NEWS ANALYSIS: When one party can’t agree

HOW DID HILLSDALE DEMOCRATS reach the level of political turmoil that has left them with two town supervisor candidates, no interim supervisor and no vote on the county Board of Supervisors?

Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski resigned effective July 27. On August 5, Chris Kersten, chair of the Hillsdale Democratic Committee (HDC), was chosen as the HDC’s town supervisor candidate. Mr. Kersten served on the nominating committee but did not vote.

The next day Robina Ward, a town councilwoman, announced that she would challenge Mr. Kersten on an independent Hillsdale Unity Party line.

At the regular monthly Town Board meeting, August 11, Ward was appointed interim supervisor in a 2-0-1 vote. (Current Deputy Supervisor Jill Sims abstained.) Within days, town attorney Matt Cabrel advised that Ms. Ward’s appointment was not valid for lack of a majority vote.

At a special Town Board meeting, August 25, Ms. Sims repeatedly declined public requests that she “step up to the plate” and accept the interim supervisor appointment. Also, Mr. Cabrel said that it was “not illegal” to appoint a candidate, but added that “a member of the board cannot vote for self.”

Nevertheless Ms. Sims declined to change her vote, which created a stalemate that leaves Hillsdale without a vote on the Columbia County Board of Supervisors. Only town supervisors or interim supervisors may vote on matters before the county board.

Mr. Cipkowski’s last minute resignation left the HDC with a six-day window to interview and vet candidates and file the paperwork to appear on the November general election ballot. (The Republican Party is not fielding a candidate.)

On August 5, following Mr. Kersten’s selection, Town Board member Steve Tiger resigned from the HDC citing a “lack of transparency.”

Ms. Ward, too, knocked the process. In an email she said, “I was never interviewed, nor were my fellow board members interviewed as references.” Members of the committee, she said, “have yet to provide any rationale or release any criteria used to arrive at their decision.” Ms. Ward has 20 years’ service to Hillsdale through various committees. Mr. Kersten served as town judge in the 1990s.

In an email Mr. Kersten said that a Candidate Informational Forum, via ZOOM, was scheduled on August 4 but it was “canceled because of inclement weather” that caused widespread power and internet outages.

Efforts, earlier in the year to choose Mr. Cipkowski’s successor were stymied by his refusal to state definitively when he would resign. Mr. Tiger said that by March, “There was no resignation… so it would have been inappropriate to conduct interviews.”

In April Mr. Kersten announced his intent to seek the nomination. Mr. Cipkowski has endorsed him.

Public comments at both August meetings expressed concerns that Ms. Ward being interim supervisor for almost three months would give her an advantage in the general election. At the special meeting Ms. Sims stated that her interest was in an “even playing field.”

Mr. Tiger countered that “neutralizing elections” was not the town’s business.

Those speaking on behalf of appointing an interim supervisor were baffled by those opposing it and by their dismissive reaction to the importance of Hillsdale having a vote on the Board of Supervisors. Also, the town has seats on the county Public Works and Broadband Committees.

Said one speaker, “It’s a public welfare issue. We are in a pandemic.” The county budget and highway department funding were also cited as reasons for a voting representative.

Those opposed argued that the county budget “is almost complete,” that no voting of “any consequence” would occur in at least the next two months, that the county meetings “are short” and “not much goes on” and that “Republicans control” the county board. Opponents said they were satisfied with makeshift arrangements so that “anyone” could attend Board of Supervisors meetings as well as to the possibility of appointing the winner of the November election to serve until December 31, the end of Mr. Cipkowski’s term.

In the discussion of the August 11 resolution to appoint Ms. Ward interim supervisor, Mr. Tiger called her “super qualified” and fellow councilor Tom Carty said, “Robina is the logical choice.” Also, none of those who commented at the meeting spoke against Ms. Ward. One person cited her “invaluable service” on the board as a reason to not appoint her interim supervisor.

Ms. Ward acknowledged the irony of that sentiment. “Nobody seems to have a problem with me as long as I keep my head down and do the work…. The only time these issues arise is when I ask for a promotion.”

This will be Ms. Ward’s third run for town supervisor. She challenged Mr. Cipkowski as a write-in candidate in 2019, citing his absences from Hillsdale. She lost by a vote of 120 – 400.

The next Town Board meeting is Tuesday, September 8 at 7 p.m.

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