By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO December 14, 2001 Sullivan County Legislady Leni Binder always described former District 4 Legislator, the late Gordon MacKinnon, as "the best of us."
But over the last few weeks, filling his position has seemingly brought out the worst in the legislators. There has been a great deal of infighting and tension among the lawmakers, becoming painfully obvious during committee meetings and a special board meeting held on Thursday, December 6.
The dissension has mainly been about whom to appoint to fill MacKinnon's seat. MacKinnon, who died on October 9 after numerous health battles, had held the District 9 Legislator position since the Legislature first took office in 1996. MacKinnon's role as Vice-Chair was given to District 8 Legislator Bob Kunis, but the seat remained vacant while the Legislature took applications from those interested in the position. Four candidates applied for the job, and it was narrowed down to two.
Legislature Chair Rusty Pomeroy stated during the process that the Legislature would seek the advice of the Town of Mamakating Democratic Committee. A few weeks ago, the committee, after interviewing all interested candidates, nominated Jonathan Rouis, son of long-time County Administrator Paul Rouis.
The decision on who would be District 4 Legislator was discussed at a special meeting held on Dec. 6. Neither Rouis nor MacKinnon attended the meeting. In a break from standard procedure, public comment was allowed (special meetings do not normally include a public comment period). Three members of the Mamakating Democratic Committee addressed the Legislature. Among those speaking were Chair George Desio and Vice-Chair Gail Sprague.
"We are here to express our concern over the selection," Sprague told the Legislature. "The individual best suited to be Legislator is Jonathan Rouis. I hope our findings are considered."
"Our job is to get people elected. We do not ask for anything," Desio stated. "The choice should go the committee's way. Joann MacKinnon is a vicious person. If she is chosen, I guarantee she will not win the primary in September."
Once public comment was closed, the legislators debated the subject amongst themselves. A resolution introduced by Pomeroy and Kunis was discussed to appoint MacKinnon the new Legislator. It was moved by Minority Leader and District 5 Legislator Rodney Gaebel and seconded by Kunis.
The first to address the issue was District 1 Legislator Chris Cunningham, who said he was choosing his words carefully. He explained that there had been many strong feelings on the issue, and it may carry over in the future.
"I feel the name the committee gave us is the better candidate," Cunningham said. "It is clear that the majority of Democrats support Rouis. It is not appropriate for the Republicans to participate in the vote. The majority should make this decision."
Gaebel took offense to that statement.
"This is a tough situation. We should allow a special election. The reason we did not vote before [on the choice of Sean Rieber as District 9 Legislator] was to protest the process. It was a different situation. The Charter states that legislators vote, not Republicans or Democrats."
The issue was debated for several minutes. What was agreed upon was to commend and thank the Mamakating Democratic Committee for their work and reassure them that their concerns were heard and considered.
Before the vote was taken, Pomeroy said, "The committee's recommendation carried a great deal of weight. I met with Jonathan, and this is not a reflection upon him. I feel Joann will do a very good job and be a better representative. The Legislature makes the appointment. Each legislator uses their own independent judgment. That includes Republicans and Democrats."
A roll call vote was then taken on the resolution. Cunningham and Kathleen LaBuda voted no. Pomeroy, Gaebel, Jodi Goodman, Kunis and Jim Carnell, Jr. voted yes. Binder abstained "out of courtesy to the Mamakating Democratic Committee." So the final vote was 5 in favor, 2 against, and 1 abstention.
After the vote, the committee members stormed out of the chambers.
Joann MacKinnon found out about the appointment when she got home that evening.
Married to Gordon for 20 years, she has vowed to continue Gordon's work and will fight to keep Route 17s Exit 114 open and to get the Visitors Center in Mamakating.
"I will work for the people of Mamakating," MacKinnon stated in a phone interview Friday morning. "I will talk to the people. Gordon would look up names in the phone book, call people, and find out what they wanted. I will do the same. I will represent the people."
MacKinnon will be sworn in on January 1.