New Woodstock board members grapple with town’s challenges

Bennet Ratcliff and Maria-Elena Conte.

Transparency, availability of elected officials, affordable housing and the environment are key issues for Maria-Elena Conte and Bennet Ratcliff, the two newest Woodstock Town Board members who begin work in January.

Conte, who has served as deputy supervisor since 2019, said she has learned a lot about how people negotiate and solve problems. She is co-founder and organizer of the Woodstock Women’s March. During the pandemic, she started Woodstock Senior Outreach Services, a program where volunteers checked in with seniors and helped with basic needs including grocery and pharmacy deliveries.

A passion for music drove her to help fundraise for Secret City, a nonprofit arts organization. She moved to Woodstock in 2015 with her three cats, Xena, Gabby and Bowie.

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“The most important thing, I feel, is to really listen to people. Someone can come in and complain about something or be concerned about something, but I think it’s important to take the extra time or make the extra effort to learn why is it that somebody feels a certain way or learn more about the issue,” Conte said. “If I don’t know enough about a particular issue, then I’ll start doing some research. I’ll not just listen to the person, but also go around town.

“Maybe if it’s an issue with a business or something like that, I’ll talk to businesspeople, talk to the board, talk to residents and see what needs to happen and what are people’s thoughts on it.”

She hopes to learn what is going to be best for the town on a particular issue.

“Obviously, you can’t please everybody all the time, but can make the effort to do that I think is important…just trying to get to a place where most people can be completely confident with what we’re doing and how we’re resolving matters…being transparent and really listening to people is important. I’d like to just do my best to do that,” she said.

Housing is a major concern

On goals for the coming term, affordable housing is Conte’s top priority. “For me, that’s number one,” she said. “That helps to benefit a lot of other issues around town, whether or not it’s something that we’re striving for, I think that affordable housing, making more opportunities for people to live and work here is important.

“There are environmental issues, some of that I’m still in the process of learning about, but sometimes it’s related, for instance with homeshare. The concept does benefit the environment because you’re already dealing with homes or situations that are already in existence,” Conte said. “So you don’t have to go in and take land and then start building, although that’s important, but do it in a sustainable way.” 

Conte is also discussing with Ratcliff ways the town can help artists, many of whom are struggling and getting priced out of town.

“We’re known as Colony of the Arts, right? So it would be nice to have a little bit more of a connection with the artists who live and work and play and create here in town.”

Conte is working on outreach so arts organizations can stay in town and the town learns about their troubles before it’s too late.

Recently, the Center for Photography at Woodstock sold its 59 Tinker Street property and announced it will be moving to Kingston. “There was not enough communication. If there’s an organization like that that’s in trouble, we should know about it. I think that’s important… communication between the town and with organizations and communication with residents and learning about what their concerns are.”

And this extends to town boards and committees, where she’s been trying to foster an open dialogue. “Sometimes these committees really need to start making connections and having talking sessions amongst themselves,” Conte said. “So that this way, it’s not like this back and forth, and then all of a sudden, there’s a smaller problem that becomes a bigger problem because these committees didn’t connect.”

Ratcliff: Practical processes

Bennet Ratcliff said more needs to be done to guide people through permitting processes and town services. “If you wanted to put one of those portable barns on your property, you need permits for that. I think a lot of people don’t know that kind of stuff,” Ratcliff said. “Or if you want to rent the community center, it’s available, but not free, and what do you need to do for that.”

Ratcliff, a former political consultant, moved to Woodstock in 2014. He recently stepped down from the Onteora Board of Education to begin his role as a councilman.

Ratcliff lives in Bearsville with his partner, Jacqui Kellachan, co-owner of Golden Notebook, and their “blended family” of three boys, three girls, two dogs and a cat. He is chairman of the Woodstock Democratic Committee. 

Ratcliff said he will focus on three things; the processes and structures of town government, the environment and the arts.

“I was shocked that one of the major institutions of the arts just quietly pulled up shop on Tinker Street and nobody said or did anything or put up a roadblock and said, no way,” Ratcliff said.

“I mean, CPW occupied for decades of the arts in Woodstock, a marquee building, and it has the name Woodstock in it, and it’s gone…And I think that could happen to any of our arts organizations.”

Ratcliff plans on sitting down with arts organizations and asking how the town supports them.

“One of the things that is really apparent to me is that some of the venues have really thrown a lifeline to a lot of the musicians in our community and that needs to be recognized, but we also need to ask those artists and musicians what are the things that we can do to help you.”

Office hours planned

Ratcliff and Conte both said they are interested in being approachable by the public.

Town Board members can get questions answered, share ideas and get help. “How can the town be open if we don’t have Town Board office hours, so I think that’s one way we can open up the town,” said Ratcliff, who already has the support of Supervisor Bill McKenna and the Town Clerk’s office for the office hours.

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More focus needed on environmental issues

Ratcliff said communities in the Ashokan watershed need to get together and demand more respect from New York City. “I really think that that we need a conversation as communities just around the Ashokan because the waters of Mink Hollow, they run into the Ashokan,” he said.

“It’s not just the Ashokan, it’s all those tributaries. We provide water for New York City. Let’s get all the communities together and be a partner with New York City and stop dirty water being our drinking water.”

The city has been discharging turbid water into the Esopus Creek from the Ashokan Reservoir in an effort to decrease the amount of silt, angering many of the communities along the creek.

“And not being able to swim in Big Deep? We need to figure that out,” Ratcliff said.

“We have what was once a pristine and well-known trout stream running right through our town.”

Housing needs a broader look. “Affordable housing needs transportation, and right now the sidewalks in town are so bad that they don’t provide adequate pedestrian transportation,” Ratcliff said. “So, let’s look at everything holistically, and not just one project on some hill.”

He points to the importance of quality of life.

“I want to live in a town that other people want to live in, and want to work in and can do so successfully. I want to be a part of a community where people can enjoy themselves without being in somebody else’s face or without having to have tons of money to sequester yourself away so that nobody can see or hear you,” he said. “I want to be part of a real community and Woodstock has one. I just want to make it better and stronger.”