The Democratic primary is often where elections are decided in New Paltz, as voters in the general election appear to vote along party lines. This summer’s primary, then, could well determine who sits on the town council come January. With two seats available, two incumbents — Alex Baer and Julie Seyfert-Lillis — are competing against veteran council member Kitty Brown, who previously served three successive terms before stepping down.
Kitty Brown is no stranger to public service, having previously served three terms on the town council. Brown would like to think that anyone making an introduction would mention a penchant for volunteering, which is a tendency that stretches back decades. Brown helped found the Wallkill Valley Land Trust and helped negotiate purchase of the land that’s now the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. A member of the Downtown Business Association when the Walmart project was proposed in the ‘90s, Brown presented to the town council a petition from local business owners opposing a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) scheme for the developers of that project. Other projects have included organizing conferences for Mohonk Consultations and advocating for the rights and protection of missing children.
Brown had stepped away from elected office due to a sense that the position of deputy supervisor required more time than Brown was then able to give. More recently, Brown served as an alternate member of the planning board. Brown sees serving on the town council as a full-time job and appreciates why council members don’t always attend the meetings of the committee with which they liaise. That this stifles communication is a view that’s been expressed by members of the planning board and climate action task force, among others. Whether that’s a fair assessment or not, in another way it could well have undeniable impacts: it’s likely that New Paltz won’t be able to achieve the silver level of climate-smart certification if a town elected official or employee doesn’t start showing up for meetings on the regular. State officials gave that warning when granting bronze certification to town and village alike, because consistent participation is seen as leading to more and better solutions than asynchronous communication such as written reports and emails. Brown is willing to step up and attend those meetings, if elected.
“We ask a lot of these volunteers. They do so much of the heavy lifting on our environmental, recreational, historic preservation, planning and zoning issues — we need to give them the support they need.” One of the activities for which Brown was known during that prior service, as it happens, was organizing an appreciation event for town and village volunteers. In 2023, the challenge in finding individuals willing to step into unpaid volunteer or paid elected roles in the town government is only increasing.
“This has always been a challenge,” Brown observed. “Most meetings are at night. Parents are helping their children deal with homework, or bedtime, or are just too exhausted after a long day at work to head back out. Lots of people have to work two jobs just to pay the bills. Many retirees are already volunteering for Family, or Ulster Activists, or Unison, or the Wallkill Valley Land Trust or Mohonk Preserve. I honestly don’t know how to attract more people to volunteer or run for public office. That said, I’m amazed by the number of young people (and to me, that’s anyone under 70) who do volunteer.”
There are other ways that Brown would like to improve the free flow of ideas in the community. For one, resuming regular joint town-village board meetings. These were scheduled for every other month as a practice soon after Tim Rogers became mayor and Neil Bettez supervisor, but participation flagged and it became clear that adding a third meeting every other month was taxing on the elected officials. It was suggested that joint meetings could be scheduled when it was necessary to discuss and jointly vote on an issue, but in practice since the scheduled meetings ceased, members of the two boards having discussed and voted on joint issues separately instead.
At the same time, “hardly anyone attends town board meetings,” and public comment by those who do is limited to three minutes. While having been on both sides of the council table and appreciating the need to limit the comment period, Brown imagines that it may be possible to at least discuss new ideas that are raised at the end of a meetings. A similar model has been used in the local school board, providing an opportunity for trustees of that body to discuss points raised while at the same time avoiding the back-and-forth conversations which are seen by some as extending meetings without adding value. “We might learn something,” Brown feels.
Brown brings to this election a long memory about town government, and a long history of pitching in.
Alex Baer came to New Paltz to climb the rocks, but fell in love with the whole of the community. When asked what kind of introduction a mutual friend might make, Baer immediately suggested “thoughtful, caring, good on their word,” and went on to describe an identity that includes Latina, horse person, and a supporter of local agriculture and farming.
Baer is finishing up a first term on the town council, and says of that, “I had a lot to learn.” The idea that elected office involves a learning curve isn’t a new one, and Baer believes that the education received in the past four years will make for an even stronger council member in the next four. The support provided by others on the board, including former member David Brownstein, was an important part of that process for Baer.
It’s true that there’s a lot to learn, but that’s not to say that Baer hasn’t made contributions. These have included employee raises intended to close a gender pay gap in town government, and tightening up financial controls to eliminate the need to pay late fees on any municipal bills.
“I love budgets,” Baer said, and relishes the challenge of tackling big, upcoming expenses without hitting taxpayers hard. Town services, such as police and highway, tend to have a very direct impact on one’s quality of life — as does that property tax bill. “I lose sleep over this,” Baer admitted. Moving toward a five-year budget plan could make a “huge difference in the certainty of department heads” as to what’s coming down the pike, which in turn could help bring down the turnover rate of municipal employees. “I want it zero,” Baer said.
Baer is a business owner, and tries to find ways to support business growth in the short term that doesn’t undermine the environmental work that is necessary to keep the community functioning over the long haul. Baer mourns the closure of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce, and wants to ensure that there are ways to take the temperature of the business community and understand the evolving needs of business owners. Baer wants business owners to feel they have a voice in local government.
A person of Mexican descent, makes Baer mindful of the fact that the Latin population of New Paltz has been growing, and could grow faster still in the future. It’s not unusual for these community members to work in agriculture, and to be unfamiliar with both the government and nonprofit services that are available to residents in need. Spanish and English are among four languages that Baer speaks, which makes it easier for some residents to get answers to basic questions about town government. Baer hopes to continue to give that community a voice, as well.
Another sliver of the community that Baer would like to connect with better is the village government. The cessation of joint town-village board meetings has contributed to what are sometimes strained relations, Baer believes, but at the same time there’s a limit to how many meetings any one person can attend while still remaining productive. It’s clear to Baer that residents are mostly confused about the need for two governments at all, and that finding more and better ways to cooperate should be a priority.
Related to many of these issues — business success, services for families, climate and environment — is a housing shortage that has driven up the cost of living. Baer is pleased to have been involved in passing the new accessory dwelling unit law, which will make it easier to get approval to add an apartment to an owner-occupied home. Baer foresees benefits not only to homeowners, but for construction business owners and those working on those job sites. It’s hoped that this law may relieve some of the pressure on the local rental market, and at the same time allow some homeowners to more easily pay their tax bills.
This is a time of increasing change in New Paltz, and Baer believes the community needs a council member whose experience with cultural diversity and business ownership will help shape the next 10 or 20 years to best serve all town residents. Baer wants to keep that big picture at the center of the conversation.
If introduced to someone new by a mutual friend, Julie Seyfert-Lillis would like to be thought of as passionate about environmental protection. The director of education at the Mill Brook Preserve, Seyfert-Lillis takes pride in helping to crystallize the idea of preserving this land, an idea which was decades in the making and involved scores of other residents. “I was inspired by people who saved that land.” To that community goal Seyfert-Lillis has added a personal passion for education, which takes advantage of the fact that Duzine Elementary School is right next door by providing a variety of programs for children. The close relationship those students have with the preserve is expressed in an 80-foot-long mural at the school which specifically depicts the flora and fauna of the Mill Brook ecosystem.
Seyfert-Lillis worked to create Mill Brook Preserve, Inc., the nonprofit which oversees the management of the town and village lands which comprise the preserve, which in its entirety is a swath bordered by various projects that made environmentalists nervous as they were developed, including Lent Farms and Woodland Pond. Seth McKee is credited with the idea of creating a nonprofit for that purpose, according to Seyfert-Lillis.
Another project with environmental concerns is what eventually led to Seyfert-Lillis first securing on a seat on the town council in an election eight years ago. The Trans-Hudson project between the Thruway and North Putt Corners Road had the potential, as first proposed, to result in more automotive traffic and fewer buffering trees impacting residents in low-income housing nearby. The traffic patterns also seemed to make navigating a challenging intersection by bicycle or on foot more dangerous, despite the fact that a major state trail now runs past the parcel. Seyfert-Lillis helped develop the zoning and comprehensive plan updates that would not only address those particular concerns, but pull that entire gateway area into a modern zoning scheme that would support environmental justice as well as more housing, by requiring apartments atop retail in most cases.
Environmental justice is a thread that runs through Seyfert-Lillis’ work on the town council, linking together other issues. These include getting the bicycle path along Henry W. Dubois Drive completed, making it a bit easier to move around town without a car, but at speed. As trails and stream crossings are completed through the Mill Brook Preserve, it’s expected that schoolchildren may be able to get to and from class without mommy or daddy’s engine idling out front at the end of the school day.
Sewage concerns also are high in Seyfert-Lillis’ list. The Mill Brook itself still has enterococcus bacteria in it, which thrives best in human feces; the source or sources continue to evade discovery after some years of searching, and Seyfert-Lillis wants to pursue that issue in order to improve health and safety for the humans and other animals that might encounter the local groundwater.
New Paltz is a community short on housing and high on expenses — both for residents and for those running businesses in the community. Seyfert-Lillis watches the planning process closely to understand what town council actions can ease the costs of building housing and otherwise doing business. The recently-passed accessory dwelling unit law will allow for small apartments and structures to be added, often without having to appear before the planning board at all. That’s a change that could save time and money and encourage more of these units to be built. Avoiding that step is helpful, but for those who must undertake a site plan review Seyfert-Lillis wants to streamline the process. Plans to create environmental overlay districts in portions of the town could do that, by establishing baseline conditions and flagging particular features that developers would be expected to approach with care. In theory, having that information at the beginning of the process could save builders money by ensuring that they don’t have to make big revisions to get their plans approved. That’s good for the environment, and good for the bottom line.
Seyfert-Lillis is clear that the best way to govern is to hear from residents with a variety of viewpoints. While an ardent environmentalist, Seyfert-Lillis drives a pickup truck and hasn’t found an electric one that will do the job as well quite yet. There’s a recognition that solving problems to the advantage of all stakeholders is complex, and requires input from those stakeholders. Longer service leads naturally to a broader perspective, and Seyfert-Lillis wants to give a voice to residents in a community where the electorate swings heavily to the left.
After two terms, Seyfert-Lillis feels to be on top of the learning curve for town council, and is also pleased with how well the current members work together. “I have proven dedication, hands on to do the work, and I’ve grown in the position from budgets to laws.” This incumbent is more than ready to serve another term.
Early voting will take place June 17-25 — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 17-19, noon to 8 p.m. June 20, 9 a.m. to 5p.m. June 21, noon to 8 p.m. June 22, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 23-25.
Locations for early voting will be at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock; Midtown Neighborhood Center, 467 Broadway, Kingston; the New Paltz Community Center, 3 Veterans Drive; and the Shawangunk town office building, 14 Central Ave, Wallkill.
Residents will be able to vote at any of the early voting locations. On primary day, June 27, voting will take place at poll sites in the home districts.