Legislators Take on Charter Review, Debate IDA
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO February 13, 2007 Apparently spurred by local labor representatives, the Sullivan County Legislature’s Planning and Community Development Committee debated proposed reforms to the county’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA).
Curiously, no mention was made at Thursday’s meeting of the recent row over the IDA’s tax abatements for the Millennium Pipeline Project, and legislators focused on the board’s makeup rather than decisions it has made.
Talk briefly focused on expanding from seven members to nine, but the main discussion centered around term limits. While there seemed to be agreement on each term lasting four years, Legislator Kathy LaBuda favored limiting those terms to a maximum of two consecutive times (in other words, no more than 8 years at a clip).
Legislator Jonathan Rouis advocated for a three-consecutive-term maximum, running concurrently with county legislators’ terms (as they do now).
Legislator Leni Binder worried that not having staggered terms might result in a loss of all seven board members at once, but since they serve at the pleasure of the legislators themselves, Rouis felt that could happen at any time even now.
Legislator Ron Hiatt urged the Legislature to stipulate that board members must represent a cross-section of the county beyond simply businessmen, a sentiment echoed by Legislator Jodi Goodman but doubted by Legislator Rodney Gaebel.
“I don’t know where that would begin and end,” he remarked.
Legislator Sam Wohl, however, said this reform process had begun due to union members’ complaints that no labor representatives serve on the IDA board.
Rouis advocated for a consistent appointment and termination policy one way or the other, so as to encourage responsible, ethical, timely service.
County Attorney Sam Yasgur said he would draw up a policy that would meet the legislative majority’s desire for a maximum of three consecutive four-year terms that would begin on March 1 every four years giving just enough time for the newly elected Legislature to appoint whomever it chooses to the seven-member board.
IDA CEO Allan Scott, when contacted later, expressed little worry about the reform proposals.
“No one on the [IDA] board has a problem with it,” he remarked.
However, he said talk of such reform should not cast aspersions on current board members.
“This is the best composition of any board I’ve ever dealt with,” he commented. “They are excellent.”
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The Sullivan County Charter Commission found a unique audience Monday and an interesting panoply of comments.
At the commission’s request, virtually every county legislator sat in on the two-hour gathering in Monticello and offered their thoughts on the future of county government.
The commission, still in what co-chairs Rob Green and Dick Riseling called “discovery mode,” will eventually prepare recommendations for the legislators to ponder and possibly enact suggestions that will change a document upon which the current system of government is based.
So as part of that process, the commission invited the legislators themselves to weigh in ahead of time.
Discussion focused on the current legislative form of county government, with legislators by and large advocating for it to remain that way.
“I think probably this is as good as it’s been,” said Rodney Gaebel, saying the switch from the old board of supervisors has prevented the traditional balancing of townships’ budgets “on the back of the county.”
Fellow legislator Ron Hiatt said the idea was to make the system fairer for smaller townships in essence, to reduce the sway major population centers like Thompson and Liberty held in county government.
“I think the county legislature has functioned very well,” added Legislature Chair Chris Cunningham. “I think the original idea was a good one.”
But within that framework, the legislators did agree that improvements could be implemented.
Jodi Goodman suggested exploring staggered terms (currently, all nine legislators’ seats are up for election every four years) and wished for a kinder, gentler, less partisan atmosphere.
Kathy LaBuda, however, registered her opposition to staggered terms, arguing that “the chance of nine people being unseated in one year is one in a million and you know what? The county would go on.”
Gaebel agreed and added that the current four-year terms should not be reduced, as it gives legislators time to understand and act upon important issues without constantly having to worry about mounting a re-election campaign.
Commission member Bill Duncan wondered if legislators favored term limits, and Goodman and Binder said they did not. But Binder later added that she felt legislators should not serve more than 20 years.
Gaebel, however, felt the biggest issue is finding qualified people who are willing to give up the time and money necessary to serve in what the state deems is a 32-hour-a-week job.
“You have to find somebody who’s retired, who’s independently wealthy,” he lamented, agreeing with his colleagues that the job of a legislator includes many meetings, travel, phone calls and a slew of impromptu conversations with constituents in the grocery store and elsewhere.
All that, added Binder, means that legislators often have to put careers, family time and even life goals aside to serve the county’s residents.
And that translates into a small pool of interested candidates.
Commission members like Tom Lambert sympathized but didn’t know how to resolve the issue. Legislators universally panned the idea to enlarge the legislature (citing time and cost disadvantages), but Lambert wasn’t sure if the county could afford to raise legislators’ pay above their current $20,000 annual salary.
One idea that garnered murmurs of interest was to reduce the size of the legislature (to, say, five or seven legislators) and thus be able to increase each one’s pay without overburdening the county’s coffers while at the same time increasing the attractiveness of the job to potential candidates.
On other topics, Jonathan Rouis suggested the commission look into an independent county auditor who reports to the legislature (which the commission has already undertaken) and then posed the question of an appointed vs. elected treasurer.
The person in that position is currently elected by the public, and Rouis wondered if changing the seat to an appointed one would better ensure qualified people are in such an important financial role.
That led into a conversation about an appointed county manager (the current version) or an elected county executive, similar to what neighboring Orange County has in place.
Legislators seemed largely against that idea, worrying that they would lose control over the primary leader of county government.
Commission member Noel van Swol also pointed out that an appointed county manager is less likely to be subject to approval by the Democratic or Republican party chairs in the county, thus depoliticizing the appointment somewhat.
Commission members also asked legislators what they thought of the communication process between themselves and the township governments within their districts.
The commission found it particularly interesting that legislators unanimously agreed they have good, open lines of communication with local township officials, when just a few weeks back, some town supervisors had complained to the commission that they rarely speak with legislators.
“For me personally and the towns in my district, [staying in touch] has worked very well,” said Gaebel, who represents Callicoon, Fremont and parts of Liberty and Delaware.
He added that uninformed township officials may not always be the legislature’s fault “communication is a two-way street,” he pointed out.
“I go out of my way to speak to my supervisors and mayor,” said Goodman, who represents the town and village of Liberty and a portion of Fallsburg.
She added that she attends as many local government meetings as possible (along with many a chicken dinner and pancake breakfast).
LaBuda said she’s cut down on attending such meetings for two reasons: her district includes a huge swath of southern Sullivan County stretching from Mamakating through Forestburgh and Lumberland to Highland; and local supervisors told her it was unnecessary.
“My supervisors said, ‘Kathy, when we want you, we’ll call you,’” she related. “And they’ve done that.”
Sam Wohl and Ron Hiatt said they, too, have good relationships with local officials, although both admitted that’s made easier since Wohl represents just Thompson and half of Monticello, while Hiatt represents the other half of Monticello and portions of Thompson and Fallsburg.
Still, said Hiatt, “I could be meeting myself to death if I wanted to.”
Cunningham, however, intimated that the commission may be looking at this issue the wrong way.
“We are a town-based political culture still,” he observed even after 12 years of the legislative form of government. “But we don’t represent townships. We represent districts of approximately 8,000 residents each.
“I’ve never perceived myself as representing the towns,” he continued, though he added that he maintains good relations with the officials of the ones within his district: Cochecton, Tusten, Bethel and part of Delaware.
And Binder pointed out that “when an issue arises, we all get together and do what we have to do” regardless of town boundaries.
Communication, however, was also of concern to commission members when it comes to constituents, with some worrying that ordinary residents are not aware of what’s going on at the county level.
That point was debated, however, with most legislators saying that, between their frequent appearances at community functions and the fact that numerous local media cover the county government, residents can stay well-informed.
Regardless, co-chair Rob Green stressed that the commission still has much research to do before reaching any kind of consensus.
“I want to make it clear,” he remarked, “that we are not advocating for anything at this time.”
The next charter commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, February 26 at 4 p.m. in the legislative meeting room on the second floor of the County Government Center in Monticello.
The public is encouraged to attend.