Why is turnout for off-year local elections so shockingly low, under 34 percent in Saugerties in 2015, down considerably from 2013? People may feel that their vote doesn’t count in national elections, although that sounds a bit like delusions of grandeur in operation to me. But county legislature and town elections? Our votes clearly count in these smaller elections. Winners of many races are sometimes elected by tiny margins.
These elections are between people that we voters can meet and talk with personally, not relying on media hype to get a feeling for who they are.
Is ignorance of the issues and the candidates to blame? We certainly aren’t encouraged to know much about them by the media, with almost all the press attention being gobbled up by national and international news and events. We have to seek out the local news if we want it, and lots of us don’t bother.
Town and village elections aren’t so mysterious. Many of us interact with our local officials at this level in the course of getting ordinary business done: the tax assessor and collector, the planning board, the sports complex, streets and sidewalks. We know what these folks do and why it matters who they are.
For many voters the county legislature is a different story. We don’t have frequent interactions with these legislators. Why should people care about who represents them on the county legislature? What does it do, anyway? How does it affect our lives?
Why should I know who’s running and why should it matter to me? Until recently, I myself didn’t know. I’d just vote for whoever was on my preferred party line and feel bad about it
If you’re like me, if you’re a voter who leaves the county line blank, or if you don’t vote at all in local elections, here’s some information that I hope will pique your interest.
A substantial function of county government is the implementation of a wide variety of state-and-federal-mandated programs, such as social services, mental health, job training, infrastructure maintenance, public and mental health, environment, police, jail, veterans’ affairs, and programs for the aging. County legislators vote on grants plus federal and state funds to operate all these departments and more. Many of these are not fully funded by state taxes, so county property taxes partially support them. The legislators decide how the money, $330 million last year, gets spent.
Lots of our money goes to essential services and programs.
There’s policy independent of state-mandated programs. The county level of government decide whether we will have rail-trails, whether new businesses can get tax breaks, and how the county sheriff’s office will cooperate with ICE to identify undocumented immigrants. They determine whether the family court will be located. The county oversees the operation and expansion of public transportation (UCAT). It’s involved in deer (Lyme) tick education mitigation programs and resource (think recycling on an epic scale) recovery. The county manages economic development. It takes care of all county roads and bridges.
A resolution regarding the placement of sheriff’s deputies in schools is under consideration.
As county legislator Jennifer Schwartz Berky of Kingston has put it, “Systems get managed at the county level that affect quality of life in communities.”
Need more? The county’s responsible for shared regional resources including watersheds and agricultural programs for soil and water. The county is currently working on proposals for campaign finance reform, limiting donations and providing matching funds for qualifying candidates for office. Legislation to strengthen the powers of the Human Rights Commission is being discussed. There are debates about county policy with respect to labor agreements.
Until recently, the legislators passed memorializing resolutions in which they expressed, as the voice of the people of Ulster County, support for or opposition to issues over which they had no direct jurisdiction but which mattered to the people they represent. An important example is the resolution to oppose the Pilgrim Pipelines (proposed to run right down the Thruway, through dozens of towns including Saugerties, to carry highly flammable crude oil southward from Albany to refineries in New Jersey and refined oil northward). That measure passed last year. Many towns along the Thruway passed similar resolutions, providing clear information from the communities affected by the pipeline proposal to the state governor’s office, where the power to approve or disapprove the pipeline lies.
The county legislature no longer allows itself to pass memorializing resolutions. I think that was a mistake, one that could be rectified if we voters elected representatives who would vote to reverse this decision. Many other resolutions, including one against hate speech, are waiting in the wings. Who represents us at the county level matters.
There are 23 of these hardworking legislators in Ulster County, each of whom represents approximately 8000 people. We in Saugerties have three districts which roughly correspond to north and west Saugerties (District 1), the village of Saugerties plus Barclay Heights and Malden (District 2) and south Saugerties plus parts of Ulster (District 3). If you don’t already know, you can find which district you live in on the Ulster County website.
In District 1, incumbent Mary Wawro is being challenged by Mike MacIssac. Incumbent Chris Allen is running against Joseph Maloney in District 2. And District 3 incumbent Dean Fabiano is opposed by Ron Miller. You can access incumbents’ voting records.
“The policies and decisions that come from our own town and county officials have a real and immediate impact on the daily lives of individuals, families, and communities,” says the Ulster People’s website, a source worth checking out if you’re a progressive.
Whatever you are, inform yourself and get out there and vote on November 7!