In the absence of high-school civics classes, the New York State Government Handbook is an excellent resource with which to understand just what is meant when a charter revision commission is convened. But speaking to the newly appointed chair of the just-materialized commission itself is even better.
“I was here when they developed the first charter,” says Kathleen Mihm, 30 years the Democratic elections commissioner for Ulster County, “and it’s important because it is our county government. It protects the taxpayers and voters. People want to know: how does the government function? The charter sets that for us.”
Local government in Ulster County comprises counties, cities, towns and villages – the corporate entities known as municipal corporations.
A charter is understood as an enumeration of rights and privileges for the municipal corporation, in this case Ulster County. Proposed and adopted in 2006, the charter included in it a provision that after the first five years a charter revision commission had to be convened once a decade to kick the wheels, so to speak, and assess how the county government was functioning.
“What’s important,” says Mihm, “is it needs to be every ten years. You view it, and it’s important to do it so that it’s better than what it was. and that’s what our mission is here [to do].”
September 2021 was the anniversary selected by the charter. This commission’s formation was tardy. Then county executive Pat Ryan put it off. In March 2022, the legislature was spurred to sign a resolution hurrying the executive.
Who’s on the commission?
A full year behind the charter’s decennial intent, the commission has been constituted consisting of eleven members, intended to be representative of the demographic and regional diversity of the county. It comes very close if only women in the county didn’t account for more than 18 percent of the population.
The county executive chooses five “electors.” The Democratic legislature’s majority leader and the Republican minority leader get three picks each.
By August 2022, the county executive was Pat Ryan while legislators Jonathan Heppner and Kenneth Ronk were the leaders of their respective parties.
Ryan chose ex-legislator Kathleen Mihm, former Democratic committee chairman Frank Cardinale, former Esopus town supervisor Shannon Harris, plus LeShawn Parker, the coordinator of prevention and safety at Kingston City School District and Scott McCarthy Town of Lloyd board member of the Ulster County Planning Board.
For his three, Ronk tapped two ex-legislators, T.J. Briggs and Brian Woltman. His third choice was the controversial selection of disgraced New Paltz Democratic legislator Hector Rodriguez, who was censured in 2019 over alleged sexual harassment and predatory behavior.
Legislator Heppner brought back veteran ex-legislator David Donaldson, a member of the legislature when the 2006 charter was adopted. Heppner also chose alumnus from the last revision commission citizen activist Thomas Kadgen and Marlborough Democratic vice-chair Mici Simonofsky .
A timely fashion
So it was that on September 15, five floors above the offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles in the Ulster County office building, a reconstituted charter revision commission sat at a long table in the Legislative chamber and voted for their chairperson. And having voted, just like any rock band trying to nail down a day of the week to practice, they suffered for some time in choosing a meeting day convenient for them all.
For now, it’s the second and third Thursday of each month.
“I’m hoping to hear from the public, though also hear from elected officials,” says Mihm. “and is there a concern about anything going on with the charter? And once that [is established], to bring it forward, to be voted on to change, we have to do it in a timely fashion. To have it presented to the public in a public hearing.”
The purpose of the commission is its power to put items on the ballot next November for the attention of Ulster County’s voters. To get anything on next year’s ballot, everything has to be sewed up by next July.
Suggested amendments or revisions to the Ulster County charter must be placed by the county legislature before the people of Ulster County at least 60 days after the report is delivered by then to the clerk of the legislature.
“Anybody can come and watch us, by the way,” says Mihm. “We’re gonna be here at the county building, meeting in person. We’re all in it for the good of Ulster County.”
Which is true. According to the charter itself, “no member of the charter revision commission shall receive any compensation, but each member shall be reimbursed by the county for all actual and necessary expenses incurred in the course of the performance of his or her duties as a member of the commission.”
An open agenda
Pressed for details, Mihm thought it was still early to speculate on what might be on the agenda.
An example of what the charter revision commission could do, as suggested by candidate for Ulster County executive Jen Metzger, is revise the charter to alter restrictions which this year thwarted rank-and-file Democratic party voters from weighing on their party’s candidate for the special election to choose the Democratic nominee for county executive. The special election was triggered because county executives Ryan left office early for the U.S. Congress, leaving the Ulster County Democratic Party lacking the necessary time stipulated by the charter to hold a primary contest.
“As we just met tonight [for the first time], I’m not certain exactly which issues are going to be brought up,” explained Mihm. “I know that issue has been raised in the press. So it would seem that that would come up, but I’m not certain.”
Because the commission will live no longer than one year and one day from the date of its first meeting, it can be thought of as a rare beautiful display of celestial fireworks as one should be so lucky to see in a decade. Or it can be described in more earthly terms.
The day after it submits its report, the commission shall be dissolved.