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Frank Rizzo | Democrat

Ron Hiatt repeats the oath as he’s sworn in as Town of Fallsburg assistant attorney Tuesday evening at the reorg meeting. New Fallsburg Supervisor Steve Vegliante looks on. Hiatt lost his position as County Legislature vice-chair earlier that day as fellow legislators attempted to replace Chairman Jonathan Rouis with Hiatt.

Coup attempt fails

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — January 8, 2010 — County Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis barely held on to his chairmanship on Tuesday.
He was re-elected to that post in a 5-4 vote, with his Democratic colleagues leading the push to remove him as chair.
Democratic Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda, Democrat Frank Armstrong and Republican Alan Sorensen voted to name Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt to the position. Hiatt also voted for himself, having a Bible ready to take the oath of office.
The group had been certain that legislators Elwin Wood, a Democrat, and David Sager, a Republican, would join them in that vote, but Wood actually ended up nominating Rouis, and Sager joined Wood, Rouis and Republicans Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman in approving Rouis for another two years as chairman.
Despite the rift, Wood was unanimously elected vice chairman, replacing Hiatt.
The vote revealed deep dissatisfaction – but with who and what depended on each legislator.
Here’s their thoughts on the near-coup:
• LaBuda expressed disappointment in the vote, saying she thought at least Wood was in favor of the regime change.
“We had five votes,” she related. “Woody changed.”
LaBuda has been criticized in this and other decisions for appearing too eager to grab the reins of power. But she said it was all about improving the Legislature and the county.
“Sometimes change is good,” she said, noting the public outcry over how the budget and solid waste user fee had been handled.
And Rouis’ availability for the full-time duties of the chairmanship concerned her, as well.
“I just thought Ron was more accessible,” she explained. “He lives around the corner from the Government Center.”
Rouis, on the other hand, lives in Burlingham at the extreme eastern edge of the county.
“And because he has an accounting business, his time is limited,” she added. “Plus, Ron has no little kids at home.”
LaBuda emphasized that she’ll continue to work with Rouis and the other legislators, but said her vote reflected that her first obligation is to the county’s citizenry.
“I serve my constituents,” she remarked. “I don’t serve the leaders up here.”
• Wood denied ever giving LaBuda or others a clear indication that he was going to vote for Hiatt or Rouis.
“I wasn’t in the middle of the whole revolt thing,” he said. “... I’m not taking the fall for this. I didn’t ‘change’ my decision.”
Instead, Wood said he didn’t have a problem with either Rouis or Hiatt serving as chairman, but when Rouis approached him to ask Wood to nominate him as chair, Wood agreed “out of respect for Jonathan.”
“He’s been our chairman for two years,” Wood pointed out.
He added that Rouis had asked him for the nomination to ensure that if he lost the chairmanship, he’d lose it by just one vote.
Wood also denied seeking to please either side to gain the vice chairmanship.
“The way I vote is for the good of the county, not a political party,” Wood said. “If any deals were being cut, where were they coming up with the votes for Ron?”
Wood said Hiatt and company had the needed five votes “before they even talked to me,” adding that while he wasn’t always pleased with Rouis’ tenure, he was also not pleased with the eleventh-hour handling of this vote.
But, he admitted of Tuesday’s decision, “I come out of there losing either way.”
So he hopes everyone will regroup and work together.
“We can spend the next two years fighting, or we can spend two years working,” he said. “I took that position to work.”
• Armstrong, who shares an office at the Government Center with Wood, said he respected Wood’s decision and granted that “people’s minds are fluid.”
But he didn’t back down from LaBuda’s contention (and Hiatt’s) that Wood was initially considered a solid supporter of the effort to replace Rouis.
Nevertheless, Armstrong doesn’t want to make it personal.
“Looking for a change doesn’t mean there was anything bad to begin with,” he proffered. “Change sometimes opens up new avenues.”
Armstrong said neither he nor LaBuda were interested in the chairmanship. He voted for Hiatt because “he has a set of values and ideals I appreciate,” but he declined to specifically identify his unhappiness with Rouis’ tenure.
He promised, however, that he’d discuss it with any constituent willing to call him at 482-4104.
In the meantime, Armstrong is moving on.
“I don’t look at it as a win-lose situation,” he said.
• Goodman expressed great anger in the near-toppling of Rouis.
“I think there was a real power play going on on many levels,” she said with disgust, adding that the opposing votes struck her as “punishment” for some of Rouis’ decisions, with a fair amount of personal vendettas, as well.
“Some people looked at it as, ‘How dare he not give me what I wanted!’” she observed.
“I say they’re whiners,” Goodman stated. “They don’t have the skill to communicate.”
Though she acknowledged at least one of the anti-Rouis voters may have voted in good conscience (she did not identify whom), Goodman felt there was an overall “secret movement” to grab power.
“Why wasn’t this conversation had with him a month ago? Wouldn’t that have been the classier thing to do?” she wondered, referencing Monday’s meeting where Hiatt, Armstrong, Wood and LaBuda told Rouis they had the votes to oust him but offered him the vice chairmanship (which he declined).
She also faulted Sorensen, a fellow Republican, for not telling her about the coup idea in advance. But her main focus was on the Democratic cabal that started this process.
“There is so much time wasted on being secretive and whining,” she lamented. “... It was very distasteful to me.”
Goodman said she voted for Rouis because she believes he “is a very smart young man with very good intentions.”
“You need a good leader willing to make the tough decisions,” she explained, adding that Rouis has always been open to her ideas and comments, without playing politics.
• Hiatt, the other focus of a day full of open-then-shut-then-open-then-shut legislative office doors, confessed he isn’t actually disappointed in the vote.
“My initial reaction was relief,” he said, stating that the chairmanship is an immense responsibility, both internal and external of the Government Center.
“We have a huge financial crisis,” he pointed out. “And this jail thing is like impending doom.”
But he also doesn’t regret throwing his hat into the ring.
“None of this was mean-spirited,” he said, citing a quote by Thomas Jefferson that a little rebellion on occasion can be a good thing. “Jonathan doesn’t like confrontation… Why ask him to change his nature? It’s not about punishing him.”
Hiatt had been in the running for chair two years ago but dropped out because “Jonathan really wanted it.”
In December, “I got prompted again by both sides of the house, and I was more comfortable with the concept.”
Plus, he felt Rouis approached the role too much as a corporate board of directors chairman, who simply dictates policy to the CEO (in this case, County Manager David Fanslau) and lets the manager carry it out.
“We need as a Legislature to be more involved – not aggressive, but more hands-on,” Hiatt said. “… David can’t and probably shouldn’t do everything, as he tries to do. The guy works very hard.”
While he doesn’t want to micromanage, “we’ve been the opposite of micromanaging,” he lamented.
As an example, he said a solid waste subcommittee should be formed, with Sorensen as chair.
“He’s done excellent and expert investigative work” that has saved the county from major mistakes with the solid waste system, said Hiatt.
Hiatt also wished legislators had had more opportunity to determine layoffs and cuts, that the budget process should begin earlier, and that the county should have an internal independent auditor for “a little bit of redundancy.”
While he views caucusing “as a necessary evil” – likening it to a football huddle – “for most of what goes on in the Legislature, there is absolutely no reason we can’t sit down as a full board and discuss it openly.”
He plans to advocate for such in the months ahead, even if he ends up having to do so from “a bench in the basement.”
What impact Hiatt’s actions may have remains to be seen.
“I can’t say how effective I’m going to be,” he admitted.
But he insisted he holds no grudges – even against Wood and Sager, whom he believed would vote for him on Tuesday.
“It’s just no good hanging on to resentments,” he said. “I accept it [the decision]. And I have a clear conscience about what I did.”
Hiatt pointed out that two weeks ago he ordered and received 1,000 business cards listing him as vice chairman.
“Want some?” he said with weary laughter.
• Though leader of the Republican minority, Binder said she’s supported Rouis all along.
“I thought Jonathan was doing a credible job,” she remarked, feeling he was open and accessible to her.
She acknowledged that legislators have a responsibility to advocate for change, but those who voted for Hiatt “never tried to work within the system.”
She was not comfortable with the last-minute deals being made, but she also expressed reservations about Hiatt’s fitness for the post.
“I didn’t feel he has the time commitment for this job,” she said, referencing his duties as a private attorney, Fallsburg planning/zoning attorney and son of an ill father.
She hoped that legislators would be able to regroup.
“We’re dependent on a state that’s totally dysfunctional,” she said. “... It’s going to be a rough year.”
• Sorensen was, ironically, the lone Republican to cast a vote against Rouis – and he said that Rouis’ tenure was all his vote was really about.
“Generally [I have] a dissatisfaction with the lack of openness and communication in county government,” he explained. “And the direction the county’s been going in.”
He feels his constituents share that frustration, as does Hiatt. He confessed, however, of being “completely naive” to the behind-the-scenes intrigue of this vote.
“I didn’t understand all the background shenanigans going on,” Sorensen said, hoping “that approach to governance will end.”
He was caught by surprise when Sager did not join him in the vote against Rouis but pointed out that he was never clued-in on anything by the Democrats who were the real motivation behind the attempted coup.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t feel used and is not seeking to make it personal with Rouis.
“I never feared any repercussions,” he explained, “because for me, being a legislator is about public service.”
• Sager may have been a swing vote, but he said it was not so much about Rouis – with whom he’s had gripes – but about who was backing Hiatt.
“I had to vote my conscience,” he explained. “I didn't question Ron as much as I questioned the motives of those bolstering him.
“Who was supporting Ron and why?” he asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the concept of bettering Sullivan County.”
Sager said he realized he would be part of a political game if he voted for Hiatt, even though he’s not sure Hiatt was anything more than a pawn of LaBuda’s and Armstrong’s.
“My hair stood up on my neck,” he said of that realization over the weekend.
He also found it ironic that people who are typically doing county business behind closed doors would decry this vote.
“At the end of the day, how have they contributed to ethical, honest and fair government in their tenure?” he asked.
Though Sager has had issues about openness and fairness with Rouis, he said the chairman “lately has been showing more leadership skills” and demonstrates potential.
“I think we can finally move forward in a bipartisan way,” he predicted. “... Maybe this can actually open up government.”
Sager said there are major issues facing the county, and setting aside political maneuvering – like secret caucuses – is a needed first step of the Legislature.
“There is work that needs to be done,” he remarked.
• In typically reserved fashion, Rouis said Tuesday’s vote won’t deter him from working with the entire Legislature.
“Obviously there are huge frustrations,” he observed – both in the Legislature and in the county as a whole.
Though told about it in advance, Rouis said he was “a little surprised” about the vote (perhaps because he didn’t expect to remain chairman, though he did not offer specifics).
But he does believe it reflected growing concern with the handling of difficult issues: the budget, the solid waste system, the new jail.
He stood by his decisions – “I have to do what I think is right” – but he acknowledged he must work with people who may often disagree with him.
“You have to sit down, roll up your sleeves, and put your differences aside,” said Rouis.
Nevertheless, he added, “I don’t welcome the difficulties to come.”

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