(Much of this story first appeared on columbiapaper.com August 23, 2020—Ed.)
HILLSDALE—At special virtual meeting of the Town Board Tuesday, August 25 there was discussion of whether to appoint a new interim town supervisor but no vote on an appointee.
The discussion came up because the interim supervisor has resigned. If this sounds complicated, it is.
Former Supervisor Peter Cipkowski resigned effective July 27. He’s moved to California. The timing of his resignation left only seven days for interested persons to be nominated by a party and three days to collect enough signatures to have an independent line on the fall ballot.
On August 11 the Town Board voted to appoint Councilwoman Robina Ward interim supervisor through the end of 2020. The vote of the four board members was 2-0. Board members Steve Tiger and Tom Carty voted for the appointment. Board member Jill Sims, the designated deputy supervisor, abstained. (A deputy supervisor may not vote on matters before the county Board of Supervisors.) All board members are Democrats except for Ms. Sims.
Ms. Ward recused herself from the August 11 vote on an interim supervisor. After the vote she submitted her resignation as a member of the Town Board. But the vote to name her the interim supervisor was subsequently determined to be invalid by the town attorney, according to Ms. Ward. So Ms. Ward resigned as interim supervisor and asked that her resignation from the board be withdrawn because a person may not serve as both interim supervisor and Town Board member at the same time.
Acknowledging the changes, Town Clerk Kathi Doolan (D) issued a statement saying that she had “consented” to Ms. Ward’s request to withdraw her resignation as a board member, citing the short period of time between Ms. Ward’s submission and the request to withdraw and the absence of any action to fill the vacancy created by her resignation.
Mr. Cipkowski’s departure also triggered action by the Hillsdale Democratic Committee (HDC). A four-person select committee nominated Chris Kersten, a former town justice and chair of the HDC, to run on the Democratic Party line. He was selected by a majority of three votes at an August 5 Zoom session attended by three other members of the HDC nominating committee. Mr. Kersten abstained from voting.
The following day, Ms. Ward announced that she would run for town supervisor on an independent line—the Hillsdale Unity Party—in the November 3 general election.
If this sounds complicated, it is.
Councilman Tiger said in a recent interview that he resigned from the HDC in response to the committee’s choice of a supervisor candidate. He also cited what he said was a lack of transparency in the nominating process.
Ms. Ward said she was not interviewed by the HDC although she did fill out a questionnaire. She said she had not been told the reason she was not chosen and did not know what criteria were used for the committee’s decision.
Mr. Kersten said all members of the HDC would have preferred a caucus and did organize a candidate forum on Zoom August 4. But that event was canceled because of inclement weather and widespread power and internet outages.
He rejected the notion that there is something inherently undemocratic about the process the state legislature has established to guide towns in such circumstances. He also said it would have been more prudent if the Town Board had appointed an interim town supervisor who was not seeking election to the post in the general election.
He said he supports designating Deputy Supervisor Sims for the interim position. She has already declined to consider the proposed appointment. She declined renewed calls for her to run at the special meeting August 25. She remains the deputy supervisor.
Ms. Ward said Democratic Commissioner Ken Dow of the county Board of Elections had advised each of the interim supervisor candidates to petition for a third line on the ballot. That required 34 signatures and she said she collected 65 in 2 ½ days. She said if she had not made that effort the selection of the town supervisor would essentially have been made by four men.
The Republican Party is not fielding a candidate for town supervisor.
Mr. Kersten said Covid-19 lockdown restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo, especially the ban on mass gatherings, influenced the process that resulted in his nomination by the HDC.
He said recommendations by Commissioner Dow and the co-counsel of the state Board of Elections to follow state election law make the Hillsdale Democratic Committee responsible for selecting a candidate.
Mr. Kersten also said he was clear from the time he announced his candidacy in April that he would only seek the nomination as a Democrat.
This will be Ms. Ward’s second run for town supervisor. She challenged Mr. Cipkowski in November 2019 with a write-in campaign, losing by a tally of 120 votes to 400 for Mr. Cipkowski. Ms. Ward cited Mr. Cipkowski’s absences from Hillsdale as her motivation to run.
In a telephone interview, after his resignation, Mr. Cipkowski expressed his support for Mr. Kersten to succeed him. County Democratic Party Chair Keith Kanaga issued a statement, saying he is proud to support the Hillsdale Democratic Committee and Mr. Kersten.