PEACEFUL TRANSITIONS OF POWER remind us why democracy matters so much to our way of life. Given the alternatives, who would argue for any other approach? But however calm and cordial transitions may appear, once voters choose a new group of people to govern, the mechanics of change look an awful lot like what we tell our children they should never do.
Consider the Village of Valatie, where former Mayor Gary Strevell, in office for a decade, was soundly defeated last month by Diane Argyle. She is no stranger to civic involvement, but she downplayed her chances of winning to the point that I mistakenly thought she didn’t want to win. Voters had other ideas. Ms. Argyle and two running mates who sought positions on Village Board have changed the balance of power in the village.
Transitions occur quickly in villages–the state requires elections in March and by the beginning of April newly elected officials take office. Much like other levels of government, new village administrations inherit budgets prepared by the old regime, and there are always loose ends, sometimes big ones. From time to time those leaving office have also been known to get in more obvious last licks, whether for spite or just to remind the victors that the vanquished have no intention of fading away.
That brings us to last Saturday morning, when the outgoing Valatie Village Board scheduled a meeting for 8 a.m., an unusual time for any board to meet and coincidentally just a few hours before the members of the new board were scheduled to be sworn in. What was it that couldn’t wait for the new board? Hordes of barbarians marching south from the wilds of Rensselaer County? A Kinderhook Creek tsunami?
The first order of business was an hour-and-a-half executive session–no public allowed–on the subject of the Valatie Local Development Corporation (LDC), which has come under fire of late from a group called Citizens for a Better Valatie. Among other concerns, the group faults the LDC for what it sees as a lack of transparency. Valatie needs help revitalizing Main Street and the surrounding area but Saturday’s meeting only fueled suspicions that can undermine whatever good the LDC may be accomplishing.
As if that weren’t enough, one of the remaining members of the old board, whose term continues through the next year, suddenly announced her resignation. That created a new vacant seat, and the old board wasted no time in appointing Lisa Hill a trustee. Ms. Hill ran unsuccessfully with Mr. Strevell and with him was rejected by voters in favor of the candidates running with the new mayor, Ms. Argyle. The appointment fits the definition of chutzpah.
The old board’s actions Saturday didn’t stretch the law, nor did members act unethically. Having a final, lengthy meeting with the village lawyer about the LDC might qualify as wasteful and it sure sounds like a form of psychological torture. But other than connecting Ms. Argyle to the LDC for the very secretiveness that critics have challenged, it’s impossible to see what the meeting accomplished.
Ms. Hill might well become an asset to the new board, as former Mayor Strevell predicted at the time of her appointment. She’ll have to work harder than her colleagues, though, if she wants to dispel concerns that she owes her allegiance to the people who appointed her rather than the village electorate.
In light of Saturday morning’s political carnival the new board would be wise to address each of the points raised by the Citizens for a Better Valatie group, providing as much information as is available and issuing a list of any records that don’t exist but should. If that requires an audit, then the board should pay for one or seek the intervention of the Office of the State Comptroller. The object is not to find fault. The goal here is to remove any cloud over the LDC, making it a force that rallies village residents instead of inciting squabbles.
Village elections are non-partisan in terms of major political party involvement, which doesn’t scrub politics from the process; it simply keeps the debate focused on local issues. The former mayor and his allies had a right to maneuver for what little advantage they had until the last possible moment, grasping for a lingering vestige of power. It’s not pretty or polite, but our system doesn’t require that. It was legal and peaceful, a small, sloppy, reassuring exercise of democracy.