HUDSON—The two commissioners of the Columbia County Board of Elections—one Republican, one Democrat—are changing this year.
Historically, the positions, which are political appointments, have been part-time, renewable every two years. But last fall the county Board of Supervisors budgeted for and made the positions full-time, at a salary of $65,000 each. The changes took effect January 1, 2020, the start of the commissioners’ new term. The GOP has its commissioner in place. County Democrats don’t.
In the case of the Republicans, the transition seems to have gone smoothly. Former commissioner Jason Nastke of Valatie, “has full-time employment in the private sector,” Gregory C. Fingar, chairman of the Columbia County Republican Committee (CCRC), said in an email January 20. He “was not able to continue as the Republican commissioner in the new full-time capacity.”
The CCRC “put out feelers,” wrote Mr. Fingar, and selected Kelly Miller-Simmons of Copake, who had run unsuccessfully for Copake supervisor in November.
The process dictated by state election law then puts the committee’s recommendation before the full Board of Supervisors (BOS), for its required approval. The county GOP committee’s recommendation went to the supervisors before their January 6 organization meeting; the supervisors approved the recommendation and appointed Ms. Miller-Simmons to the post.
“Many of our committee members are employers and very familiar with the interview and hiring processes,” wrote Mr. Fingar.
At press time, the Democrats did not have a commissioner in place. Last year, preparing to submit their candidate to the Board of Supervisors, the Columbia County Democratic Committee (CCDC) sent a broad appeal, seeking interested candidates. Virginia Martin of Hudson had held the post for several years, but “people expressed interest in having a choice, rather than simply recommending the incumbent,” Keith Kanaga, CCDC chair, told The Columbia Paper on January 17.
The call brought in nine applicants, but when the Board of Supervisors changed the job to full time, five of those, who sought only part-time work, withdrew. The committee voted on the other four, and Ms. Martin won, by weighted vote.
By individual ballot, the vote was a tie—39 each for Ms. Martin and for Erin Stamper of Chatham, vice chair of the county Democratic Committee, who had filled in at the Board of Elections after election specialist James Dolan resigned September 24.
The Democrats forwarded their recommendation of Ms. Martin, but the Board of Supervisors declined to appoint her.
At that point, said Mr. Kanaga, the Democratic caucus has 30 days to appoint the same person, if they wish. That period ends January 26. If the caucus does not make the appointment, the matter comes back to the Democratic Committee.
“That’s where we are now,” Mr. Kanaga said January 17. “The action is still with the caucus,” but he said he was certain the caucus would not reappoint Ms. Martin. He was sure of this, he said, because of 23 supervisors who had voted on the recommendation of Ms. Martin, 20 voted no, and 3 voted yes.
Mr. Kanaga, who also lives in Hudson, had no comment on that vote except to say, “Each individual supervisor has his or her own reasons and explanation.”
Wanting to be prepared when the caucus deadline passes, the county Democratic Committee sent out another call for applicants, with a deadline of midnight January 21. At press time, Ms. Stamper had reapplied and Mark Young of Stuyvesant had applied. Mr. Young was co-owner of Mexican Radio, which closed its Hudson restaurant in August 2019, after 16 years there.
The Democratic Committee is scheduled to meet January 30, a week later than usual, to vote on applicants and choose a candidate to forward to the full Board of Supervisors, which meets next on February 12.
“I hope the committee will decide on a candidate on January 30,” said Mr. Kanaga. After that, he said, “We expect that the Board of Supervisors will appoint the person that we recommend.”
The two new commissioners have their work cut out for them. Last fall’s election saw early voting in Columbia County for the first time, with polls open in three locations nine days before Election Day.
“This introduced a level of complexity that was new,” said Mr. Kanaga. Problems arose. The Board of Elections had a number of months to prepare for the new voting system, but “whatever they did was not sufficient,” said Mr. Kanaga.
On the first day of early voting, some ballots could not be scanned. Election Day, glitches continued, as listed by Mr. Kanaga: “Voting machines with missing or broken seals, ballot bags not adequately controlled on election night and reports of degrees of difficulties with the ballot-counting process that showed up in certification delay.”
Voting machines should arrive sealed at polling places, and ballot bags are to be under the supervision of a bipartisan team at all times as they are delivered to the Board of Elections office.
“Other counties had their difficulties as well,” said Mr. Kanaga. “It just seems like we had more,” and Columbia County was the last of the state’s 62 counties to post unofficial results.
Asked what the BOE would do to assure voters they would not have such problems in this year’s elections, Mr. Kanaga said, “The BOE is not under my control,” but he listed three changes he thought would help: the commissioners are now full time and the state Board of Elections has offered its help to Columbia County.
Third, the Board of Supervisors Government Committee, which has budgetary oversight of the Board of Elections, has appointed a subcommittee of Brenda Adams (D-Canaan) and Robert Beaury (R-Germantown) to “focus exclusively” on the elections board, said Mr. Kanaga. “They will become as familiar as possible with what the BOE needs, and plan to deliver good elections.”
Asked if the counting system would remain as Ms. Martin had established it, in which votes already tallied by machine are also counted by hand, Mr. Kanaga said that would be for the two new commissioners to decide.
Was workplace ‘hostile’?
HUDSON–Keith Kanaga, chairman of the Columbia County Democratic Committee had no comment last week on the notice of claim sent by former Democratic election specialist James Dolan to County Attorney Robert Fitzsimmons December 18, 2019, except to say “It’s something of interest, but we have to wait and see what the facts are.”
In the notice of claim, Mr. Dolan, who resigned September 24. 2019, accuses former county Democratic Commissioner of Elections Virginia Martin and deputy commissioner Diane Boice-Yorck of creating “a hostile work environment” while he was employed there.
Mr. Dolan’s attorney, Lewis B Oliver, of Oliver & Oliver in Albany, said on January 17 that the notice of claim allows the municipality 90 days to ask for a hearing on the matter.
“In private civil cases, you just sue,” said Mr. Oliver. “But if one wishes to sue a municipality, then that entity is able to ask questions before the lawsuit begins.” If the claimant wishes, he can begin a lawsuit after the hearing, or after the 90-day period has passed without a hearing.
Mr. Fitzsimmons could not be reached for comment before press deadline.
Ms. Martin continues to work at the Board of Elections as a “holdover,” said Mr. Kanaga, until the new commissioner is appointed, according to NYS Public Officers law.–Debby Mayer