Some towns rethink how to pick highway superintendent

GERMANTOWN— Germantown will hold a special election June 19 for proposed Local Law No. 1.

The Town Board adopted a proposal for the local law on April 13 “that eliminates the position of elected Highway Superintendent and establishes the position of appointed Superintendent of the Department of Public Works,” according to a statement on the town’s website.

This local law is subject to a mandatory referendum; if the law is upheld by voters, the change will take effect January 1, 2022.

The special election will be held Saturday, June 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Kellner Community and Youth Activity Building, 54 Palatine Park Road.

According to the Germantown Board, more than 95 towns across that state have made this change from elected to appointed highway superintendents. In Columbia County, Austerlitz and Taghkanic held a special elections in May on the issue.

In Austerlitz, at a May 25 special election, the proposition was voted down (see sidebar).

Taghkanic held a special election on May 4 on Proposition No. I. asking “Shall the elective office of Superintendent of Highways of the Town of Taghkanic be abolished as of December 31, 2021, and the appointive office of Superintendent of Highways of the Town of Taghkanic be created effective January 1, 2022, said appointive office to be a two year (2) term of office and said office to be held by a resident of the State of New York?” The measure was approved with 79 Yes votes and 55 No.

A statement from the Germantown Board reads, “We believe that this is an important change for Germantown to give taxpayers the type of service and accountability they deserve. Under existing law, an elected superintendent need only be 18 and an elector of the town to run for election. There is no requirement that they have experience, general knowledge of the position or that they must work at all.

“For a job that pays currently approximately $61,000 plus benefits, we expect the superintendent to work every day. Unfortunately, there is little recourse when they do not work or even have a home in the area unless we want to pursue other legal remedies. Our current elected superintendent is not seeking reelection.”

In most towns the elected highway superintendents run in the general election with other town offices.

“The law allows us to make the position an appointment, and as a result the superintendent will be held accountable by the Town Board and we, in turn, are in regular contact with our neighbors and are held accountable by you,” the statement reads.

Supervisor Beaury reiterated much of what was in the statement at an information meeting on Tuesday, June 8, held on Zoom, before the regular Town Board meeting. He also talked about the hiring process saying that if the proposed law passes, the town would form a committee for hiring a new superintendent, who does not have to be from Germantown. And that new position would be covered under civil service law. He said at this time the board does not know what the salary for this new superintendent will be since it would be based on experience. But he stressed, “it’s about getting a qualified individual who is willing to do the job.”

At the information meeting there were a few questions about the hiring process and town resident Genette Picicci Oehlke asked about the board managing the new position. Mr. Beaury said the board does not plan to “micro-manage” the highway superintendent. Ms. Oehlke wrote a letter to the board, which was read into the minutes at the regular meeting. She also wrote a Letter to the Editor of The Columbia Paper, in which she said that a detailed cost analysis has not been published. She pointed out that highway superintendent is a “24/7 position, without additional compensation above a salary” and “an appointed position is entitled to paid vacation and paid time off, which are beyond the salaried position of an elected official.” She also pointed out in the letter that the statement about an elected highway superintendent not needing experience “gives no credit to the democratic election process and the wisdom of the voters to select the best candidate.”

Germantown Board members stressed that they are available for questions about the proposed local law and the election. Councilwoman Sarah Suarez said an email that information would be going out to people signed up for the town’s email newsletter. Deputy Supervisor Austin Sullivan said that the board would “address any and all questions that come in.”

Mr. Sullivan pointed out that there is no absentee ballot option for voting in this election. Supervisor Beaury said that the election is on a Saturday and is being run by the town, not by the County Board of Elections.

Information about the election and contact information for the board members is on the town’s website at germantownny.org

The Germantown Town Board meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Information on the meetings is at germantownny.org

Austerlitz decides to elect its super

AUSTERLITZ—The Town of Austerlitz held an election on May 25 asking voters to approve the Town Board’s proposed Local Law #1, “which provides that the elective office of the Town Superintendent of Highways be abolished and the duties and responsibilities of the elective Office of Superintendent of Highways be transferred and vested in a newly-created appointive Office of Superintendent of Highways which is appointed by the Town Board.”

There were 201 votes cast in the Austerlitz special election with, 125 No votes and 76 Yes votes, so the local law was not approved.

Minutes of a public hearing on the Austerlitz local law in February say Austerlitz Supervisor Robert Lagonia said the Town Board had been discussing the change from elected highway superintendent to appointed superintendent for “the last couple of years.” The current Austerlitz highway superintendent, Robert Meehan, told his board that he plans to retire.

The minutes also say that Supervisor Lagonia noted, “the Town Board felt under that understanding it was a good time to initiate this change.”

The minutes, on the town’s website, show that only a few members of the public commented and there were two emails. Superintendent Meehan spoke at the meeting against the law. The minutes say that Mr. Meehan “believes this position should be elected. A town resident who cares about the town and it’s residents should hold this position. Outsiders do not understand the weather conditions in the Town of Austerlitz.”

Mr. Meehan’s current four-year term ends in 2021.

A call to Supervisor Lagonia was not returned by print deadline.

The next Austerlitz Town Board meeting will be Thursday, June 17. The board meets on the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. Information about meetings is on the town’s website at austerlitzny.com—Emilia Teasdale

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