Hugh Reynolds: Facing reality

Gabrielle Green and Alex Panagiotopoulos, co-owners of Kingston Creative. (photo by Kevin Godbey)

Pretty much a 20th century guy, I tend to look askance at new technology. Telephones? Who needs ‘em? Laptops? I’m a reporter. I carry a pen and pad.

I’ve resisted Facebook mostly because my life is already cluttered with useless trivia. Do I really care if so-and-so had a swell time at such-and-such’s picnic last weekend? Not unless I was there.


As Independence Party Chairman (whatever that means) Len Bernardo pointed out to me during the latter stages of his wife Terry’s losing campaign for county executive two years ago, Facebook is where it’s happening. So I drop in now and then, just for a peek.

A Facebook survey of voting patterns from a local marketing firm called “Kingston Creative” caught my eye last week. Operating out of 1 North Front St. at the northwest corner of Kingston’s Stockade, Kingston Creative is the marketing firm whichGabrielle Green and her husband, 31-year-old Alex Panagiotopoulos, co-own.

I can barely pronounce Alex’s surname, much less spell it, so at the risk of appearing familiar with someone I haven’t met let’s just go with Alex. (“Familiar,” for those born after 1980, is a polite word for being forward.)

Briefly a candidate for city alderman a few years ago, Alex did work for surrogate court candidate Sharon Graff and state Senate hopeful Sara Niccoli last year. This year, Kingston Creative is representing Jeffrey Beals of Woodstock, candidate for the Democratic congressional nomination next year. Eight Democratic candidates have already declared.

Among Alex’s “19 findings on NY-19 Voters” survey findings was that candidates (there were three primaries last year) spent more than $3.1 million on Facebook. Despite their deep differences about politics, the non-enrolled Facebook people he surveyed had much in common.

Apparently what that included was an aversion in the northern end of the congressional district to the candidates offered in last year’s general election. According to the survey, 57 percent of the 56,000 registered voters who are not enrolled in any political party failed to vote. And this was in a presidential year where people turn out in the largest numbers. Ulster County did much better, according to the Board of Elections, with 22,000 (65 percent) of its 34,000 non-party enrollees casting ballots.

The bottom line is there may be a huge voting block up for grabs, if only the candidates can put together an attractive message to reach them.


Charter chatter

A local group of activists called Kingston Citizens got together with charter guru Gerry Benjamin last week for a preliminary review and critique of Kingston’s 1994 city charter. In true activist fashion, the group didn’t wait for a perceptible groundswell to justify this effort. A careful perusal of the status quo once in a generation or so can be worthwhile. It says so in the state constitution.

Benjamin has been the go-to guy on these kinds of things seemingly for forever. The prime author of the 2006 county charter and a consultant on New York City’s 2003 charter reform, the SUNY New Paltz political science professor and dean could have been a Founding Father, so steeped is he in constitutional law. Most charters are based on the 1788 document drawn up in Philadelphia, though New Yorkers like to claim their 1777 constitution, adopted in Kingston, was the basis for the federal document.

I didn’t make the July 13 meeting of Citizens, et al., but I’m on their mailing list, all the better to ponder the anomalies, shortcomings and contradictions in the 1994 charter discussed at the meeting.

One of those curiosities, which I’m sure that Benjamin, a staunch advocate of separation of powers, must have noticed, was that the mayor fills vacancies for alderman. All the more curious is that the Kingston council elects its own presiding officer, the alderman-at-large, in the event of a vacancy in that office. The elected-citywide alderman-at-large votes only to break ties. He or she is first in the line of succession should the mayor’s office fall vacant.

On slow news days, usually in mid-summer, when I was a boy reporter, we used to plumb the city’s (then) 1896 charter for such pearls. Nineteenth century laws against pigs running in the streets or bluestone wagons having the right-of-way over mounted riders were always headline-grabbers. The learned Benjamin would never stoop to such triviality. The ’94 charter eliminated much that was arcane.

Benjamin knows, because he does his homework, that the 1994 charter was written in secret by freshman mayor T.R. Gallo to continue the city’s strong-mayor system of government. It jettisoned the city-manager government approved by voters the same year Gallo was elected in 1993.

I don’t presume to read the mind of the brilliant Benjamin, but have to wonder if charter review in Kingston might not be a run-up to a state constitutional convention. It stands to reason that if Kingston, the state’s first capital where the original constitution was adopted, is willing to consider a new constitution (charter) then why not the rest of the state?
In microcosm, it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, power and influence. The state charter debate will draw many of the same critics and advocates as 20 years ago. At that time, the voters decided not to hold a convention.

In any event, time for state charter revision is running short. Voters will decide on Nov. 7 whether to hold a state constitutional convention next year. If they vote not to, the issue becomes a dead letter (by charter) for another 20 years.


Short shrift

By my count, last week’s monthly meeting of the county legislature lasted for less than half an hour, gavel to gavel. And that included four speakers and the ceremonial reading of 25 names of residents deceased since the June meeting. Rank-and-file legislators are paid about $1,200 ($14,000 a year) for each regular meeting.


This one they should have done for free. They passed on the opportunity to get more involved in county government, albeit at the expense of the executive branch.

At issue was a resolution that would have required the county executive to get permission from the legislature when transferring budget lines from personnel to some other legitimate purpose. Exhibit A was the $16,000 County Executive Mike Hein moved out of payroll last year to pay for a mass mailing in support of relocating family court from Kingston to the Town of Ulster. An administrative spokesman called this one-sided propaganda pitch “educating the public” (at public expense). It worked, too — three out of four voters approved the measure.

Opponents of the resolution said the executive needed “flexibility” (several millions worth of unfilled personnel slots) in managing an annual budget with numerous moving parts.

Management issues aside, there’s no way the administration — probably any administration — wants part-time legislators looking over their shoulders on the day-to-day business of managing a budget. Given Hein’s influence across aisles in the legislature and the way he jealously guards executive prerogatives, the wonder is how this soundly defeated resolution ever hit the legislative floor.


Rails for sale

The Catskill Mountain Railroad has apparently decided the half a loaf it negotiated with the county last year to continue the popular eastern end of its operation is pretty much all they’re going to get. As such, CMRR President Ernie Hunt offered only passing praise on county executive Hein’s announcement that the county had signed an agreement with New York City to tear up some 11 miles of abandoned tracks through the Ashokan Reservoir. The plan is to create a walking-biking trail on the right-of-way. The tracks can always be replaced at some future date, the exec said.

County legislature Chairman Ken Ronk took the matter a step further. It would be cheaper to replace the tracks than to repair them, Ronk asserted in published reports.
Hunt says CMRR’s volunteers could do the repair work for about half what the county might have to pay for new tracks.

Left unsaid is that when those tracks are gone they’re almost certainly gone for good. Recall how Hein advanced a plan a few years ago to turn the tracks into $600,000 worth of scrap. This man is nothing if not relentless in pursuit of his goals.

CMRR, after being bled white by the county via legal action to the tune of more than $700,000 (Hunt says), can only beg for crumbs at this point. The railroaders are hoping the county gives them permission to extend their Kingston-to-West-Hurley tourist train route another mile west to take in the spectacular Ashokan views. Given the way this story is playing out, they shouldn’t bet the caboose on that outcome.


No go for now

It pains me to report that Mike Hein, despite widespread speculation and fervent hope in some quarters, did not declare for Congress at his annual $95-a-head birthday fundraiser at The Chateau in Kingston last week.

What a moment it might have been, Hein shaking a (left) fist to the heavens before a couple of hundred loyal contributors and calling for a new crusade! Wallets and purses would have flown open. Cheers would have rent the rafters of the nicely renovated Chateau, especially from department heads long under the thumb of this hands-on micromanager.

Mike Hein has broken many eggs in bringing forth many a tasty omelet during his eight-and-a-half years in office. A change in scenery might have been welcomed by some, even by Hein. If not now, when?

There is one comment

  1. endrun

    “We don’t need no stinkin’ alms for the poor and elderly. We don’t need no stinkin’ state constitutional convention. We don’t need no stinkin’ ANYTHING.”
    So is the “groundswell of support for fear mongering” which occurs every twenty years and regularly in between. Last time around it was the teachers and the lawyers most fearful of the convention. This time around it seems the fear has now encompassed everyone(at least that is the negative ad strategy), with commercials designed to foster same by positing that such would result in the politicians making more of a mess of things in this state than they already have(hard to picture that one since many a “ceiling” seems to have been hit on that score). I say it’s a good idea if only to ensure and insist the state legislature works, more or less, year ’round. I think if you put that into the state constitution, it would be hard for the legislature to wiggle out of that. But hey, time will tell for “the perennially cynical and otherwise realistic.”

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