Jeanne Sager | Democrat
A WIDE DEEP experience in community involvement has been the hallmark of Neil Gilberg’s life in Sullivan County. He was chosen as the next County Clerk after an interview with Governor Eliot Spitzer.
Next County Clerk Feels 'Right at Home'
By Jeanne Sager
HURLEYVILLE April 6, 2007 Dorothy said it best for Sullivan County’s new clerk.
“It’s like the Wizard of Oz - there’s no place like home,” Neil Gilberg said with a smile. “And home is Sullivan County.
“I enjoy traveling, but I love it when I’m at the top of Columbia Hill looking over Hurleyville below me.”
Gilberg, 56, wasn’t born in Sullivan County, but the guy hand-picked by Governor Eliot Spitzer to serve as its new clerk talks about the place with the passion of a native.
Raised in Queens, he went to Boy Scout camp in Narrowsburg and later spent summers in Sackett Lake.
He was 16 when he took his first job as a lifeguard at Kutsher’s Resort in Monticello.
He learned the hospitality business in a place that’s spoken in reverential tones by fans remembering the good old days of the Borscht Belt.
Gilberg worked for Playboy, Hyatt, Helmsley hotels.
Then he came back.
In 1982, he returned to Sullivan County to take over as general manager of Kutsher’s.
With wife Linda and their three children, he set up a home in Hurleyville.
He took his first stab at politics in 1996 when he was elected to his first term on the Fallsburg Central School Board of Education.
With his children attending district schools, Gilberg went to a meeting on school safety in the mid-1990s led by active community volunteer Ceil Cohen.
He remembers sitting in the audience, his head filling with ideas.
He decided to act.
He ran for school board and won.
A year later, he ran for an open council seat on the Town of Fallsburg Board.
Until 2001, Gilberg served both his community on both boards.
It gave him a unique perspective on the issues of governance, he said.
“I was able to see things from both sides,” Gilberg explained.
He’s proud to say the dual positions allowed him the chance to act as a sort of liaison between the boards on a number of issues, most notably the creation of the school resource officer program.
Gilberg declined to run for school board after 2001, saying he needed to give other people a chance to have their say.
But he’s remained a member of the Fallsburg board, earning re-election several times over.
The father of three has used his seat to improve the lives of the children in the Fallsburg community, creating opportunities for local youth to take tennis and golf lessons for free and organizing an annual trip to Shea Stadium.
“When they walk through that tunnel and see the field for the first time and their faces light up, it’s a kick for me and them!” he said with a grin.
Gilberg has been the guy Fallsburg area parents call when their kid’s in trouble.
He visits them in jail. He has a word with their attorneys or the judge. He counsels them. He’ll drive them to the Recovery Center.
He’s the guy who at one time had Hurleyville’s three active restaurants providing meals for 30 to the food pantry at the Methodist Church every Thursday for free.
He’s the guy who called up the county’s most decorated war veteran, Medal of Honor winner Francis Currey, and said it’s time we honored your incredible service.
This July, Hurleyville will celebrate Francis Currey Day for the third year in a row in a weekend-long festival.
Gilberg has spent his life in the hospitality industry, and he said it was a path born of the desire to help people.
“That’s what I really enjoy,” he explained. “The visitors who come to the our county, I’ve been dealing with them for 25 years. Now I want to expand that to the people of the county.”
In truth, Gilberg said he was happy just playing his role in his own township.
When the county clerk’s position opened up with George Cooke’s resignation, Gilberg said he was approached by the leaders of the Democratic party.
He was honored… and intrigued.
“This job represents an opportunity for me to expand my own knowledge,” Gilberg said.
This isn’t just a move from Kutsher’s to another hotel. He’ll be starting from scratch in government, but Gilberg said his experiences run the gamut from lifeguarding to management, hospitality to community leadership.
He wants to walk in the doors of the clerk’s office and dive in.
There are no changes in mind he needs to learn the office, he said, learn what works and what doesn’t, learn how the staff does its duties and why.
Then, he said, he’ll look for ways to make the clerk’s office more community friendly.
“I’m expanding on something I’ve done on the town level, expanding that to the county level,” Gilberg explained. “This is something different, something to get my creative juices flowing.”
Gilberg is buoyed by the fact that he wasn’t just chosen by the local Democrats but the governor himself.
When the county party officials sent his name to Albany, they expected to hear an “A-OK” from Spitzer.
Instead the new governor started advertising for applications.
Gilberg applied just like everyone else. He sat for an interview in Albany.
Then he got a call Spitzer wanted to talk face-to-face.
“I actually approved of the way he did it whether he picked me or not,” Gilberg said. “If someone is going to put their seal of approval on someone, they probably want to pick them!”
Spitzer told him he wanted to send a message that nothing about his time in office will be “business as usual,” Gilberg said, and he has no problems with that.
Nothing will be business as usual for Gilberg either in the coming months.
With the support of his family, he’s leaving Kutsher’s. He said the Kutsher family knows they can count on his help on weekends, and Linda will remain in her position as reservations manager.
But Gilberg will focus day-to-day life on the county.
He has ideas for the good of the county, he said, quickly crediting Linda with helping to both formulate and implement every good plan he’s had over the years.
Judge Frank LaBuda will administer the oath of office in a public ceremony at 12:15 on May 17 at the government center.
Gilberg will serve out the term through Dec. 31, but expect his name to be on the ballot come November.
He hopes Sullivan County voters will agree to give him four more years in the clerk’s office.