Top job — McKenna talks Woodstock

Bill McKenna (photo by Dion Ogust)

Bill McKenna’s no neophyte. Thrust into the role of Woodstock town supervisor by fate, in the form of the untimely passing of Jeremy Wilber, who held the job for 13 years and a day — the 51 year old building contractor by trade, believes his eight years on the Zoning Board of Appeals and eleven more years on the town board have amply prepared him for the top seat. Plus, he worked closely as Wilber’s deputy supervisor over this last term, and carried out many of the duties the job demands during Wilber’s illness.

“People have said, big shoes to fill, but I think I told you, it’s not the shoes, we both wore size ten…it’s the hat. It comes down over my ears,” says McKenna, in a January 16 interview. “Jeremy always expressed deep confidence. I refer to him as my best teacher and my best student. It always was a two way street.

“We’ll do things differently, I’m not Jeremy, I don’t have that Shakespearean flair, and I did mean it when I said I lost my best editor. We both played off each other’s strengths.  and helped each other’s weaknesses. I do miss that greatly.

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“But I’ll have fun with it, that was his recommendation. I miss him, and for a long time to come. One day during that last four month stint, I walked in here and he was here and I sat here, and he said, how does it feel to sit in the seat of power, and I said, what are you, nuts? It sucks, look how it comes about. And with that incredible smile, he leaned back and said, just have fun with it. So that’s what I’m committing myself to carrying on, and it all seems comfortable…”

McKenna is a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in Bay Ridge, 73rd and Colonial Road.

He says he came to Woodstock in 1989 or 1990. He’s been married to his wife, Hillary since 1994 and they have two sons, Jory and Gabriel.

“I had moved up to Saugerties a few years earlier then moved to Woodstock. My brother and I had a contracting business that we started in Jersey where we went to high school then moved up here in 87-88. McKenna Brothers contracting, and it’s still going. We were 13 years old when we started the business, we started cutting lawns, got into carpentry, contracting.”

He was first appointed to the ZBA in 1996. “I was actually involved in ZBA before joining the fire company. Jeremy made me chair in 2000. That’s really when our relationship first started. There was an instant like…we debated, discussed, spent a lot of time together. In 2003 there was the Raucous Caucus where Steve Knight was unceremoniously dumped. A bunch of people approached me — actually Alan Shapiro was first, Jeremy was close behind — and said, you’re going to run now, right? And I said yes, without even fully comprehending what I had gotten myself in to. And Jeremy, Steve and I ran together. It really sparked a love for politics…maybe it wasn’t really politics, but just the camaraderie, the friendship and loyalty…”

Wilber, Knight and McKenna served together on the board for four years. Wilber stepped away from the job in 2007 after four terms. “He and I had talked about me possibly running for this seat, but it was just far, far too early for me to give up contracting for a two year stint. I had a boy I wanted to put through college and contracting paid a bit better…I did run that year for town board, kind of half heartedly as a write-in, in 2007. I had lost narrowly at a caucus and my heart wasn’t in it. Part of the enjoyment was having Jeremy and Steve and Gordon (Wemp) on the board at the time, so after that it became a little less interesting.”

In 2009, McKenna ran with Cathy Magarelli on both Democratic and Republican tickets, together with supervisor Jeff Moran, who won his second term as a Republican candidate, defeating Democrat Liz Simonson. Wilber returned to win the supervisor’s job in 2011.

“I feel comfortable with this government. I know all the players,” says McKenna. “Yes, absolutely, I will be running in November.”

Aside from the day to day business of the town, and, of course, the budget, which always requires a close eye as the year goes on, the new supervisor sees a need for refurbishing the main house at the town offices on the Comeau property.

“In 2004 when I came on, we started the highway garage (rebuilding) that had been kicked around for 30 some odd years. I don’t think we were even finished with the construction of that when Gordon Wemp started talking about the Town Hall (at 76 Tinker Street.) Ultimately we came up with plans by the time Jeremy and I were done in 2007. By 2009, I was back and Town Hall was rehabbed and then we went on to the Community Center.” Work on the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center was completed in 2015.

“This (the Comeau office) is the last big building that needs attention. I think the employees have a great place to work, this is beautiful. The [project] is more about energy and ADA compliance. We have a building where the folks have to walk up stairs for the building department or the assessor’s office. Ideally we could have some sort of addition in the back where we could bring everybody downstairs. And get the supervisor over there.” The supervisor’s office is in a cottage across the driveway from the main building.

“Along with the ADA and the energy efficiencies I think we could have work efficiencies. I envision a sort of a big room with clerical people in the center and cubicles around so that everybody could kind of pitch in a little easier…It’s a thought.”

Will people fight over it? “I think that makes for good projects when everybody weighs in.”

Other issues of which McKenna spoke included the writing of a new Comprehensive Plan for the town, a solar project that’s been batted around for a while and construction of reed beds at the town’s wastewater plant.

McKenna says that a previous draft of a Comprehensive Plan for the town was put to good use, despite never being passed by a town board. “Probably 80 percent of that plan we actually initiated. But that was written in 2000 and it’s 16 years later, it’s time to update that. They’re good for about ten years and it’s time. We’re just getting underway with that, we’re about to hire what I think is a good firm, and have a list of competent Woodstockers that will help with that. I’m hoping that by this time next year, we’ll be eagerly awaiting the final results of that effort. It’s about a year long process.”

He’s optimistic about the reed bed project, after a setback.

“Several years ago, could be five years ago or in Jeremy’s first go round, we started talking about reed beds for the sewer treatment plant. And we did start on that. We were almost to the goal line when the state pulled the carpet out from under us with issues about the invasive reeds. That looks like it’s resolved. It’ll cost us a little more money but will make the process a bit more efficient and it will save us in the long run. I’m hoping that by this time next year we’re watching the little reeds sprout up.”

And the solar project?

“Boy, that’s a roller coaster. My view on it is it’s almost like the wild west where you have a lot of cowboys out there, and I don’t say that in a bad way — that’s what it takes in a new industry sometimes.” The plan to put solar panels at the Wastewater Treatment plant has fizzled. “At this point, that developer, Charles Feit from On Force, is unavailable so we’ve severed our relationship with him.

“I did meet with Greg Helsmoortel, Saugerties Supervisor, the other day, myself and Ken Panza, and a possible developer about the possibility of doing something down at the Saugerties landfill. There are a couple of hurdles there, but I’m optimistic, and I’ll keep pushing. That would be my preference to do something there, and it seems enticing because there may be money from the state for that project.”

How will the new supervisor balance his everyday business with the demands of the town?

“The next couple of months I’ll be figuring that all out. Obviously I didn’t have any idea when or if any of this (being appointed supervisor) was going to happen. It was a board decision. And they had all told me prior that I had their support, but in politics you never know. Jeremy told me, never assume until the vote is written down. And so I didn’t.

“So I see some downsizing of McKenna Bros. Maybe I’ll walk away entirely…but I would hope it doesn’t go away all together. My brother and I, we’ve been at this for 30 years. We’ve been prudent in our savings and investing, so I think the last year or two we’ve talked about reshaping McKenna Bros. where we downsize a little. But none of this is firm. I’m going to see what this job takes.

“I’d like to do some things a little different, I’ve been having office hours in the evening, that allows me to do McKenna Bros. for a couple of hours during the day. I’m toying with the idea of having Saturday hours by appointment. We have a lot of property owners who don’t vote here, but pay a lot of taxes, that have issues and that might be convenient for them.

“I’ve sat in this office on and off for the last two years, and it’s been fairly quiet, knock on wood. I don’t have a lot of people coming for office hours.

“You know, Jeremy had eight and I had four years the first go round and they were volatile. He had a four year break and I had a two year break and came back and since then it just seems to be a little easier. People change, we all change, Jeremy and I changed, we grew some, we both accomplished things that I think made the voters a little more comfortable. We got a highway garage, a town hall, all of this done in reasonable amounts of time and on budget (whether you agreed with the budget or not, we accomplished them) and it’s somewhat of a rarity for government projects. We did the same with the Community Center. I’m guessing here that the public has some faith in his administration to get things done. And I did help with that. So I hope the public will continue that faith and give me the opportunity.”

He says there will be no changes in personnel. “We have a fantastic staff here. Kerry Muldoon (the supervisor’s confidential secretary) and Pam Boyle, the bookkeeper have made my transition here so seamless, it’s been a joy.

“It’s interesting in politics…one person I clashed with was Jay Cohen. I remember screaming at him to sit down, and yet outside the meeting, you’d think we were best friends. The first time I introduced (my wife) Hillary to him, she was confused as to who he was, and when I said, that’s the guy, she was shocked. And I think the world of Jay, I enjoy his friendship and discussion. So it’s interesting how we all grow and mature a little bit. You know what? Everyone has a love for this community. I’ve always thought that. Even though I’ve disagreed strenuously with my colleagues on the board, I’ve always thought that everybody had Woodstock’s best interests at heart.
“When Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer again in August, we sat down and he had just finished reading a book on the Roman empire, where there were two Caesars…he said, that’s what we’re going to do. And I said, I don’t think that’s legal, but we did that for months and he was an incredible gentleman about it all. When it came right down to it, we were in lockstep. We might have had different ways of getting there, but we were always in sync with the goals.”