EDITORIAL: Villagers vote for their future

IF YOU LIVE in a village and are registered to vote, next Tuesday, March 20 is a big day for you. Between noon and 9 p.m. you can pick which of your neighbors decides what you’ll pay in village taxes and what you’ll get–other than a flush of civic pride–for this reduction of your bank account.

Chatham, Kinderhook, Philmont and Valatie all have elections. Only the candidates in Valatie are running unopposed. But that’s not an absolute assurance of victory. The law allows write-ins, so you can’t know until the votes are counted whether someone with a lot of relatives over the age of 18 has staged an upset.

Our villages share similar problems, most of which stem from big costs for municipal services spread over a shrinking tax base. In the foreseeable future some villages may give up and merge into surrounding towns. But for now Columbia County’s villages want to retain their historic identities, and they can because villagers still agree to serve in local government. So before arbitrarily naming some as more deserving of your vote than others, I remind myself that every person who steps forward to run for village trustee or mayor does more to strengthen our democratic system than all the editorials ever written. For that, I’m grateful to all of them.

The stakes seem highest this year in the Village of Chatham. Two seats on the Village Board, which could tip the majority, are open; there four candidates. Village races don’t use major party designations, and these contests aren’t about partisan ideology. But the candidates do differ greatly over how village government should run.

Former Mayor Paul Boehme and incumbent Trustee George Grant are on the Village People’s Party line. Lenore Packet and Adrienne Morrell are on the Chatham United Party. Neither Ms. Packet nor Ms. Morrell has held public office before.

Mayor Boehme served the village honorably for decades until he was voted out of office in a landslide last year. Voters I knew were shocked by the willingness of the then-mayor and the board members to consider a double digit tax levy increase in the midst of a crippling recession.

Compounding that was the former mayor’s resistance to truly opening up the process of government so that taxpayers could have a greater role. Mr. Boehme has been mostly absent from village affairs since he left office, and it would not represent progress to return to his style of village government.

Mr. Grant has rendered remarkable service to the village not only as a trustee and a volunteer but also in his capacity as water/sewer commissioner. Trustees often take on duties as commissioners, but Mr. Grant also has the certifications needed to operate essential village services. He deserves the sincere thanks of his neighbors, but placing so many responsibilities on the shoulders of one individual, even one as capable as Mr. Grant, presents taxpayers with a dilemma.

Trustees have a duty to oversee the operations of government, creating policies and laws where needed and levying the taxes necessary to keep the village afloat. But when trustees also run the operations of government they compromise the perspective voters expect from them. This blurring of the line between trustee and manager can mask the true costs of services. Worse, the dual role can give a trustee political leverage that trustees are not elected to have.

The village would do well hire Mr. Grant to manage its water facilities. But he was part of a board that pared an outrageous tax levy only after the public demanded cuts. He has rendered great service to the community, but it is time for others to take his place on the board.

Ms. Packet is a local businessperson who has demonstrated her commitment to the village over time. People trust her with their children, which means they really trust her. Ms. Morrell is an intelligent, thoughtful homeowner and parent willing to devote the time it takes to help govern the village. Both have expressed their support for the type of more open government that Chatham has just begun to enjoy since last year’s election brought Mayor Tom Curran into office.

Electing Lenore Packet and Adrienne Morrell to the Village Board will consolidate the progress made over the last year. Like their opponents, they love the village. They want to secure its future. And they want their neighbors to know what Chatham’s government is doing to accomplish that goal. I urge you to support them on Tuesday.

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