New Paltz Town Council members voted four to one last Thursday in favor of appointing Rhett Weires as town justice through the end of 2020. He will replace Jonathan Katz, who was forced to resign over a conflict of interest issue. Supervisor Neil Bettez described it as the most stressful vote he’s yet taken in office.
Out of a dozen applicants for the position, board members eliminated a number of them because they didn’t appear to comply with the rules. It’s perfectly legal to run for an office without living in a community and then moving there before the term begins, but state law is clear that anyone appointed to a town justice job must live in the town at the time of appointment. Not all the candidates fit the bill. Half the applicants were not attorneys, which is also legal in the state; an estimated 70% of all upstate justices are not attorneys despite the fact that lawyers sometimes argue that those who have passed the bar are less likely to get themselves into hot water by violating the complex rules governing local justices. On that score, there’s no clear rule in regard to appointed justices, but non-attorneys do require a weeklong training and absent clarity on how someone would get that training when the job must be filled immediately, board members opted for the perceived safety of going with an attorney.
Three candidates were interviewed during a special Town Board meeting on August 12, one withdrew, and Weires came up on top in part because he’s a lifelong resident and presumably understands the community’s collective values and how they might apply in a courtroom. Like his predecessor, Weires specializes in divorce and family law in his private practice.
“I feared we would embarrass the town,” said Bettez after the decision was made, but the qualifications of the three who were interviewed put his mind at ease that choosing any of them would do just the opposite.
Weires will have the opportunity to run for a full four-year term in November 2020. No incumbent justice has lost an election in New Paltz this century.