is an historical event, one requiring the consent of voters via referendum.

Promulgated by the Mike Hein administration and rubber-stamped by a special legislative committee, the 18-4 legislature vote to relocate the court to the county-owned former Business Resource Center on Ulster Avenue came as no surprise. County consultants had compared the cost and convenience of at least two sites, the BRC and the Kingston school district’s soon-to-be-sold administrative headquarters a stone’s throw from the current courthouse on Lucas Avenue. Building anew was also considered.


Consultant analysis was discussed in committee but not for the benefit of the public at the full legislature’s session.

The BRC was originally the site of a large department store in a commercial plaza. It was subsequently taken over and renovated for county purposes. Its biggest occupant is the department of social services. The preferred site offers some 28,000 square feet of relatively open, well-maintained space for three Family Court judges, staff and clientele. Parking is adequate, though that might be tested by the presence of court staffers and those appearing before it.

Renovation estimates were not presented, but Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Gerentine, Republican of Marlboro, said moving to the BRC would produce “cost savings in the long run” for the county. He said that about the new jail back in the day.

Legislator John Parete of Olive, boon ally of fellow Dem lawmaker Dave Donaldson on Kingston issues, called the selection process “absolutely flawed,” though he offered few details. “The pin was in the dartboard,” he charged.

Legislator T.J. Briggs of Ellenville, the man who would be Wawarsing town supervisor, declared himself “amazed” at city opposition. “Kingston is always complaining about exempt properties,” he said. “Let’s spread it around.”

Kingston’s Pete Loughran again bucked his delegation after siding with the county majority on the sales tax vote. “For us not to do this would be foolish,” he said. Apparently a candidate for the next installment of Profiles in Courage, he noted that Family Court was not only in the city, “but in my district.” How his constituents digest that, especially those who can walk to Family Court from within his Midtown district, may be manifested when he stands for election next year.

The potential fly in this ointment is that state law requires that the establishment of a county facility outside a county seat must be approved by voters at referendum. While none of their representatives raised the issue, Kingstonians, with about twelve percent of the county’s registered voters, might not embrace the notion of yet another established enterprise moving to the suburbs. If family court could be moved, what’s next: the DA, county government, City Hall?

The costs of this move are yet to be clearly documented to the public. Will it be a million dollars, relatively cheap at $40 a square foot compared to $300 for new construction, more for historic renovation? Is there a backup plan if the electorate proves recalcitrant?

As the prestige of the county executive is in play, expect an all-out PR effort toward passage beginning in mid-October.

Here and there

With praise to hundreds of deserving high school graduates in our readership area, for the first time anybody can remember three students with City Hall parents graduated from Kingston High this month. Two came from the same department, city attorney Kevin Bryant’s son Kevin Jr. and his deputy Dan Gartenstein’s Sophie. Comptroller John Tuey’s Justin completes the unusual trifecta.

All three will attend college in the fall, Bryant to Clarkson, Tuey to Lemoyne and Gartenstein to Boston University.  Proud parents will be dining on cat food until long after kids graduate.

Meanwhile, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and wife Judi welcomed their fourth grandchild, Rose, last week. The proud grandfather expressed amazement at his productive progeny. “My [two] kids weren’t even married when I took office [in 2009],” he marveled.

Flag waving

As we approach the 241st celebration of The Glorious Fourth, it is timely that talk has stirred in Kingston on changing its city flag. Denizens steeped in city history are inclined toward revision, newbies more so. The mayor, as in most things, presents an open mind and may even appoint another study committee.

As city historian Ed Ford is in rehab after a fall last month at his home, the exact date of the flag is somewhat in question. Some say the 1920s, but not formalized by statute until 2000 when City Hall was rededicated. Its elements date to the mid-17th century.

Unlike most flags (think Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the French Tricolor, Japan’s Rising Sun), Kingston’s is rather busy, no doubt the product of a committee. It depicts a Hudson River sloop (river commerce out of Rondout) sailing past the Senate House (uptown history and the first capital) against a sun over a Catskill Mountain background. Its colors of orange, blue and white speak to Dutch founders and influence, historic but curious. The Dutch controlled Kingston for only 12 years (1652-1664).

The question of the sun rising or setting was addressed in the 2000 official description of the flag (and city seal). It’s neither, to wit: “The sun holds forth the promise of Kingston’s gleaming future predicated on its noble past.”

As with constitutions, flag designs are as they should be — difficult to change. But a discussion of its elements for better or worse is not a bad thing.

About the revered historian: Ford seems to be recovering nicely from his fall and is expected home soon after a month of rehab at Thompson House at Northern Dutchess Hospital. Sharp as ever at 98, he was finishing my sentences during my recent visit to him.

Pay days

The state legislature adjourned shortly before dawn on June 18 without passing significant bills on campaign finance or corruption. Most can expect an eye-popping pay raise come January. Open spigots from donors will gush unimpeded as usual.