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Realignment time
by Hugh Reynolds
September 22, 2010 10:47 PM | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Among the half dozen whatever-happened-to stories I didn’t get to last week was one on Ulster County reapportionment. The least sexy of subjects, redistricting is literally the foundation of legislative politics from which almost all else follows. Fortunately, county executive Mike Hein was on the ball, offering up a full-blown press conference, with props, for the media to gobble up this Monday morning.

My first thought when notified of the press conference to detail plans for reapportionment next year was about why the county executive was launching this effort? Wasn’t this supposed to be a legislative initiative? Was Hein once again hogging the limelight?

Well, yes and no. The authority was right there in section C-10 of the new county charter: The county executive will form a pool of interested citizens from which the legislature will chose seven people to draw up a reapportionment plan for 23 single-member districts.

But couldn’t the county legislature do something like that? I asked professor Gerry Benjamin, political science whiz, charter chairman and Hein confidant, at the press conference.

The unflappable Benjamin patiently explained that the charter commission felt it more “efficient” for the full-time executive to round up volunteers for the commission than for the part-time legislature. Besides, he said, the final choices will be made by the legislature. (So what’s your problem, scribe?)

I don’t have a problem except that once again the executive gets the opportunity to display progressive leadership with such lines as “This is an important and historic task. It’s an opportunity for the citizens of Ulster County to create a fair and level playing field.”

Legislature chairman Fred Wadnola wasn’t particularly pleased with Hein riding his white horse around legislative chambers (again), grousing, “It’s in the charter. What can we do?”

Follow the white horse. Again. Please don‘t forget the scooper.

And who voted for that clause in the charter? Why, Gerry Benjamin, one of the honored guests. What comes around goes around, I guess.

By the same token, I can’t say I blame showman Hein for taking full advantage of a preordained opportunity where a simple press release would have sufficed.

Collectively, Ulster, like few others have, is taking the high road on what has been the most insidious cloistered and invidious of government functions. Let’s see where the process goes.

Here and there

Boy, did Gary Kitzmann ever get the last laugh on New Paltz town supervisor Toni Hokanson. Hokanson, recall, jettisoned the bed-ridden Kitzmann, 74, who suffered a stroke a few weeks ago, in favor of a younger running mate in local Democratic committee races. Riding a wave of sympathy, Kitzmann and his new mate prevailed on primary day by better than two to one over HokeyDokey. As politicians have long memories, Hokanson, now an ex-committeeperson, may hear more about this when she’s up for renomination next spring…

Tom Rizzi, the Highland homeowner who petitioned the county to waive some $8000 in penalties and fees, claiming his ailing wife had failed to pay their taxes, has lost his battle with city hall. Legislator Paul Hansut of Highland said state law does not allow the county to forgive the debt.

“Baloney,” said Rizzi attorney Joe Pisani of West Park (or words to that effect). “The law says the legislature can’t be forced to perform a discretionary act.” In other words, the legislature could have forgiven the Rizzi family debt (they paid over $30,000 in back taxes), but chose not to.

Hansut, who sympathized with the couple (Candace Rizzi is suffering from brain cancer), said granting the waiver would have set a bad precedent.

Pisani advised his client to pay up, rather than take his chances in court.

The late newscaster Edwin Newman, who died at 91 a few weeks ago, was known in the trade for outrageous puns. Here’s one of the best, published in The New York Times when he died: A man emerges from a violent rain storm and wipes off his feet on a newspaper in the foyer. “These,” he observes, “are the Times that dry men’s soles.” RIP Ed Newman.

School daze

Truly, these are trying times for Saugerties taxpayers. An internal report released last week showed the district with a negative fund balance of $175,000 in its $52-million budget. The state comptroller generally recommends that school districts and municipalities carry at least five percent in their fund balances, which in the case of Saugerties schools would come to some $2.6 million. And just how does the school board intend to restore that fund? Raising taxes on aroused Sawyers is no option.

Consultants to the Kingston school district are advising that at least two of 11 underutilized elementary schools could be closed without impact on the quality of education. The sprawling Kingston district runs from Zena in Woodstock to Rosendale Elementary some 16 miles away. It was created in 1959, shortly after IBM opened shop in Lake Katrine. With shrinking enrollment, soaring taxes and IBM long gone, some serious realignment should be in order.

The New Paltz school district was the latest stop on county exec Mike Hein’s continuous reelection campaign, this time with an appeal against kids smoking tobacco. Ironically, the district’s school board president is battling criticism over past charges of marijuana smoking, with some residents calling for his resignation…

Friends of Republican candidate for the Assembly Pete Rooney said it was not the candidate’s “yacht” (as I reported) docked off-shore for the September 5 Hooley on the Hudson, but a rowboat. Rooney faces an upstream battle against seven-term incumbent Kevin Cahill. Rooney’s “sign the truck” campaign seems off to a rousing start, with all sorts of congratulatory messages and best wishes festooning his new Ford pickup. Lurking with pens poised, I suspect, are a few Democratic partisans with messages less flattering.

Wild about Harry

Republican state comptroller candidate Harry Wilson, trailing Democrat incumbent Democrat Tom DiNapoli in most polls, may have a secret weapon: his Greek heritage. Wilson, 38, a hedge-fund millionaire, is the son of Greek immigrants who settled in Jamestown. Judging by an informal diner poll I took over the weekend, Wilson is definitely the house favorite in Greek-owned establishments. I spotted campaign literature in three of four.

Late summer polls showed Wilson, unknown before his nomination in May, trailing DiNapoli 48-24. On the downside, similar polls give DiNapoli a favorite factor of only 29 percent, scary numbers for an incumbent.

Campaign finance reports released in July show Wilson with $2.7 million on hand (including a $2.3 million loan from the candidate) with DiNapoli at $1.8 million.

This one will get nasty. Democrats are already calling Wilson Hedge-Fund Harry and a Wall Street insider, while Republicans are pillaring DiNapoli, a former assemblyman from Long Island, as a career hack. Pity the voters on this one.

Robin’s roost

Conducted in the intimate confines of La Mirage restaurant in Port Ewen, last week’s special meeting of the county Republican committee to elect a new chairman can fairly be characterized as somber.

Applause for retiring chairman Mario Catalano was polite, for incoming chief Robin Yess tentative. Put it this way, I don’t think many of these committee members will be getting guest shots on Curb Your Enthusiasm any time soon.

Catalano, stepping down after three years at the helm, was reasonably successful, with grassroots support, as he reminded committee members. The GOP chipped away at a solid Democratic majority in the legislature over two elections, winning an 18-15 majority last year. Thanks to third-party spoiler Vince Bradley Jr., they elected Holley Carnright district attorney in 2007. Don Williams was a shoo-in for county judge last year.

Going forward, things may not be so rosy. If Fawn Tantillo is getting any traction against incumbent Democrat Elliott Auerbach for comptroller, it’s hard to tell. And the GOP candidate for sheriff, George Goodwin, wasn’t even mentioned at the convention. Goodwin, a sergeant in the department, faces incumbent Democrat Paul Van Blarcum.

Yess, the first woman to lead the county Republican committee, obviously brings diversity to what has been mostly a boys’ club. She wants to get younger people involved, which for Republicans would mean anybody under 60. She’s run a few times herself, for county legislature and Assembly, so she appreciates what it takes.

Yess will be very much her own person, perhaps to a fault in a business where dealing and compromise are paramount.

A vignette offers an example of how she may or may not operate as GOP top dog.

It seems that Paul Hansut, the legislature’s Republican majority leader from Highland, mailed in his nominating petitions just before deadline. Either through clerical error or bad timing, he didn’t get on the ballot for reelection on primary day as a Lloyd committeeman. Hansut, understandably, was not pleased

The alternative, according to Catalano’a interpretation of the county committee bylaws he helped rewrite, was to have Hansut’s name presented to the full committee at last week’s special meeting. Yess read the bylaws differently, pointing out that the executive committee has to act on a nominee at least twelve days before a meeting of the full committee. She said there are “six or seven” other committee members similarly situated as Hansut and that all will be eventually seated.

In any case, Yess and the GOP have bigger fish to fry. According to the new chairman, there are about 180 vacancies on the committee’s 328-member roster. No wonder it took half an hour to assembly a quorum for Thursday’s special meeting.

While one example does not make a pattern, Yess would seem a stickler for the rules, which some might deem inflexible. But she does her homework. In any event, let’s give the new chair more than a week or two to get her feet wet.

Note: Every so often a word or phrase I heard years ago pops into a column, like the reference to “iron pants” in regard to Yess’s stern approach to politics. Turns out there was a real character nicknamed, Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, the 1930s National Recovery Administration director. An admirer of Mussolini, Gen. Johnson once declared, according to columnist George Will, “May God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this [NRA] bird (the symbol of the agency).”

Or the GOP eagle.

The county Democratic committee will meet in convention on Monday at Hillside Manor in Kingston, beginning with the Kingston caucus at 6 p.m. The county convention will follow at 7. Party Chairman Julian Schreibman, with mixed reviews (see Republican triumphs during his tenure) will be up for reelection. ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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