Ancram ponders whether to elect or appoint highway super
ANCRAM—Town Board members think Highway Superintendent James MacArthur does such a fine job that they are already concerned about how they will replace him when he retires in two years.
At the March 21 Town Board meeting, Supervisor Art Bassin opened a discussion about whether the next highway superintendent should be elected or appointed. The supervisor said he heard from the wife of the 62-year-old highway superintendent that he will retire at the end of his term in 2015. Mr. Bassin said he was currently “negotiating” with Mrs. MacArthur about that decision.
Councilwoman Madeleine Israel said she was content to have an elected highway boss “because we have Jim.” But she acknowledged that in the future, “Elections can be popularity contests and we might not get the very best qualified person.”
Councilman Hugh Clark asked Mr. MacArthur to come up with three or four “key qualifications” someone needs for the job.
The person has to be a good leader and it has become increasingly necessary that the person have good computer skills, said Mr. MacArthur. “I’m not saying the job calls for an engineer, but the person should have knowledge about the building and maintenance of roads, he said. “You don’t want an 18-year-old, but a popular kid could run and get elected,” he noted.
Though some are under the impression that a Town Board can get rid of an appointed highway superintendent if he’s not doing his job; it’s not true, Mr. MacArthur said. “If he’s been appointed to a four-year term, you’ve got him for four years,” then after that the board can choose not to reappoint him. An appointed highway superintendent has the same powers and duties as an elected one except that person is appointed by the board and not elected by the people.
An appointed road boss can tell someone who complains to take it up with the supervisor, said Mr. MacArthur. Supervisor Bassin said when someone calls him now about a highway matter, he tells them they have to “talk to Jim.”
The election process can generate a good candidate said Mr. Bassin, but basically if someone has party support, not public support, he or she can run. Appointing someone can be a public process, he added.
An elected official wants to make everyone happy, but an appointed one wants to make the Town Board happy and that may involve not spending a lot of money on roads, said Mr. MacArthur.
Some people think the switch to appointing a currently elected official is “taking their right to vote away,” said Mr. MacArthur, adding, “put it to a vote, let the people decide.”
Councilman Chris Thomas favored sticking with an elected superintendent, saying, “It gives people the right to choose and you can get rid of [the person] in four years. Appointed seems like a backroom dealing situation.”
Ancram resident Libby McKee said sometimes people don’t fully know what the duties of a position are and so may not know if someone has the knowledge and skills to perform it. She said she would “defer to the wisdom of the board” to make the selection.
In no other department does the board “allocate $900,000 and give [the department head] a pat on the back and send him on his way. It’s a huge responsibility,” Mr. Bassin said of the highway superintendent position.
If the board were to appoint, where would it get the names, asked resident Choral Eddie.
The board would put out a public notice announcing that position is open and ask for letters of interest. Then the board would interview the applicants and appoint one, said Supervisor Bassin, noting that currently political parties interview and decide if they will put somebody on the ballot.
In response to a question from Mr. Thomas about whether the board can establish some minimum qualification for the post, Mr. Bassin said he did not think so.
Why not? “If someone wants to be president they are supposed to be born here,” said Mr. Thomas.
If someone is appointed by the board, then the board will pick the guy they want, said Emile Racenet, “I think we should vote. I can’t understand why we can’t have qualifications. We’ve got nothing to lose, we can make them up.”
“We can’t set arbitrary qualifications or even sensible ones,” said Mr. Bassin.
Resident Robin Beyer suggested that the board present the names of the people who apply to the public to get their opinions. That way the public and the board work together on the decision. Mr. Bassin said the matter would have to go through the public hearing process.
Most of the towns in the state elect their highway superintendents. Locally, the exceptions are Gallatin in Columbia County and North East in Dutchess County, according to Mr. MacArthur.
“I assume if there were a lot of problems, towns would switch to appointed,” said the supervisor.
Mr. MacArthur said he knew of six towns in the last 18 years that have tried to change from elected to appointed highway superintendents because “they were not getting along and they were trying to figure out how to get rid of him. I don’t know of any that were successful in changing.”
“It’s important to have a good conversation about this to see if the right answer falls out,” said Mr. Bassin. Before a switch from an elected highway superintendent to an appointed one can happen, the board will have decide to put the issue on the November ballot for a public vote.
In other Highway Department business, the board heard from Mr. Bassin that the highway superintendent has proposed that the town make a $1.5 million investment in road improvements. The supervisor said he had checked with the bank and found out the interest rate would be 3.5 to 3.75% to borrow that much money for a 15 to 20 year term. To pay it off, $100,000 of the $300,000 allotted in the road repair budget annually would go toward the loan. Mr. MacArthur, who will be practicing for retirement this week by taking a vacation, said he is worried that if the $100,000 is removed from his budget he won’t be able to keep up with future road repairs. When he gets back from vacation he said he will sit down and figure out if $1.5 million will be enough to complete all the work he has in mind.
To contact Diane Valden email .