By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Ask the county’s legislators about Grahamsville’s Ken Walter, and you’ll get a variety of adjectives:
“Ken is generally well-prepared and does his homework,” relates Legislator Jonathan Rouis. “I wish we had more of that kind of participation.”
So does Ken.
“People say, ‘Oh, everything is all decided already,’ and I say, ‘No, it’s not,’” he explains. “If nobody talks to anybody, things stay as they are.”
At 71, Ken isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He’s become so well-known for it at County Legislature meetings that last year legislators bestowed him one of two “Gadfly” awards.
“I took it as a positive thank-you for making a difference,” he remarks. “I’ve been a gadfly all my life.”
That started out with his childhood in Loch Sheldrake.
“I was always encouraged to have discussions at the dinner table about anything,” Ken recalls.
Listening to his father’s and mother’s political conversations gave him a depth of understanding on important issues and taught him a lifelong lesson.
“To be a good advocate,” he points out, “you have to be a good listener.”
He only ran for public office once a failed bid for a school board seat but wound up in all sorts of public service roles: fire district company officer and firefighter, Sullivan County Health Advisory Council member and first chairman, and chairman of the Fallsburg Democratic Committee.
Yet it wasn’t until an experimental wind turbine was proposed for SUNY Sullivan that he vaulted into the county spotlight.
“[SUNY Sullivan President] Dr. [Mamie] Golladay ‘invited me to the party’ by trying to stick a windmill in front of my house,” he relates. “It woke me up.”
The house is where he grew up and where his mother still lives. It sits near the northern edge of the college’s Loch Sheldrake campus.
What’s no longer nearby is the windmill, once located a few hundred feet from Ken’s childhood home and now removed (blamed on a lack of sufficient wind).
Ken doesn’t take credit for the turbine’s disappearance, but he does feel he played a part in keeping legislators, college officials and town leaders informed.
“I really got my feet wet giving more information to the [Fallsburg] planning board on windmills,” he recalls. “The applicant was their sole source of info.”
He started regularly attending County Legislature meetings in 2009, after a Freedom of Information request took the college three months to answer far longer than the five-day maximum required by law.
“I wanted them to know what was going on,” he says of county officials, since the college receives around $4 million in county funding every year.
Legislators paid attention at first.
“In the beginning, I had their ear,” Ken says, “and then came a point where they said, ‘Oh, it’s him again.’”
So Ken switched strategies: instead of simply complaining about a windmill he felt would harm his mother’s quality of life, he made legislators understand why he felt that way.
He provided facts and figures about windmills. He studied officials’ reactions and interactions with one another. He took a more rational, less emotional approach, dispensing information with a matter-of-factness legislators couldn’t help but heed.
As he puts it, he became one of their “unpaid staff,” doing the kind of research legislators didn’t have either the time or interest to do.
And he stopped making it personal.
“It was about a better outcome for the general welfare of all,” Ken recalls.
Three years later, Ken is perhaps the best-recognized “citizen taxpayer” in the Government Center.
“This new Legislature knew who I was when they got elected,” he points out.
New Legislator Cindy Gieger appreciates his input.
“Public participation all contributes to furthering our work as government officials,” she affirms, “because it’s another set of eyes.”
“I certainly like the public to come out and comment,” agrees Legislator Kathy LaBuda. “That’s the people we answer to.”
“And God knows we could use great ideas,” adds Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson (though he admits that some of Ken’s ideas “are good, and some are just something he has to say”).
Ken’s not intimidated by the legislators or the government they oversee. But he doesn’t attend simply to point a damning finger.
“It’s also a social time. ... We just talk,” he explains, saying he’s happiest when he stimulates discussion. “I’ve developed relationships with the people here. I can talk with them one-on-one.”
Still, he’s always working toward those goals of transparency, of openness, of accountability.
“I want every committee to have its own page on the county website,” he relates by way of example.
He’s also been bringing his video camera to meetings, with a plan to ultimately make the recordings available online.
In the meantime, he agrees with legislators’ feelings that he’s already had an impact.
“I feel I make a difference by being here.”
Friday: Ken Walter’s rules for making a difference.