THIS OFF-YEAR ELECTION doesn’t really matter, does it? All races are local, so no TV ads tell us which candidate threatens puppies, national security and helpless grandparents. How many people even know when or where to vote?
Actually, in Columbia County, quite a few do. More than 80% of county residents over the age of 18 are registered to vote, and turnout is higher than the national and state averages. Voters here understand the importance of selecting the officials who will determine our town and county tax burdens. The decisions these officials make affect everything from whether our roads get plowed to the kind of neighborhoods we’ll leave for the next generation.
This year the public has another reason to vote, because the balance of power in county politics is in play for the first time in a generation. Republicans, who hold the majority on the county Board of Supervisors, are facing a challenge from Democrats, who now have a slim voter enrollment lead. How slim? The most recent registration figures show 105 more “active” Democrats than Republicans.
The next biggest party is the Independence Party, but its members comprise only a small fraction of the total voters in the two major parties. The real wild card is that group of voters classified as “Blank, void, miscellaneous,” which identifies anyone who indicates no party preference. This bloc, nearly as large as both the Democrats and the Republicans, can swing elections in unpredictable ways.
Getting elected depends on much more than party affiliation. After all, you’ll be voting for or against somebody you’ve probably met around town, even when it comes to county government. The Board of Supervisors is the legislative body that runs the county. The elected supervisors of each of the 18 towns sit on the county board along with elected supervisors from each of Hudson’s five wards. Each member of the board has a weighted vote proportionate to the population of the town or the city ward he or she represents.
Over the last two years under the leadership of Chairman Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), who is not up for election this year, the Board of Supervisors has embarked on or proposed a number of bold moves only to reverse course in the face of public outcry. The most notable case was the purchase of the old Ockawamick school in Claverack as the new home for the county Department of Social Services. The county did buy the building, but the social services department won’t move out of Hudson, where its services are most in demand; and it’s not entirely clear what will happen with the school building now. Another scheme would have seen the county’s Pine Haven nursing home in Philmont closed in favor of a private facility in Valatie. That plan too has been shelved.
The question facing supervisor candidates on both sides of the aisle, but especially Republicans, is why these proposals advanced so far and public opposition had to grow so vocal before reason prevailed.
But while county political turmoil may determine the outcome of some town elections, most local races still hinge on issues like taxes, land use and services as well as governing style. And in the brief lifetime of The Columbia Paper, we have followed developments in a handful of municipalities closely enough to have an opinion about who’s best qualified to govern them.
In the Ancram race for supervisor, Republican incumbent Tom Dias is challenged by Democrat Art Bassin, who headed the town Comprehensive Plan Committee. Mr. Dias is intelligent and personable, but he has shown a tendency to withhold information from the public and an inability to make real progress on key issues, including construction of a new Highway Department garage and adoption of the draft Comprehensive Plan.
Mr. Bassin, by contrast, brought together disparate elements of the community to create the draft plan. He consistently functioned in an open, efficient and non-partisan manner. His approach will serve Ancram better, and he should be the next supervisor.
In Copake, two Democrats on the Town Board are running for reelection, Bob Sacks and Linda Gabaccia, against two Republicans, Joe LaPorta and Harvey Weber. The Republicans have admirable records of public service, but Sacks and Gabaccia have consistently questioned the inexplicable spending policies of the Republican majority. They have proposed cutting the budget, even at the risk of their own popularity. Copake residents need these public servants on the board to keep town taxes in check, and voters should return them to office on Tuesday, November 3.