HUDSON—At the county Board of Supervisors’ organizational meeting January 3 the board voted to reassign the Emergency Management Office (EMO) by changing its status as a division of the county Sheriff’s Office and making it instead an independent county agency.
“A majority of the town supervisors voted against the measure,” according to a press release from the county Democratic Committee, but the board’s weighted voting led to its approval.
Supervisors who voted against the resolution said they needed more information before they could vote and some called on the chairman to table the motion to give the newly sworn-in sheriff, Don Krapf, who unseated a two-term incumbent last November, time to look over the divisions he now runs.
“We needed to gather more information and do our due diligence before voting on this very important issue,” said Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling (D-New Lebanon and Minority Leader) in a press release from county Democrats. She said she first learned about this proposal at the November public safety meeting and requested that county Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell (R-Stockport) postpone a decision to allow time to investigate best practices for emergency management. Mr. Murell declined, she said.
In a November press release Chairman Murell described the EMO as “a busy, part-time department of five that prepares for the worst and hopes for the best while remaining available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
At a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors held December 28, Chairman Murell talked about the work the EMO had done through the pandemic, as well as during major snowstorms, power outages and other natural disasters.
In the press release, Chairman Murell made the argument that establishing the EMO “as its own department, in turn, establishes an efficiency that does not now exist in times of crises. As its own department, the director of the Emergency Management Office reports solely to the county Board of Supervisors chairman during large countywide events (such as the pandemic) rather than two separate offices streamlines the process.”
At the December 28 meeting, EMO Director David W. Harrison, Jr., a former sheriff, agreed with Chairman Murell, saying “it’s best for the Emergency Management to be independent.” He reviewed the history of the office for the supervisors, saying that EMO had become part of the Sheriff’s Office 10 years ago and that it had been restructured several times.
The supervisors had over an hour of discussion about the plan at the December meeting. Chairman Murell also invited newly-elected board members to attend the session. And he invited Sheriff-elect Krapf and his undersheriff, Jacqueline Salvatore.
‘I realize the timing seems off.’
Supervisor Robert Lagonia (R)
Town of Austerlitz
Supervisor Brenda Adams (D-Canaan) asked for more data on the issue. She and Supervisor Michael Chameides (D-Hudson 3rd Ward) mentioned that this felt rushed. Supervisor Chameides asked for bi-partisan committee to be formed to look at the issue, and pointed out the timing of removing a division of the Sheriff’s Office when a new sheriff had just been elected. “This was not the will of the voters,” he said. In the Democratic Committee press release he said, “The explanations for creating a new department and severing the EMO from the Sheriff’s Office have been muddled and inconsistent. The timing, budget and reasoning keep changing. And yet one thing that remains consistent—there hasn’t been a compelling reason for why this decision needed to be rushed.”
At the December meeting, other supervisors also brought up the new sheriff. Supervisor Jeanne Mettler (D-Copake) said to rush to diminish his role without giving him the opportunity to defend his position as sheriff “is to disrespect him and disrespect the office of sheriff.”
She also noted the EMO’s record of success during the pandemic, asking, “If it’s not broken, what are we fixing?”
Chairman Murell said that the discussion started with the county committee in November and before that there were no meetings to discuss this issue but that Director Harrison and then Sheriff David Bartlett had started discussing it “earlier on in the year.” After the idea was brought up in November “it just made perfect sense,” said Chairman Murell.
Supervisor Robert Lagonia (R-Austerlitz) said, “I realize the timing seems off,” but he stressed that this was not a political issue. He said EMO should not be “co-mingled” with the sheriff’s office and that Director Harrison has done an outstanding job “keeping all of us safe” during the pandemic.
Supervisor Lagonia said that a bi-partisan “group of people” was formed by the chairman during the pandemic to deal with emergency issues and the Sheriff’s Office was not that involved. He said that the EMO should report to the chairman and not have “two bosses.”
At the December 28 meeting, Sheriff Krapf pointed out that he and his undersheriff did not yet have the data from the office. He stressed that the Sheriff’s Office was a public safety office and that it assists during natural disasters. He also said that the voters had overwhelmingly elected him to office to run all the divisions of the Sheriff’s Office.
When the board met again January 3 for the organizational meeting, the supervisors who voted No brought up the same issue of not having enough data and wanting the board to wait on voting.
Supervisor Claire Cousin (D-Hudson 1st Ward) said that she supported divesting and reallocating power and funds when it comes to emergency services but that she voted against the resolution due to the amount of correspondence from her constituents asking her to vote No and the lack of transparency.
Voting No, Supervisor Kathleen Eldridge (D-Greenport) said the “optics are not good” and there was “a total lack of transparency.”
Supervisor Linda Mussmann (D-Hudson 4th Ward) said she hoped the board would have time to discuss this issue, adding, “It’s too bad that the year is starting this way.”
Most who voted Yes said that more discussion wouldn’t change their minds. Also, newly sworn-in Supervisor Craig Simmons (R-Ghent) said being from Ghent he was aware of this matter several years ago and was surprised it hadn’t happened yet. He said he trusted the information from other county departments and their support of the move.
The press release from the chairman in November points out that all county-level emergency coordinators (the Fire, EMS and 911 directors) had been contacted for their opinion on the proposed move to establish county EMO as its own department and all approved the move.
“Under the proposed new structure, Emergency Management would now answer to the full Board of Supervisors, as does 911, Fire and EMS,” according to the release. (EMS stands for Emergency Medical Service.)
There are links to the recordings of the meetings, which are currently being conducted remotely and viewable on YouTube, at the county website at columbiacountyny.com