Known for being a political hotbed, New Paltz is oddly quiet during this election cycle with the exception of the County Legislature race and a dark horse opponent, Kevin Kelly, a rare book dealer who has decided to run against veteran town justice James Bacon. We asked each candidate a series of questions to get to understand their experience, qualifications and approach to the position for which they’re vying.
James Bacon, the incumbent Democrat, has served and been reelected to the position of town justice for the past 12 years, beginning in 2007. Asked what the most challenging part of the job of town justice is today, he replied, “Keeping up with changes in the law — for example, the recent statewide significant changes to the landlord/tenant laws (the Village of New Paltz also amended its code to include specific requirements regarding a landlord withholding security deposits).” He also noted that significant changes are coming down the pike statewide, “especially the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020. This new law has dramatic changes to setting bail.” The biggest issue facing the courts in New Paltz today, in Bacon’s opinion, is similar to “all courts: The challenge is to keep abreast of the changes in the law, such as the changes regarding housing and criminal matters.”
In response to a question asking why he believes he is the best candidate for the job, Bacon pointed to his 27-year experience as an attorney in the State of New York, and as such having “argued cases in local courts, County Supreme Courts, Appellate Courts and the highest-level court in New York, the Court of Appeals — most of them dealing with citizen and environmental rights, as well as access to public records under the Freedom of Information Law.”
Beyond his application of the law and balancing the scales of justice, Bacon said that he also has a deep commitment to the community, having served for the past 26 years on the Elting Memorial Library Board, as well as serving on the board of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, the Conservation Advisory Commission and the town Planning Board for five years. “My wife Elise manages her Pilates studio and massage therapy business in a building we own in the village. And we have a large family that collectively has been active in many fields: sports (I am a 15-time SOS survivor), music, dance and service to the community. I care deeply about New Paltz and believe public service is a responsibility we all share.”
While serving as a local town justice certainly comes with its set of unique challenges, Bacon said that for him, the most rewarding part of the position is “giving people a second chance, and especially seeing people succeed in bringing themselves out of depression and addiction to make better lives for themselves and their families.”
Kelly, who is not an attorney, said that he decided to run because he has “always been interested in public service and engaged by current events at every level (world, national, local).”
He said that he believes New Paltz has a “special character” that he loves, and since moving here he has followed issues relating to the schools and the town. “The town justice position is rarely contested,” he said. “This is not unique to New Paltz. What I do think is unique to our town is the engagement the residents have with their community. We deserve a real election and a real debate for each choice on the ballot. With the impression that no one else would be providing that in this cycle, and taking into account my considerable fascination with the nature of how the law affects the people, I stepped up.”
He cited his “broad life experience” as having provided him with some of the skills and temperament that he believes would make him a qualified candidate and good choice for the position. “I’ve never forgotten where I came from or the various things I’ve had stacked against me,” he said. “Starting out quite poor, I worked my way through college in New York City. What started as a part-time job in a bookstore evolved into being a director of a world-class rare book dealership. This put me in the company of people I’ve learned a tremendous amount from: great legal minds, senators, professors and curators of the world’s most important founts of knowledge and learning.”
If elected, Kelly said that his first order of business would be having the [clerk’s] room painted. “That room is awful,” he said. I’ll paint it myself if I have to, even if I don’t win this thing. But more seriously, I want to make the court as transparent and accessible to all participants as possible within the law, and I don’t think enough is done in that regard. The principle of the presumption of innocence should be more clear in the room. The role of the court, as the first and often the only place an average citizen might encounter the application of law, should be recognizable in its practice to people who’ve taken a civics class and believe that everyone deserves a fair, impartial and timely resolution of their case. Timeliness vies for top priority as well: The turnaround time for a contested misdemeanor case would seem to be about eight months” — a timeframe that he finds to be too long and to be disruptive to people’s lives and jobs and families.
Kelly also believes that “access to legal advice is another big issue in Ulster County — an embarrassment, really; and, to the extent I can change that, I would like to.” He feels that “absolute impartiality” is the single most important aspect of being a town justice. Whether elected or not, he said that the change he would hope to effect would be to have someone inspired by his effort to run. “I would like the electorate to feel they have a choice, which can be informed by what the position is and how it could affect themselves or their neighbors, so they can choose the person who occupies the position, rather than letting a committee decide for them.”