There’s a cartoon from the New Yorker which depicts what looks to be a highbrow party going on; in the foreground one character is remarking to the host, “and it was so typically brilliant of you to have invited an epidemiologist.” Recently, New Paltz village trustees invited an epidemiologist to a job that is not usually thought of as a party; Eve Waltermaurer will take over chairing the New Paltz Village Planning Board when Michael Zierler steps down from that position in June. It may not be a party, but that doesn’t mean the decision wasn’t brilliant.
Waltermaurer is a relative newcomer as a resident of the village, but she has established community ties through her work and has deep family roots in the county. She’s worked as a health disparities researcher for the Institute for Family Health since 2011, and joined the Benjamin Center in 2012. Combining her experience in health and advocacy, Waltermaurer was the lead author for last year’s brief debunking the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug.
With a doctorate in epidemiology and a long history of researching issues around health, criminal justice, young people and women, what does Waltermaurer bring to the table for Planning Board meetings? That question can be answered in part through observation, as she’s served as an alternate member since late last year. Village law allows alternate members to participate in all discussions to ensure they can cast thoughtful votes if they sit in for an absent member, and Waltermaurer has not been a shrinking violet since she was appointed.
“We’re trained to examine patterns, analyze evidence and predict trajectories,” she explained, which are skills she is already applying to Planning Board deliberations. Rather than automatically bowing to the experience of more seasoned members and the board’s professional staff, she asks probing questions to help her understand the rationale and the reasons which underscore custom and tradition.
At the most recent Planning Board meeting, members were asked to weigh in on how to apply the village law on recreation fees to the Zero Place project. Waltermaurer said she “tried to understand the spirit” in which it was written, but that can be challenging when the original authors are not available and their identities not entirely clear. “Words can have multiple spirits,” she said, and some of them can be contradictory. Absent that sort of guidance, she turned to the words themselves and found that they weren’t as clear as she might have hoped; she concluded that the recreation requirement was satisfied with no fee whatsoever.
That isn’t to say that she always seeks out the literal definition of the words; qualitative analysis is not anathema to her, but as an academic she wants to build that upon a solid foundation. To that end, she finds the contributions of fellow board member Rich Steffens invaluable, because he has not only lived in the village for decades, he helped write some of the laws when he served on its board of trustees; he can provide the historical perspective from which the spirit of a law might be more easily wrested.
Waltermaurer has no background in planning and considers that a strength. “It means I’m looking at these issues with fresh eyes,” and might draw a different conclusion based on having a perspective of someone who has never been a developer, doesn’t own a business and is simply a village resident. It helps her avoid the “negative side of history” that results from longstanding relationships, while allowing her to draw upon the experience of others such as Steffens and board attorney Rick Golden, who has practiced this specialty for 38 years.
Being an epidemiologist also means Waltermaurer picks up on patterns of all kinds. When board members were looking to make a decision on the Zero Place roof deck, she recalled that a conclusion had been reached; she searched through archived meeting videos to recall the particulars. That skill may serve her well as she climbs the rather steep learning curve to understanding the various laws which govern the planning process in the village.
Watching the direction of Ulster County her entire life — her grandfather was a legislator from Saugerties, and both Maurice Hinchey and Kevin Cahill were visitors when she was growing up — Waltermaurer would like to see a new course charted that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. She remembers the impact of the IBM closures, and doesn’t believe the future of the county would be secure in the shadow of another giant industry presence. Instead, she would like to foster an environment in which a diversity of smaller businesses and industries could grow here, reducing the risk that the failure of one would have a cascading effect on the entire region. That’s how an epidemiologist thinks.
“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could find a job within ten miles of their home?” she asked. That would also involve dispelling the stigma around trades, she believes, and allowing young people to see community college not necessary as a stepping stone to more schooling, but also as a path to a career in a critical sector such as health care or home maintenance. As Planning Board chair, she won’t have the ability to change policy to make that dream come true, but she will certainly apply that thinking to the applications which come before her. Clearly the current focus on zoning that’s intended to encourage non-motorized transportation is in line with that vision.
Thus far she’s been shadowing Zierler as he reviews newly-submitted applications and sets agendas; the transition promises to be far smoother than the one Zierler himself had when Maurice Weitman died suddenly, the second Planning Board chair to pass away in office this century.
Civic engagement is important to Waltermaurer. It’s reflected in her work and her various volunteer positions, which include working on women’s rights and youth advocacy issues at county and state levels. When she lived on the other side of the ridge, she was one of many parents fighting to keep the Rosendale Elementary School open, and believes her efforts helped add another year to its existence. There were several municipal volunteer positions available in the village, but she sought out a Planning Board seat because of the impact of planning decisions is considerable in a village of this size.
In the end, the choice to select an epidemiologist might prove brilliant simply because the new chair is going to be interested in the overall health of the community. That’s an ideal with which most residents can likely agree is worthy of aspiration.