A Congressional Primary after all

Breaking:  Rhinebeck’s Cheney blocks Riley’s coronation by Dems in NY-19

by Robert Lynch, May 25, 2022

Down on the farm (and please take notice!) Jamie Cheney with husband, kids, and pet. (photo courtesy of the Red Hook Daily Catch and Jamie Cheney)

A Hudson Valley woman who points with pride to the manure on her boots has just breathed fresh life into a campaign that some had thought would see Josh Riley awarded the Democratic nomination in New York’s newly-drawn 19th Congressional District by default.

In an announcement that took the better part of a week to travel from the district’s most eastern county to its westerly edge, Dutchess County farm partner and businesswoman Jamie Cheney declared last Saturday her candidacy to run against Endicott-raised Riley to represent our newly-redrawn eastern Southern Tier and Hudson Valley district in Congress.

“This is going to be a seat that’s part of the dynamic of holding the House of Representatives this fall, and I don’t believe there is anyone running who can be a strong advocate for rural communities in the way that I have been professionally,” Cheney told The Red Hook Daily Catch, an online publication. “I have a real track record of advocating for rural families in rural communities,” Cheney added.

After another woman, Ithaca environmental advocate and businessperson Vanessa Fajans-Turner, withdrew from the 19th District congressional race late Sunday (5/22), it briefly appeared that Endicott’s Riley might win the once-crowded race to represent Tompkins County’s Democrats in Congress without a primary fight.  Not now, not unless, as always remains possible, Cheney falters in petitioning for the nomination.

Marc Molinaro, a former unsuccessful candidate for New York Governor, will likely clinch the Republican nomination in the 19th District.  Molinaro’s last potential obstacle vanished Monday when Lansing’s Republican Tompkins County Legislator, Mike Sigler, withdrew from the race.

Jamie Cheney and her husband operate Falcon’s Fields Livestock in Rhinebeck, their farm located just outside the redrawn 19th Congressional District in Dutchess County.  And in this topsy-turvy year of redistricting, one in which home towns matter less than do fields of opportunity, the 19th District’s Molinaro also hails from Dutchess County.  Like Cheney, he lives outside the district.  Molinaro is the Dutchess County Executive.

There’s an opportunistic side to Cheney in a second respect.  Media reports indicate that until last Saturday—one day after a State Supreme Court Judge made revised redistricting maps final—Cheney was competing not for Congress, but instead for the New York State Senate.

Before last weekend, Cheney had campaigned to unseat Republican State Senator Sue Serino.  But as redistricting lines kept changing, so, too, did Cheney’s political plans.  When special master Jonathan Cervas’ redistricting maps pitted Cheney in a presumptive Primary contest against a personal friend, State Senator Michelle Hinchey, the unelected Cheney backed out, and switched attention to a congressional bid instead.

According to press reports, Cheney first disclosed her change of course in a Tweet Saturday (5/21).  As this story is posted, Cheney has yet to make her candidacy widely-known districtwide, including in Tompkins County.  Indeed, those locally may have only learned of Jamie Cheney through her solicitations for support on social media. (That’s how this writer did.)

“Democrats have the best intention for every working family in this country,” Cheney told The Daily Catch, but “they often don’t quite understand what it’s like to support your family in a rural community where the nearest job might be 45 minutes away.”

Should Cheney and Riley remain the only two Democrats vying for the party’s nomination in their chosen district, the casual voter might gain the misimpression that theirs is a rural-urban working-class face-off, a campaign by novices holding little more than a high school education.  Not so. 

Though a promotional video champions his family’s industrial rust belt roots on the outskirts of Binghamton, Josh Riley claims credit to a Harvard law degree, and he’s worked inside the beltway with the likes of Congressman Maurice Hinchey and Senators Al Franken and Ted Kennedy.  Jamie Cheney, while truly a farmer, is also a Yale and Harvard Business School graduate.  She’s a founding partner in a Manhattan-based talent recruitment agency, Prokanga

Working Class hero, with a degree from Harvard Law; Josh Riley.

Yet Cheney’s website—at this writing, lean on specifics—puts her farm life front and center.  Her pictures are of barns and cattle, not of board rooms.

Cheney’s introductory biography stands typical of her initial generality.

“I know how hard it is,” Cheney writes on her profile.  “The difficulty of running a small business with no safety net during a pandemic, the struggle of turning a profit on a small-scale farm, and the pressure of balancing work and family.”

On her website’s home page, one finds another example; this under the category of “Democracy is under attack”:

“We need a Congresswoman who is invested in us.  We need a someone (sic) who knows that the current political climate makes it impossible to serve the people.  It is time the Hudson Valley and Southern Tier have a Congresswoman who advocates tirelessly for a government that works for us.”

One would expect, in time, Cheney will put more flesh on those bones of platitude.  Her website initially resembles very much a work in progress. (Writer’s observation: “been there; done that.”)

Yet why, The Daily Catch asked, did not Jamie Cheney simplify her campaign—and avoid Riley’s possibly labeling her a carpetbagger—by running in her home district, the new 18th District, the one that includes Dutchess County just to its south.  She had an answer.

“I don’t think I’m the best advocate for the 18th,” Cheney told its reporter, ceding the district in Dutchess to fellow Democrat, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan.  Cheney described the 18th as “the last district that looks south to New York (City).”  And she’d prefer opting for the perceived country focus of the 19th to the “distinctly suburban flavor” of the district to which her farm sits on its northern fringe.

****

But with new district lines drawn, former candidates gone and now new ones arriving, the Congressional Primary races of 2022 still have nearly three more months to run.  The primary isn’t until August 23rd.  Additional candidates may enter. They have until June 10th to file their petitions.

A choice beats a coronation anytime.  Providing Jamie Cheney secures her needed 1,062 valid petition signatures by the June deadline, a choice we will have.  It should be fun.

###

Previously in Politics:

Sigler suspends campaign for Congress

“I can’t see a path forward…” 

by Robert Lynch, May 23, 2022; additional reporting filed at 10:34 PM

Perhaps the old Martha and the Vandellas song title best described Mike Sigler’s plight.  “Nowhere to Run.”

Monday afternoon (May 23rd), Sigler, the Lansing Republican now beginning his fourth term on the Tompkins County Legislature, dropped out of the race for Congress.  Suspending what had been an aggressive and initially productive quest to secure the GOP nomination in the Ithaca-to-Syracuse 22nd Congressional District, the district state legislative Democrats had drawn in February, Sigler suddenly hit a political brick wall this past week when a court-appointed special master, at a judge’s direction, redrew those district lines to erase political gerrymandering.  He also erased Sigler’s political fortunes.

In happier times. Mike Sigler, when he initially filed his political petitions.

As a result, Sigler found his Lansing home—and all of Tompkins County, for that matter—severed from the Syracuse heart of the redrawn 22nd District, the area where he’d spent much of his time and effort campaigning these recent months.  Last week, a new Republican candidate, Cazenovia businessman Steve Wells, entered the Republican race for the 22nd District’s Congressional seat.  And in Tompkins County, now placed within a district that extends east to the Massachusetts border, Sigler would have been pitted head to head with a former New York gubernatorial candidate, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, had Sigler chosen to compete on home turf.

“The lines have changed dramatically and while I’m still a solid candidate, it puts a significant barrier in the way and robs me of several of my main arguments for running in the first place,” said Sigler in a Monday afternoon statement announcing suspension of his campaign.  “While I believe I was ideal for the old district, I can’t see a path forward in the new district and I am suspending my campaign,” Sigler added.

As he stepped aside, Sigler endorsed Wells for Congress in the Syracuse-based 22nd District and Molinaro for nomination in the eastern Southern Tier and Hudson Valley district that now includes Tompkins County.

Sigler’s withdrawal marks the second time in 24 hours that a local candidate for Congress has stepped aside.  In a Sunday evening statement shared with the media early Monday, Ithaca Democrat Vanessa Fajans-Turner pulled the plug on her own congressional campaign.  Fajans-Turner, like Sigler, cited a similar problem; namely a redrawn congressional district that made it tougher for her to compete.

“This new district,” said Ithacan Fajans-Turner of the district in which her county has now been placed, “is very different from the one in which I have been campaigning and building voter trust since launching in February.” 

Recognizing Republican Molinaro’s stature in this district, Fajans-Turner added, “I will not act in any way that splits the Democratic field in this new swing district with an established and well-funded Republican in the running. This national moment is larger than any individual candidate, and it is incumbent on all of us to work for the greater, common cause as the stakes of this race continue to rise.”

As it stands at present, neither Tompkins County Republican nor Democratic voters may be offered a Congressional primary this August.  Unless additional candidates enter on either side—and assuming 19th District incumbent Congressman Antonio Delgado follows through on plans to resign his seat to become New York’s Lieutenant Governor—only Molinaro will compete for the 19th district’s Republican nomination, and Endicott native Josh Riley for the district’s Democratic nod.

Ironically, it was a Republican-driven lawsuit that did in Mike Sigler’s campaign.  After Democratic super-majorities in New York’s Senate and State Assembly drew Congressional and state legislative lines in February to favor their own party’s chances in November, and thrust them through the Legislature on largely party-line votes, Republican plaintiffs challenged those district lines in court.  Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister upheld the Republican lawsuit in late-March, and McAllister’s holding was later upheld in large part by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals holding, in turn, triggered Judge McAllister to name a special master, Jonathan Cervas, to prepare new congressional and state senatorial maps.  Cervas released his preliminary drafts of his maps May 16th.  Judge McAllister approved those drafts with only minor changes last Friday.

But for both Sigler and Fajans-Turner, the new districts spelled bad news.  If either candidate had chosen to remain in his or her earlier-declared 22nd District contests, they’d have faced the political handicap of competing out of their home territory, and also faced the prospect of being labeled a carpetbagger. For Fajans-Turner, as many as four Onondaga County-based candidates would have been waiting to confront her in the 22nd.  And for Sigler, the May 18th entry of Steve Wells, well-known in the new district as a founding partner of the American Food and Vending Corporation, would have made competing in the 22nd an uphill fight.

Out of the race as well. Democrat Vanessa Fajans-Turner

Moving to home terriroty would not have been much better for either.  Fajans-Turner would have faced the better-known and better-financed Riley, who grew up in the Binghamton area now part of the redrawn 19th District.   And for Sigler, it would have meant going head-to-head with Molinaro, a former candidate for Governor.

One other option remained possible.  Yet, it, too, spelled trouble.  Since New York law permits candidates to run outside their home districts, Sigler could have jumped across the Tompkins-Cayuga County line into the new 24th Congressional District.  The 24th is a Republican-favored safe-zone, redrawn by Cervas to encompass the northern Finger Lakes and vast swaths of the Lake Ontario shoreline from the St. Lawrence River to Niagara County. 

But as a practical matter, conservative Congresswoman Claudia Tenney foreclosed that option Saturday when she, herself, announced plans to run in the 24th.  Tenney has plentiful campaign cash, deep-red conservative bona fides, and most importantly, the strong endorsement of former President Trump.

Sources indicate Sigler had firmed up plans to suspend his campaign by the weekend, yet delayed his formal announcement until Monday.

“I don’t feel this was a waste of time,” said Sigler Monday, putting the best face on a disappointing turn of events.  “The court could have easily gone the other way. I’m happy they ruled the way they did as we now have much more competitive races in NY,” he added.

“To say I’m grateful for everyone who believed in this campaign and its vision is the largest of understatements I can imagine,” said Fajans-Turner, in her own withdrawal from the congressional race.  “We campaigned to drive conversation and engagement around key issues in the community. While our time in this race has ended, our work most certainly has not.”

A Democratic Primary for Congress—if, indeed there is one—would occur August 23rd.  Unless either of two candidates drops out before then, Tompkins County Democrats will still have to decide that day their nominee for State Senate, with Leslie Danks Burke and Lea Webb vying for that nomination.

****

Mike Sigler’s Monday afternoon announcement suspending his campaign for Congress was as follows:

Hello,

I want to begin by thanking you for your support in the race for the 22nd district. I jumped into the race February 3rd. I believed, as many of you did, that I was the best candidate for that district, that we would win, and retain the seat against very steep odds. That was always my main goal, to win the seat, and win back the House of Representatives.

The lines have changed dramatically and while I’m still a solid candidate, it puts a significant barrier in the way and robs me of several of my main arguments for running in the first place. While I believe I was ideal for the old district, I can’t see a path forward in the new district and I am suspending my campaign.

Fortunately, the new district is a perfect fit for Steve Wells to run in and win. He has deep ties to both Madison and Onondaga, has run before, and has the means to ramp up a campaign quickly. He was very helpful to me when I first decided to run, introducing me to potential supporters and talking me up.

Thank you for all your support over the past three months. I said I couldn’t do it without the committees and I was proud to gain 100 percent committee support in the gerrymandered district. I don’t feel this was a waste of time. The court could have easily gone the other way. I’m happy they ruled the way they did as we now have much more competitive races in NY.

I will continue to work to elect Marc Molinaro who is now looking to represent Tompkins County and Lee Zeldin and Alison Esposito.

Thank you again for your support and please join your town committee. They are the grassroots. Only you put you on the sidelines. The primary for governor is June 28th. Early voting starts the 18th.

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Posted Previously:

Judge approves maps; Tenney moves yet again

by Robert Lynch; May 21, 2022

Fasten your seatbelts.  We’re in for a wild ride.

Minutes before Midnight Friday (May 20), the deadline day, Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister approved the modified redistricting maps for U.S. Congress and New York State Senate.  Reportedly, Judge McAllister made minor adjustments to special master Jonathan Cervas’ submitted maps, initial reports suggest those changes would not affect the districts proposed for Tompkins County or those immediately adjacent to it.

Our new NY-19 Congressional District, in the redistricting map signed off by the court Friday night.

Wasting no time, conservative Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney tweeted early Saturday morning that she will move her district of competition this fall yet again, this for the second time.  Tenney announced she will run in the new 24th Congressional District, the one that will stretch from the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario to the western towns of Erie County, and include the nearby counties of Seneca, Cayuga and Yates.

“I’m announcing my candidacy for the new #NY24, which includes areas I currently represent in Congress,” Tenney tweeted at 1:26 AM Saturday.  “I’m honored to have received the support of President Trump, (House GOP Conference) Chair Elise Stefanik, and several county Republican chairs,” Tenney continued.

Tenney’s decision appears to have been made on impulse, with little preplanning.  As of mid-morning Saturday, Tenney’s campaign website still listed her as a candidate for the Southern Tier 23rd District, represented, until his recent resignation, by fellow Republican Congressman Tom Reed.  Tenney hails from the Utica area. Unless maps have been adjusted, her home would not be in either the 23rd or 24th Districts.

“On the Road, Again;” Congresswoman Claudia Tenney

By this latest decision, the Trump-aligned Tenney has placed herself securely in the position of an opportunist, taking her campaign to wherever political pastures look greenest.  Beltway commentators call such candidates “mattress-draggers.”  And a cynical comic might say Tenney’s mattress has been dragged so much that it should be tossed into Buddy Rollins’ dumpster today at Enfield Clean-up Days.

The final maps approved late Friday by Judge McAllister have yet to be reviewed in detail for minor changes from the special master’s initial submissions, released this past Monday.  They’d place all of Tompkins County within a redrawn 19th Congressional district.  With Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado appointed—but not yet officially elevated—to Lieutenant Governor by Governor Hochul, the new 19th would likely have no incumbent for the fall election. 

As redrawn by special master Cervas, the 19th District would place Tompkins County as its western anchor.  It would stretch east through Binghamton and across the Hudson Riven to the Massachusetts border.  The 19th would include Cortland County.  In ways, it would resemble the former Matt McHugh/Maurice Hinchey district of decades past.

At present, two Democrats, Josh Riley and Ithaca’s Vanessa Fajans-Turner, have declared for the 19th District’s Congressional contest.  Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a former unsuccessful candidate for New York Governor, has declared on the Republican side. 

Lansing Republican Mike Sigler could run in the 19th District for the Republican nomination.  But as of late Friday, Sigler’s social media still had him competing in the 22nd District, where Democratic state legislators had initially placed Tompkins County, but from which the special master later removed it following successful court challenges.

If Sigler were to continue to run in the 22nd District, he’d be competing outside of his home district, which remains legal.  Were he to sidle into the 19th District, home turf, he’d face Molinaro, a potentially uphill battle.

Where to, now? Mike Sigler

Meanwhile, in the 23rd District, where Congressman Reed recently resigned, the New York Times reported Saturday that Buffalo-area Congressman Chris Jacobs would compete as the Republican candidate.  Democrats this week coalesced around Tioga County’s Max Della Pia for the Democratic nomination for the 23rd District seat.

The Cervas’ maps for State Senate, apparently ratified by Judge McAllister without major change, would link all of Tompkins County with the Binghamton area.  There’d be no incumbent.  Ithaca’s Leslie Danks Burke and Binghamton’s Lea Web are competing for this new 52nd District’s Democratic nomination.  Former Binghamton Mayor Rich David stands as the Republican candidate.

All of this last-minute change comes following the Court of Appeals ratification in late-April of Judge McAllister’s earlier ruling in a Republican-brought lawsuit that struck down redistricting maps drawn by the Democrat-dominated New York state Legislature as unconstitutional.  Primaries for the redrawn districts will happen August 23rd.

This is a breaking, evolving story.  More will be reported as it is known.

The downstate website the Gothamist, provides the statewide perspective.https://gothamist.com/news/court-finalizes-new-ny-congressional-state-senate-maps

More later.

###

Posted Earlier:

The “Lake Street Fiasco”

Ithaca School Board certifies “mess” of an election

[And now, posted after: Enfield road construction costs jump by up to 70%; and more from the May Town Board meeting]

by Robert Lynch, May 19, 2022

Maybe Board of Education member Christopher Malcolm put it best:  “Really, we understand that this was a mess.”

Malcolm’s colleague, Nicole LaFave was less forgiving:  “I personally feel like maybe it wasn’t intentional, but there was voter suppression.”

Abstaining… and questioning; School Board member Nicole LaFave

Despite the apologies, criticisms, excuses— and most noticeably, LaFave’s abstention—the Ithaca School Board Wednesday evening (May 18) certified the results of the district’s election of a day earlier, a seven-way contest for four Board seats that sparked an unusually high turnout, elected newcomers as its two top vote-getters, and saw long-time Board President Robert Ainslie ousted, Ainslie finishing the election second to last.

With one member (Dr. Patricia Wasyliw) excused and a second seat left vacant by a prior resignation, six of the Board’s remaining members, absent LaFave, certified Tuesday’s results as valid even though a trifecta of errors election day had strained the credibility of an educational institution that teaches—or at least, should teach—its charges to get the right answer the first time.

State law required the School Board to validate Tuesday’s election results by 8 PM Wednesday.  And based on the meeting’s advice from the school district’s attorney, Kate Reid, the Board had little choice but to do so, mistakes or not.  Had the Board not certified, or had it otherwise questioned the results, only the State Education Commissioner could have resolved the matter.

“I can share with you that our legal representation has shared with us that the election is completely valid,” Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown counseled the Board Wednesday.  Brown added, “There were no concerns from our school district attorney’s perspective that there are issues that need to go to the Commissioner or any issues around the invalidation of this particular election.”

The lawyer says “the election is completely valid.” Supt. Dr. Luvelle Brown

But issues there were.  And whether Tuesday’s errors, taken in their totality, place the voters’ will in doubt remains a subjective decision very much a matter of personal opinion.

Critics to Wednesday’s vote cite three problems in particular.  At some polling locations early in the day, signs instructed voters to select three candidates, not the correct number, four.  Poll workers ran out of ballots at one or more sites, as district officials had not anticipated the heavy turnout.  And the status of disqualified Board candidate Benjamin Mumford-Zisk rested on shifting sands throughout the day.  Signs first stated that Mumford-Zisk had withdrawn from the election.  Later, they were changed to indicate that he had failed to meet the district’s one year, continuous residency requirement and had become ineligible to serve.

“Before I vote, I need to know that that election isn’t void given everything that happened,” said LaFave.  Members, including LaFave, requested, and got, attorney Reid’s explanation, a rapid-fire, far-reaching legal overview that consumed half of the 44-minute meeting and ended with Reid concluding that any errors committed were likely only harmless and  not fatal to the final result.

But the inference drawn from Tuesday’s “Lake Street Fiasco”—if one might call it that—is that a patchwork of confusing state laws coupled with an absence of responsibility and accountability by those who should have known better had left election machinery to run on its own that day, with no one truly in charge… and without the Board of Elections to serve as the grownup in the room.

“We do not oversee the election, nor does Central Administration,” stated Board member Moira Lang at an early point in the meeting, probably speaking in error.  “As I understand it,” Lang said of election responsibility, “it’s the Board Clerk, in consultation with the Board of Elections.  This is not something we run.”

Well, not exactly, attorney Reid responded, at least not when it comes to rejecting candidate Mumford-Zisk as ineligible.

“Sometimes, the Education Law doesn’t make a lot of sense, guys,” Reid counseled the Board.  “It’s scripted.  A lot of these laws are 100 years old.  It’s not intuitive.  You can’t shoot from the hip on it.”

For example, the laws governing rural, central school elections place candidate vetting responsibilities with the District Clerk.  Small City School Law places Ithaca’s with the Board of Education.  And whereas the Ithaca Board is not necessarily required to vet candidates, it must disqualify a candidate once the Board learns he’s ineligible, Reid stated.

Superintendent Brown, later, in response to LaFave’s inquiry, advised the Board he’d only learned of Mumford Zisk’s ineligibility at 10:15 PM on election eve.

As to LaFave’s other major concern, the attorney made it clear that district employees or volunteers, quite clearly, had failed to think.  Last year, only three Board seats were up for election.  This year, because of a vacancy, the number had risen to four.  Staff thoughtlessly, routinely posted last year’s signs.

“I was personally upset by that development when I learned that those posters had been posted,” Reid told the Board, clutching her throat, “because I can appreciate 100 per cent, as a taxpayer and a voter why people would have been confused.”

“I was personally very upset” by those erroneous posters; ICSD Attorney Kate Reid.

Confused, perhaps, but Reid concluded, not to the point of invalidating the election.

“But the School Board is human, right?” the attorney continued.  “This election is being run by human beings; by people, largely retirees, who are coming out to help us with this, and there’s a margin of human error involved in that.”

Reid acknowledged her research had found no legal precedent for how the law handles such posted misinformation.  Yet she doubted a legal challenge would succeed.  First, she said, the posting was “relatively limited,” maybe for two hours or less.  Secondly, she said, the ballot, itself, was accurate.

“There was no intentional attempt to disenfranchise voters here,” Reid concluded.  “This was a minor oversight.”

The mix-up over the Mumford-Zisk candidacy’s ever-changing ballot status may, in truth, have been the candidate’s own fault.  Reid claimed her colleague had contacted Mumford-Zisk at about Noon on Tuesday and informed him of his ineligibility.  Mumford-Zisk, in turn, “represented to her that he was withdrawing his candidacy.”

But at about 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, with the election well underway, an attorney for New York State United Teachers called Reid to inform her that the candidate had “changed his mind” and “was not planning, in fact, to withdraw his candidacy.”  School officials then realized that their earlier-posted signs stating Mumford-Zisk’s withdrawal were “materially inaccurate.”  They replaced them with signs that explained his ineligibility instead.

It would have been a “circumvention of the democratic process,” said Reid, for the district to allow the election to proceed without notifying voters of the candidate’s disqualification.  Mumford-Zisk, if elected, could not have been seated.  The School Board would have needed to appoint a replacement.  Election results could have faced a greater chance for legal challenge, she argued.  Furthermore, the appointment, Reid said, would have been “anti-democratic.”

But when assigning blame for the multi-faceted errors at Ithaca School District polling places, quite clearly, the Board of Elections becomes an innocent observer. Because New York places school election administration under the Education Law, and not the Elections Law, it relegates the Board of Elections only to the background.

“They (the school districts) give us lists of candidates,” Tompkins County Deputy Elections Commissioner Elizabeth Livesay said Thursday.  “We use an election management system to print the ballot.”  District officials then, said Livesay, “give us a thumbs up or thumbs down,” on the ballot created. The district makes changes, when needed.  Then, Livesay continued, the elections board creates the ballot’s “final scannable version” and provides it to the schools, along with pre-tested voting machines.

Addressing the issue of Mumford Zisk’s disqualification—based on a residency requirement set by the Ithaca District, not by the State or the Board of Elections—Livesay made it clear.  “We don’t get into the legalities of who’s eligible for the ballot.”

Though Board member Lang may have been technically correct when she said that the Board, itself, does not run its own election, the Board’s Clerk, by contrast, assumes a pivotal role.  And LaFave pressed Superintendent Brown as to whether the Board Clerk should have vetted residency eligibilities, including Mumford Zisk’s, in advance.

“The Board Clerk assumes they are residents based on their affirmation as part of the documentation they hand in,” Brown responded.

President Ainslie weighed in, noting the candidates’ packet clearly states the residency requirement on its face.

“The fact that someone did not read it, which was perhaps the case, that’s not the Board Clerk’s obligation, to have you stand there and read it,” said Ainslie.

Ainslie, president of the Ithaca School Board since 2008, will depart next month, unless, as is unlikely, Tuesday’s elections get overturned.  Attorney Reid indicated a voter could still petition for the Education Commissioner’s review.  Ainslie finished sixth in Tuesday’s voting, falling one vote behind the disqualified Mumford-Zisk.

Newcomers Karen Yearwood and Jill Tripp led the pack in Tuesday’s balloting, Yearwood securing 2,799 votes; Tripp 2,604 votes, respectively, each earning a full, three-year position.  Incumbents Erin Croyle (2,584 votes) and Eldred Harris (1,292 votes) secured the remaining two Board spots, though Harris must settle for a two-year appointment to fill the remainder of a Board vacancy created by Kelly Evans’ earlier resignation.

Less controversial, Ithaca District voters handily approved a nearly $149 Million 2022-23 District Budget Tuesday; the vote 2,446 votes to 1,069.  Voters also authorized two other spending propositions, each by wide margins.  However, they rejected a fourth proposition, more controversial, that would have conveyed a small parcel adjacent to the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School downtown to the City of Ithaca to enable expansion of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center’s Gymnasium.

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Inflation Hits Enfield Road Projects Hard

by Robert Lynch, May 20, 2022

The cost of rebuilding an Enfield road just went up… and by a lot.

Though the national inflation rate may be running at 8.3 per cent, revised estimates Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins put before his Town Board this month project his department’s road construction costs may rise by several multiples of the national figure. 

The price of a facelift; Superintendent’s estimates for Harvey Hill Road rehab jump 71.4%.

In one notable instance, the planned 1.2-mile resurfacing of Harvey Hill Road just west of Route 327, Rollins revised estimates project a 71.4 per cent increase—from $140,000 to $240,000—since his original projections were approved by the Board in January.

For another road slated for upgrade this year, a one-mile stretch of East Enfield Center Road between South Applegate Road and Enfield Center, Rollins projects a 50 per cent increase, from $40,000 to $60,000.

“It’s really the jump in Harvey Hill that caused my jaw to drop,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), said as Board members, at Lynch’s request, discussed the increases May 11th.  Only Lynch voiced serious concerns.

“Well, you want me not (to) do it?” questioned Rollins in response. “I mean that’s all there is to it.  I either do it or don’t do it,” he continued.  “I’m not going to sit here and argue about the money.  The price is the price.  And that’s all there is to it.”

The Superintendent’s cost figures came in a so-called “Amended 284 Agreement,” a one-page authorization form named after the section of New York Highway Law which commands it.  Once yearly, generally in January, members of all town boards must sign a “284 Agreement” to authorize how much money their Highway Superintendents may spend on local road maintenance… and on which roads.  The Agreement provides one of the few legal controls a town board holds over the actions of an independently-elected Highway Superintendent.

Enfield Board members signed the original 284 Agreement Rollins submitted January 12th.  The amended document, its totals increased because of inflation, was submitted by Rollins in an email May fourth.

While Rollins assigned certain road projects major increases—the Harvey Hill Road cost increase could be annualized at 171 per cent—the Superintendent’s overall “284” spending would grow more modestly.  For reasons never discussed during the meeting, Rollins had reduced by more than 20 per cent his projected expenditures for “General Repairs,” the day-to-day maintenance assigned to no specific road, but rather to Enfield’s 86.2 miles of Town-maintained roads in general.  Spending for General Repairs, under the amended agreement, would fall from $145,000 to just under $116,000.  The Harvey Hill and Enfield Center Road projects are assigned to a separate category, called “Permanent Improvements.”

Lynch sought and obtained from Supervisor Stephanie Redmond assurances that the Town’s budget could handle the increase.

“We’re actually doing pretty well,” said Redmond of Town finances, though she conceded Rollins’ figures would leave less money in Highway Reserves.

“Mr. Lynch,” Rollins said tersely, “I don’t go over my budget, and the money that I got allocated is in my budget.”

Apologizing to Rollins for “a lot of bad blood” that had spilled between the Town Board and the Superintendent in the past, Lynch said he was only pursuing curiosity as to why, with single-digit annual inflation nationally, one road project had risen by over 70 per cent in five months.

“If you take fuel costs alone,” replied Redmond, “the inflation is a lot higher.”

“Not 71.4 per cent,” Lynch answered.  “Not in five months.  My cost of gas hasn’t gone up that much.”

At Lynch’s urging, the Town Board passed a largely-symbolic resolution to accept the Superintendent’s changes. It included Lynch’s stipulation that Rollins “will not spend the entire amount if he does not need to.”  Though the law requires members only lend their signatures, the Enfield Board has of late preferred to back up those signatures with official action.

Estimates Rollins provided under the 284 Agreement apportion Highway Department spending only by road.  Rollins need not provide a detailed cost breakout, and he did not.  The superintendent stated the estimates calculate only maximum costs, not necessarily what he will spend.

****

The Enfield Town Board spent money in other ways that Wednesday night.  As the second act to a contentious Board discussion in April—yet one far more placid this time—the Town Board unanimously voted to award contracts for installation of heat pumps on the upper floor of the Town Courthouse, where the Town Justice holds court and the Town Board conducts in-person meetings.

The multi-stage project, made far more complex and expensive by environmental rules, would cost nearly $46,000.  Supervisor Redmond assured the Board a State grant will cover the expense.

Though the heat pumps’ contractor would charge less than $18,000, the project’s price tag was raised significantly by the need to reinsulate the Courthouse attic and remove the existing vermiculite insulation through asbestos-abatement protocols.  Indeed, the asbestos abatement became the costliest expense.

Councilperson Lynch, who strongly opposed the Courthouse project a month earlier, supported awarding the contracts this time.  Given the Courthouse building’s uncertain future, Lynch reiterated his own reluctance.  But he yielded to the Board’s majority opinion that the project should proceed, concluding the matter had been settled.

In other business:

  • The Town Board considered, but then tabled, Councilperson Lynch’s initiative to alter a 12-year old practice governing how Enfield receives its share of Tompkins County sales Tax revenue.  Since 2011, the Town has chosen to credit Sales Tax receipts to reduce the County’s share of Property tax, rather than take the money directly. 

While direct payment of Sales Tax could simplify Town budgeting in this tight financial year, Lynch acknowledged he’s had second-thoughts about his idea, after learning the proposed change may reduce Enfield’s share of so-called “PILOT” revenues received from solar farms.  “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face,” the Councilperson said.

 The Sales tax change will head to the Town’s Finance Committee for more study.

  • And as to solar farms themselves, the Town Board, following a sparsely-attended Public Hearing, continued for an additional six months a Town-wide moratorium on approval of new commercial solar installations.  The Board imposed the moratorium last December to permit a committee to study changes that could bring the Town more revenue from future solar farms.  “I’m in favor of extending so we can get it all done and done right,” said resident Marcus Gingerich, the hearing’s only commenter.

###

Posted Previously:

Tompkins Does It One Way; Enfield Another

Public Transparency and the ARPA Awards Process

Posted by Robert Lynch; May 13, 2022

“I think the Town Board is going to wish that they’d put that $348,000 in the center of town and burned it.”

A well-known Enfield leader in an email to this Councilperson, April 14th.

****

Shawna Black

On Tuesday, May third, the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature appointed a committee to assist its consultant in awarding funds under the “Community Recovery Fund,” Tompkins County Government’s back-door answer to the federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA).  Some three weeks earlier, the Enfield Town Board established its own, citizen-based ARPA Advisory Committee. Which of these committees will be open to public view, and which will stay locked behind closed zoom-room doors?  Take a guess.

On this more recent night, Chair Shawna Black appointed the County Recovery Advisory Committee’s five members.  Danby Legislator Dan Klein will chair the group.  Legislators Lee Shurtleff, Anne Koreman, Veronica Pillar, and Black, herself, will join Klein.  As the appointments were read, Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson, attending remotely from her often-frequented living room couch, waved desperately to get Black’s attention.

“There’s an important distinction to be made,” Dawson sought to clarify.  “This is not a committee.  This is a Working Group.”  (Working Groups, it seems, meet in secret.)

“No, Deb,” Black said to correct, “It actually is a committee.”  The Chair explained she’d reclassified the panel following conversations with County Attorney Bill Troy.  And she did it for a reason. 

“Isn’t it a Working Group?” No, Deb. It’s a “committee;” where sunlight shines aplenty, said Chair Shawna Black.

“Ideally,” Black stated, “we really want to make sure it’s as transparent as possible to the people applying, to our community, so that they understand the conversations.  And we should not be having the conversations behind closed doors.”

“So we will have staff there,” the Legislature’s Chair continued.  “It will be available on zoom.  We will have to have somewhat of an agenda in order for us to be as transparent as possible with this process.”

Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond, you could learn a lesson from Shawna Black’s tip of the scales to transparency.  So, too, could three other members of our Town Board.  I suggest Black conduct a seminar of sorts.  But when you meet, you need not necessarily invite me, although I’d gladly attend.  You see, I’m already a convert to the cleansing power of legislative sunlight.

Tompkins County has some $6.5 Million to give out in its first round of the Recovery Fund.  We in Enfield hold a meager $348,000 in ARPA promises.  We must spend our money wisely.  We must do so fairly.  We cannot satisfy every applicant’s request.  We cannot make everyone happy.  But neither should we make anyone mad.  That, my friends; my constituents, will be a challenge.  Given how we’ve framed the process at the start, I fear this will not end well.  Worst case, it could tear our community apart—yet again.

At our Town Board’s April 13th meeting, over my lone objection, our Board created the “2022 American Rescue Plan Act Advisory Committee.”  Initially numbering eight members, but already growing, the Enfield ARPA Committee is populated by a mix of prominent local residents and chosen elected officers.  Supervisor Redmond appointed herself to the committee.  She also named Councilperson Jude Lemke.  The committee will meet in private.  Nonetheless, after its first session, it did release meeting minutes, an encouraging sign. 

The Board gave the Advisory Committee a mission: “to increase engagement with residents” and “to advise the (Town) Board on how to expend these funds.”  One easily sees the committee as a funding gatekeeper; as a first point of triage.  It will likely sort through and order agency funding requests, and presumably do so in confidence.  Most recently, it has sought to marshal others—including me—to identify backup options for applicant support; to seek matching funds and maybe to write grant proposals.  Well, that’s a new one for me. 

Most troubling, however, the committee elevates the opinions of just two Town Board members above those of the other three.  It heightens their power and prominence.  The double-standard created only reopens a wound torn wide by past controversies.  It allows critics to envision the specter of an Enfield “Shadow Government.”  Moreover, it provokes jealousy and envy when collegiality and equality of input should prevail.

As one prominent—and I will respectfully leave unnamed—Enfield community leader wrote me the morning after the committee’s formation:

“This reminds me so much of a happy family that ends up hating each other once the parents die and money and possessions need to be divided, greed!  This committee has got the potential to be the worst mud throwing committee I have seen in a while.”

My constituent was not through. “I think the town board is going to wish that they put that $348,000 in the center of town and burned it.”

That, my community, is not a good start.

At the “Public Forum,” that began our April 13th meeting—our Board chose not to assign it the formality of a “Hearing”—we invited comment on how Enfield’s $348,000 in ARPA funds should be spent.  Worthy agencies stepped forward; three in particular. 

  • The Enfield Volunteer Fire Company sought $207,000, the vast majority of it, $194,579, requested to construct new facilities to house up to six Fire or EMS personnel in what’s commonly called a “bunk room.” The goal is to speed response time and increase manpower for emergency calls.  A much smaller portion of the requested total, $8,500 would update the company’s aging audio/visual training equipment.  The request also included two lesser items.
  • The Enfield Food Pantry, in an appeal supplemented by a petition bearing 137 names, sought $150,000 to acquire property as the site for an expanded Food Pantry and Community Garden.
  • The Enfield Community Council asked for moneys to underwrite as many as four projects at its new community center:  1) to replace its roof; 2) to install an emergency generator; 3) to upgrade its kitchen to commercial grade, capable of serving every Enfield resident two meals per day under emergencies; and 4) to replace a water-damaged, attached trailer with a permanent “teen space” addition.  ECC officials did not supply cost figures at the forum that night, but the generator’s installation estimate has since come in at $66,000. 

One additional commenter mentioned headstone maintenance at town cemeteries. Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins urged funds be spent on the Town’s “inner-structure,” presumably Highway Department facilities.  Rollins argued inner-structure investments would benefit “all the people of the town,” not just a few.

“Obviously, the requests we’re getting exceed the amount of money that is available,” observed Councilperson Lemke.  “So it’s not going to be possible to accommodate everybody, and it’s going to be a tough choice.”

And there lies the problem.  Enfield is a small town.  Neighbors know neighbors.  Our intimacy can work to bring us all together or with equal strength to pull us each apart.  As consultant Ronald Mendrick wrote last year about Enfield, in a report commissioned and paid for by Enfield:

“The consensus of the information gathered is that the Town has a long history of controversial relations at meetings and among some Town officials who have in some instances come and gone…. The history of controversy as reported by many includes yelling and profanity at Board meetings, disrespectful comments back and forth among the public and public officials, attribution by some that others have personal, political, and/or unseemly motives, and much less than civil relations.”

So to avoid the errors of the past, we must not tempt ourselves to revisit the places of the past where dissention and hostility breed.   And one of the surest ways to step temptation’s way is to create the slightest perception that Enfield’s voters have assigned a few of their elected leaders or, perhaps, one or more of their high-profile service agencies special privilege and influence over others.  That’s my worry.

The EVFC would like $194,000 to build a “bunk room,” one of several big-ticket proposals advanced to use Enfield’s ARPA funds.

“The Town Board is going to have the ultimate authority in deciding where the funds go,” Supervisor Redmond reminded us all as the funding forum concluded.  “They are just an advisory committee that brings information next to the Town Board,” she insisted.

Maybe so.  But opinions matter.  And just as Justice Alito’s leaked draft marked the Supreme Court majority’s course in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, so, too, will the Enfield ARPA Committee’s final preferences impact subsequent Town Board decisions.

****

I had a plan that April Enfield night, at a meeting that for many reasons and on many levels I’d rather block from memory.  Note that it’s taken me a month to re-visit the audio archives and retrieve the exact quotes to reconstruct the narrative.  It was a meeting better forgotten than recalled.  We, Enfield’s Town Board, did not serve you well that night.

I held no doubt that the Board’s majority would create the ARPA Advisory Committee, whatever I said.  But prominent voices urged me to seek change.  They advised me to purge the committee of elected officials. They instructed me to strip politics from deliberations as much as I could.  When lay citizens calmly weigh the facts, finding no need to posture or to troll for votes, a more equitable, even-tempered outcome may blossom.  So I had hoped.

I offered my carefully-crafted substitute resolution that would have reconstructed the ARPA Committee.  As often occurs, my amendment died for lack of a second.  I then opposed forming the committee altogether.  I had no other choice

But before the final vote, I offered a second amendment; one shorter, and one Shawna Black would have liked:

“Resolved, that all meetings of the American Rescue Plan Act Advisory Committee shall be open to the public, properly noticed and recorded, with public attendance and participation not only permitted, but also encouraged.”

Likewise, of course, only silence greeted my motion.  No second; no action.  Yet I was not through.  Our audio record will confirm the words I then spoke—and with passion.  As you can tell, I was not pleased:

“I will be very respectful of our Civility Resolution, so I will not say things that I might like to say but don’t think it‘s appropriate to say.  But it’s inappropriate that we have meetings that will be closed evaluating this funding mechanism, and that only two of the five Board members will be permitted to participate in those closed meetings.

“We have a Double-Standard Town Board, where some are more favored than others.  And the Supervisor always makes sure she sits on the committee and always picks a favorite Councilperson to sit on the committee, specifically excluding others, including this speaker. 

“And I think the people of Enfield are sick and tired of it.  It smells like a springtime skunk.  And people can smell it all the way from Van Ostrand Road to Iradell; from Buck Hill Road to Sheffield.  And I’ll tell you; this is going to end because people are dissatisfied with it.  And this has the potential—for all the work we’ve done in the past two, three, four years to pull this Town together— the wrong way to handle this procedure has the way to rip this Town apart, and put one institution, one organization; pit it against another for funding.  And I don’t want to see that happen.

“That was why I wanted to have the Committee be of civilians only; of non-politicians only, who would sit in private, perhaps, and review these applications, and come to us as a group of citizens, not politicians, and say to us, ‘This is what we recommend, and this is how we want to parse this money out to this agency, this organization—maybe give this organization more than this other organization.’  And it would keep us as a Town Board from tearing this community apart.

“But I tell you, this is going to be a bad thing; to have this kind of committee with two of five Board members on it, and only two, to make these recommendations, and it’s going to seem like a stacked deck.  And I will vote against this Resolution.”

And I did.  But why, then, did I later smile when Shawna Black, weeks later, made her pitch for transparency and set Deborah Dawson straight?

Good luck to the Enfield ARPA Committee.  I wish you well.  I will work with you.  I welcome reading your minutes.  I trust you will be fair… and objective.  Yet I wish I could meet with you as you meet, and do so in real-time.  Or in the alternative, I would wish each of our five Town Board members were kept equally in the dark until your recommendation is ready.  Neither option will occur.  I know that.  I regret that.  I only hope that we as a community of friends can survive this ordeal.  If we do not, Uncle Sam, you did us no favor.  Take your money back.

Bob Lynch

###

A Tool for the Toolbox:

“Wracking our Brains” to Find a Firefighter

Essay, Posted May 15, 2022

“It’s a small price to pay for the benefits you derive.” As I addressed the County Legislature April 5th.

This Councilperson, Robert Lynch, as I addressed the Tompkins County Legislature April 5th on a new Enfield initiative:

****

“We have a problem in Enfield with too few people volunteering for the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company and its Rescue Squad.  And we’re trying to solve that problem. 

“Last December first, Governor Hochul signed a law that permitted Monroe County to provide a ten per cent (10%) real estate tax exemption to volunteer firefighter or emergency workers who have been part of a volunteer organization within that county, Monroe County, for at least two years.  And as far as I know, Tompkins County doesn’t have a similar law on the books….  I won’t get into the details, but there is some brake on that system for that exemption.  But it’s a good exemption, and we’d like to have it here….

“If sought by your Legislature and approved by the State, the exemption would not just benefit Enfield, but every volunteer fire company in Tompkins County, whether it be Dryden or Groton or Danby or Trumansburg; wherever.

“I know these initiatives, because you’re cutting the assessment for some, might raise the taxes a trifle for others.  But I think that’s a small price to pay—a small price to pay—for the benefits that you derive by having a better, well-staffed volunteer fire service in this community.  And face it, it would cost a lot more if we, the rural communities, had to fund with our tax dollars, a paid fire department, or we had to contract with the City of Ithaca for fire services….”

****

Credit my sister, Marcia Lynch, a former Volunteer Coordinator for the Ithaca Fire Department and a one-time contract instructor at the National Fire Academy, for prompting my curiosity.  She pointed me in mid-March to a story in the Finger Lakes Times that reported on Seneca County’s efforts to secure a similar exemption for its own volunteers.  The Seneca County Board of Supervisors quickly and unanimously approved the initiative April 12 and sent it on to the State.  I spoke briefly to the Seneca County Board that night and expressed Enfield’s interest.  Board members, in turn, encouraged me, Enfield, and Tompkins County to pursue the exemption as well.  Why, the Supervisors asked, would anyone oppose it?

Will a 10% assessment exemption attract and keep volunteers? Worth a try.

The next night, our Enfield Town Board adopted its own call to make the measure law.  On this matter, we all agreed, and I’m glad we did.  We, the five colleagues who serve you in this town, recognize how important a well-staffed EVFC is to our community and what it means to you. 

I’ve since taken our resolution to two county legislative committees, most importantly to the Government Operations Committee meeting on May 5th.  Legislative deliberations take time.  Lawmakers want to get the measure right.  But I sensed committee support.  Given that the New York State Legislature will likely adjourn in early-June, and that I’ve heard of no plans for a Special Session, expect no Albany approval until next year.  Be patient.

The Ithaca Voice has picked up on this story. https://ithacavoice.com/2022/05/amid-volunteer-crisis-enfield-pushing-for-a-tax-exemption-to-attract-emergency-responders/

The Voice reporter Jimmy Jordan asked me some questions about it.  Jordan later reported:

“Lynch said that he didn’t know if the property tax exemption is the best way to retain and incentivize volunteers to join Enfield’s EMS and fire services, ‘but it’s one way, and it’s a way that other communities and other counties have proposed and some have granted, and it’s worth a try.’”

And for this next moment, I’ll step aside and let reporter Jordan describe how the Government Operations Committee greeted our Enfield initiative May 5th:

The crisis of the volunteer shortage was recognized by many of the Legislators attending the committee meeting, including Legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-District 9), Travis Brooks (D-District 1), and Dan Klein (D-District 7).

“We have a real crisis here, which is the rural communities are losing ambulance service and fire service. It’s a fact. It’s widespread. I feel like we need to address it,” said Klein.

He added that he was in favor of the approach, but raised the issue that the exemption might not be “equitable,” since it only applies to and incentivizes property owners, but that this shouldn’t be a distraction from getting something done to address the problem.

“I am in favor of this approach. It doesn’t resolve everything. I don’t know if it’s completely equitable, and there’s a lot of things it maybe doesn’t do, but it does something,” said Klein

But committee discussions that day also raised whether equity demands New York expand its volunteer firefighter income tax credit, rather than a benefit restricted to property tax.  To that idea, Director of Assessment Jay Franklin had a warning.  Franklin cautioned that any expanded income tax break, as opposed to that for property assessments, would likely apply statewide.  Albany probably couldn’t particularize them to a single county.  One can easily foresee how the higher total cost of a statewide income tax cut would lessen the prospects for adoption.

But legislative mechanics aside, what we each should focus attention on is community need—the essential requirement for a robust, ready-at-the-moment Fire and EMS service; paralleled with the equal necessity to keep volunteer services truly volunteer so as not to break a local municipal budget, including Enfield’s.

“We’re wracking our brain in Enfield as to how to solve the problem,” I told the County Legislature April 5th.   And I more than welcomed my presumed three-minute Councilperson’s report expanding into a nearly 20-minute back-and-forth where legislators and I took a deep-dive into the recruitment plight facing emergency services.

“I agree with you completely, that the towns and villages are heading toward real crisis in their EMT service and in their firefighters,” said Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John.  “We should be thinking about doing something….” 

Admittedly, Rich John stood hesitant over the suggested remedy.  Granting property assessment exemptions alone, he warned, could leave volunteer firefighters who rent their abodes gaining nothing. 

I looked at the problem differently, and from my Enfield perspective.

“I think in Enfield, a lot of people are home owners to a certain extent, as opposed to renters,” I said.  And the exemption “may provide just a little more of a benefit when finances get tight, for people to say maybe this is a reason to volunteer.”

The Monroe County law that we in Enfield propose Tompkins County mimic would provide the ten per cent assessment exemption only to owner-occupied residential properties and only to Fire and EMS volunteers living within the community in whose district they serve.  It would extend benefits to retired volunteers.

At the April meeting, Dryden Legislator Mike Lane commended us in Enfield for advancing our idea.  And we do not stand alone. Lane said he’s discussed a similar benefit with his home town leaders at the Neptune Hose Company.

“This means a lot trying to figure out how to get more people involved in volunteer services,” Lane told our meeting.  Of fire company volunteers, he said, “They’re wonderful servants for our communities.  They are beloved in our communities.  And we hope that this or some other method like this will help add numbers of people to these rosters.”

“Volunteer firefighter numbers have shrunk to a fraction of what they used to be;” Groton Legislator Lee Shurtleff

Beloved they are; but dwindling too.  Groton legislator Lee Shurtleff, former President of the State Fire Chief’s Association and County Government’s retired Director of Emergency Response, shared figures showing that volunteer firefighting manpower countywide once stood as high as 1800, but has since dropped to nearly a third of that.  Shurtleff has taken up our cause.

The solution is “a piece of many things, and I would hope we would look at the full gamut,” Shurtleff told legislative colleagues in April.  And because the Enfield-preferred “Monroe County model” would permit benefits extended to reduce School Taxes “It’s the first property tax exemption that I’ve seen that has a potential to be of value to volunteers,” Shurtleff added.

****

Wednesday, May 11th, I gave our Enfield Town Board a status report. “I suspect the Government Operations Committee, which meets once monthly, may need several more meetings to finalize any resolution to convey to the County Legislature, and then the State,” I said.  “Apparently they—and we—have ample time to get this right.  Delayed legislation is better than no legislation at all.”

Mind you, I remain grounded.  This lone assessment exemption provides no miracle cure to volunteer recruitment’s ills.  It stands merely as one partial, potential solution among many.  It’s “one tool in our tool box,” I told someone.

Or as Jimmy Jordan quoted me in The Ithaca Voice, “I think the gain outweighs any pain.” 

Yes, I’d like to give it a try.

Bob Lynch

###

Now, to Redistricting:

Redrawn Congressional Map would bond us with Binghamton, not Syracuse

[And posted after: Less drama, but still change, with proposed redrawn lines for State Senate]

Look at the Orange! Special master’s draft Congressional map would link Tompkins County with points east… all the way to Massachusetts. (Map courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting, LLC)

by Robert Lynch, May 16, 2022; additional reporting, May 17th at 12:30 AM

Surprise!  Remember the old “Maurice Hinchey” Congressional District we in Tompkins County used to be part of before we were tied to western Southern Tier counties stretching to Lake Erie?  Well, what’s old may be new again.

A special master overseen by the Bath-based judge who three months ago threw out Democratically-drawn redistricting maps for Congress and the New York Senate released his draft redesign Monday.  And whereas the Democrats’ plan, adopted by the State Legislature amid controversy, would have linked Tompkins County with Syracuse in a blue-tinted district that favored New York’s majority party, Jonathan Cervas’ redesign would sever Tompkins County from places to the north, and tie it with an eastern Southern Tier and Catskill Region string of counties, a district much more politically diverse and competitive.

Instead of being within the New York 22nd District, Tompkins County would find itself in the 19th District, whose only incumbent, Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado, has been tapped by Governor Kathy Hochul to be Lieutenant Governor.  All presumed Delgado would give up his seat in Congress to become New York’s second in command.  At this early writing, Delgado’s political options remain uncertain.

Should Delgado not be in the mix, the Democrats’ prime beneficiary could be Josh Riley, who’d edged to a leading spot in the crowded, six-way contest for the previously-drawn Syracuse/Ithaca-based district.  Riley hails from Endicott, within the newly-redrawn NY-19th, and the line changes could allow Riley to shed the potential handicap as a carpetbagger.

Ithaca resident Vanessa Fajans-Turner would also be running in the 19th District contest.  Tioga County’s Max Della Pia, who would also reside within the 19th, will, according to media reports, continue his pursuit of the 23rd District seat, currently held by retiring (and recently-resigned) Republican Congressman Tom Reed.  Della Pia would do so even though he would no longer live in the district he seeks to represent.

On the Republican side, Lansing’s Mike Sigler could be the big loser, though Sigler could still run in the Syracuse-based 22nd District, drawn by special master Cervas to include Onondaga, Madison, and Oneida Counties.  Sigler has strong Syracuse ties and has campaigned heavily in the Salt City region in recent months.

“Carpetbagger” no more? Endicott’s Josh Riley, running back home if new maps hold.

Should he compete on home turf in Tompkins County though, Sigler could face stiff head winds, as media reports indicate former gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, who had planned to run against Delgado, remains eyeing the seat.  Molinaro lives in the Hudson Valley region and already has strong name recognition.

A check of Sigler’s social media pages Monday evening failed to disclose the candidate’s current plans.

Special master Cervas’ proposed lines remain subject to revision before State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister  signs off on them.  Judge McAllister is set to decide on the Congressional maps May 20th.  Monday’s early disclosure caught some by surprise.

Overall, Cervas’ redrawn lines would erase much of the earlier advantage Democrats had hoped to achieve by usurping redistricting responsibility from a constitutionally-mandated New York Independent Redistricting Commission in early-February.  Yet the Cervas draft would place district borders much more along county lines than would have the State Legislature’s design.  As such, the Cervas plan looks to the naked eye much less like a gerrymander.

If the special master’s plan becomes Judge McAllister’s final choice, Tompkins County would become the 19th Congressional District’s western anchor.  Cortland County would be part of the district, as would Tioga, Broome, Chenango  and Delaware Counties.  The 19th District would stretch all the way across the Hudson River to the Massachusetts border.

****

Congressman Delgado, who’s elevation to Lieutenant Governor—if one would call it that—would require his nearly simultaneous resignation from Congress, is not the only New York Congressperson scratching their heads and weighing their options.  So, too, is Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, the Trump-friendly Republican from Oneida County, who’d seen her seat redistricted away by Democrats, but now might have reason to stay put.

With choices to make; Mike Sigler.

After Democrats imposed their legislative will in February, Tenney announced her plans to succeed Congressman Reed in the Southern Tier 23rd District.  But with the Onondaga-Oneida 22nd District made more competitive by Cervas, Tenney might choose to remain on home turf.  And should Lansing’s more moderate Sigler compete in the 22nd as well, a primary slugfest could result.

But the primary contests upstate could pale in comparison to those in and near New York City, as special master Cervas’ maps have placed high-profile Congressional Democrats in celebrity match-ups.  As Nicholas Fandos reported on deadline Monday in the New York Times:

“The most striking example came from New York City, where Mr. Cervas’s proposal pushed Representatives Jerrold Nadler, a stalwart Upper West Side liberal, and Carolyn Maloney of the Upper East Side into the same district, setting up a potentially explosive primary fight in the heart of Manhattan.  Both lawmakers are in their 70s, have been in Congress for close to 30 years and lead powerful House committees.”

Fandos continued:  “Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a favorite to become the party’s next leader, was one of a handful of incumbent lawmakers who, under the new map, would no longer reside in the districts they represent….  In a blistering statement, Mr. Jeffries accused the court of ignoring the input of communities of color, diluting the power of Black voters and pitting Black incumbents against each other in ‘a tactic that would make Jim Crow blush.’”

“The draft map released by a judicial overseer in Steuben County and unelected, out-of-town special master, both of whom happen to be white men, is part of a vicious national pattern targeting districts represented by members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Mr. Jeffries wrote, according to the Times’ report.

The New York Court of Appeals designated Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, to draw the presumptively less partisan maps for New York’s Congressional and State Senate Districts after the Court held April 27th that districts Democratic-majority state legislators drew in February violated the New York Constitution on both substantive and procedural grounds.  Most observers saw the legislative takeover of the process as a bold-faced gerrymander; an attempt to net Democrats as many as three additional House seats.

But the special master’s maps of Monday would erase those gains.  By Cervas’s own account, the Times reports, his design would create as many as eight competitive seats to represent New York in Congress.  The Democrats’ maps would have yielded only three.

In upstate New York, gerrymandering’s most egregious example was the proposed 24th Congressional District, engineered, transparently, to “pack” as many Republicans into it as possible.  Rather than follow logical county lines, the Democrats’ 24th District would have zig-zagged along a jagged boundary and hugged the southern shore of Lake Ontario over much of the way from the Saint Lawrence River to near Niagara Falls.

(Presumably) gone, but not forgotten; Democrats’ proposed 24th Congressional District.

As redrawn by the special master, the new 24th would begin, again, near Watertown, but travel more logically south through the Finger Lakes and then west to just past Batavia.  It would leave the western Lake Ontario shoreline to Rochester- and Buffalo-based districts.  The redrawn 24th District, unlike its predecessor, would not strain the limits of contiguity.

Special master Jonathan Cervas, according to media reports, has declined to comment on his work product prior to its approval by Judge McAllister. 

The judge has already delayed party primaries for Congress and State Senate from late-June until August 23rd because of the redistricting litigation.

###

And Now, on to the State Senate:

Revised Senate maps would keep lines close; races unchanged

by Robert Lynch, May 17, 2022

Some five hours after court-appointed special master Jonathan Cervas’ proposed redistricting maps for Congress on Monday (May 16; see separate story), the maps for Cervas’ other assignment, redistricting the New York State Senate, became public.  But whereas the special master’s Congressional map revisions would force a major course correction in local campaigns, the comparable map changes for State Senate in Tompkins County would hardly make a difference.

The new District 52; all of Tompkins, all of Cortland, and much of Broome (Map courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting, LLC)

While Cervas’ State Senate map would renumber Tompkins County’s District from 53 to 52, the redesign would still place Tompkins County within a single State Senate district—something local leaders have long sought, but have not enjoyed for several decades.  Even more importantly, the special master’s revision would keep current party primary match-ups intact.  Those contests took shape after the State Legislature in February adopted the initial district maps that courts later rejected as unconstitutional.

“Can’t wait to get to work for the… district, NY52,” Democratic candidate Leslie Danks Burke tweeted to her followers late Monday.

In an email message to prospective supporters, Danks Burke’s primary opponent, former Binghamton City Councilperson Lea Webb, shared the same optimism. 

The district’s Republican candidate, former Binghamton mayor Rich David, faces no primary challenge, but also stands unaffected by the redrawn lines. 

Webb and Danks Burke had stood as the only remaining candidates in the district’s Democratic field when the New York Court of Appeals on April 27th invalidated as unconstitutional the lines the State Legislature had earlier drawn.  The Court’s action set in motion procedures under which a lower judge appointed Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, to be special master and redraw the lines consistent with constitutional commands and submit Congressional and State Senate maps for the judge’s approval within the next week.

While Cervas’ State Senate revisions hold little impact for residents in Tompkins County, they will affect some of the county’s neighbors.  Whereas, the Legislature’s maps had split Cortland County between two Senate districts, the special master’s revision would unify Cortland County within the single district, one that would also represent those in Tompkins.

But in his cutting and pasting to create his population-balanced 52nd District, Cervas would chop away parts of eastern of Tioga County, towns that the Legislature’s plan had earlier included within it. 

The Legislature’s earlier effort, rejected by the courts. The special master’s changes would add all of Cortland County, but strip away Tioga.

Both the Legislature’s and Cervas’ maps would slice Broome County down the middle, splitting its representation.  Slight differences lie between the two maps.  Nonetheless, the special master’s plan would likely retain within the proposed, renumbered 52nd District the City of Binghamton, home-base for both Webb and David.

“Yesterday… we learned that all of Tompkins County will be part of the new State Senate District 52, which also encompasses much of Broome County and all of Cortland County,” wrote candidate Webb Tuesday. “We have much in common as a community and district, and I’m glad they’ve kept us together.”

Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister will decide within days whether the special master’s maps meet his court’s standards for political neutrality.  But since the judge—and Cervas—have taken the drafting pen away from legislative Democrats and their super-majorities, the lines drawn will likely yield Democrats fewer Senate seats this fall than the controlling party had expected.

Kate Lisa of Spectrum News reported Monday of the Senate districts Cervas had drawn, 38 lean toward Democrats, ten toward Republicans, and 15 remain competitive.  In the current Senate, 43 members are Democrats, 20 Republicans.

In one respect, however, Cervas’s maps, like those of the Legislature earlier this year, fulfill a separate, distinct goal of local Democratic leaders.  Whereas Tompkins County’s representation for at least a decade has been split among three State Senators—none of them living locally and all of them Republican—the special master’s proposal would continue the Legislature’s intention to place all of Tompkins County within a common Senate district.

Moreover, the Cervas plan would take Tompkins County’s request one step further; merging all of Tompkins County with all of Cortland County as part of District 52.    

In testimony to New York’s ill-fated and politically-torn Independent Redistricting Commission last year, one prominent Democratic voice, now-retired county legislator Martha Robertson, had urged the unified, two-county linkage.  Robertson argued that both Tompkins and Cortland counties deserve a common State Senator (and Congressperson) since they share many “communities of interest,” including a jointly-funded community college.  Democrats in the State Legislature failed to tie Tompkins County with all of Cortland County, but the special master’s plan would do so.

Only the redistricting of seats for Congress and the State Senate fell within special master Cervas’s assignment.  Despite citizen challenges, courts have left district lines for the State Assembly unchanged from those the Legislature struck in February.

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Posted Previously:

Enfield Planners nix energy-aggressive building code

by Robert Lynch, May 4, 2022

Newfield’s adopted it.  Dryden has too.  But barring a serious change of heart, the Town of Enfield will likely take a pass on imposing a new, more energy-efficient building code that’s been promoted by State environmental interests.

The Stretch Code that won’t likely live in Enfield

Whereas the Enfield Town Planning Board gave the “New York Stretch” code a cool reception when the Board first considered it in early-April, the greeting was downright icy Wednesday (May 4th) as town planners rejected the package of potential regulations after just seven minutes of discussion and without even taking a formal vote.

“It’s problematic.  It was not thought out that well,” said Planning Board member Mike Carpenter, the Stretch Code’s lead critic.

Although the Enfield Town Board could overrule its Planning Board and embrace NY-Stretch without planners’ endorsement, Town Board members stand unlikely to do so.  At least one Councilperson has deemed the planners’ approval as critical to any future support he might give.

Going as far back as 2020, energy-conserving advocacy agencies, like NYSERDA, have encouraged municipalities to incorporate tougher “Stretch” standards within their own building codes.  Stretch’s provisions would require home builders to install more energy-efficient windows, shorter pipe runs to water faucets, and most controversially, electricity breaker panel capacity and conduit runs to accommodate future solar panels on the rooftop and electric cars down the driveway.

The Newfield Town Board, with one dissent, adopted New York Stretch last August.  Carpenter told the Planning Board the Town of Dryden has approved Stretch as well.  But in Dryden’s case, said Carpenter, the Town’s Building Inspector wishes it hadn’t. 

“They had to do very selective enforcement,” Carpenter told Wednesday’s meeting concerning Dryden’s experience, “because some things are not enforceable.”

The Town of Danby, Carpenter further reported, is “considering” Stretch, but is unlikely to adopt it.

“I don’t think it’s worth the Town’s time to pass it,” Planning Board Chair Dan Walker remarked, counseling the Enfield Board to set Stretch aside.  It would only create “more confusion for the Codes Enforcement Officer,” Walker concluded.

For one thing, said Walker, the code imposes “a lot of nit-picky things.”

Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond had initially targeted the Stretch Code for adoption before June first, Redmond noting that NYSERDA was offering towns $5,000 to $10,000 in grant money if it adopted the code before the June deadline.  But Redmond in late-April pulled the item from the Board’s May 11th agenda.  Given Wednesday’s Planning Board rejection, NY-Stretch stands unlikely to return to an agenda anytime soon.

Key to Redmond’s and other Board members’ decision for delay was an April 28th memo Carpenter wrote the Supervisor, and that Redmond quickly shared with her Board.  In that lengthy memo, Carpenter—a builder, whose family installs solar systems—described the Stretch Code as “an amalgam of energy saving ideas that are somewhat disparate in their focus.”

“The actual energy savings from them,” wrote Carpenter of the code’s new standards, “will be in the 1 percent or less range, and will likely have a payback period in decades rather than just years. Some of these will come (into later adoption) with the new code, likely out in a year or two, and some may not ever be written into code.  There is value in them, though certainly nowhere near the claim of 25 to 30 percent cost savings.”

“My conclusion,” Carpenter wrote, “is that the difficulties in implementing and enforcing this code make it questionable that the town should adopt it. I have heard that it will save significant energy and cost little extra money. My own opinion is that the opposite is more likely to be true.”

Instead, Carpenter’s suggestion—a point he reiterated to the Planning Board Wednesday—is that Enfield write its own, likely-voluntary, energy-saving building code, one that might embrace the good parts of NY-Stretch and cast aside the rest.

“The folks who wrote the Stretch Code are not that experienced in building,” Carpenter told the Planning Board.  “They don’t understand that something that is very expensive might not have much impact.”

To at least one Town Board member, namely this story’s writer, the absence of Planning Board endorsement of NY-Stretch constitutes, for him, a deal-breaker.

“In all matters of land management and building regulation, we should give both our Planning Board and our Codes Officer great deference,” Councilperson Robert Lynch wrote in an April 29th email to the Town Board, responding to Carpenter’s concerns.  “To ignore their input is to disrespect their authority.” 

“Yes, we, the Town Board, hold the final say,” Lynch acknowledged.  “But until the Planning Board recommends we adopt New York’s Stretch Code, I would not vote in its favor.”

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  With the Stretch Code dispatched, the Enfield Planning Board went on with its Wednesday meeting.  For the next three-quarter hour, it continued to review and update town subdivision regulations.  Near the meeting’s close, an un-pictured viewer of the online meeting, identifying herself as “Eileen,” a teacher, offered an idea.  She suggested that any new subdivision provide a bus shelter for school children.

“It’s a safety issue,” Eileen insisted.  The Board responded approvingly to Eileen’s suggestion.

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A Working Group for whom?   Working with whom?

Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten, interviewed Friday, April 22nd on WHCU, discussing his involvement—or lack thereof—in the City of Ithaca’s “Working Group” charged with Reimagining Public Safety and reorganizing the Ithaca Police Department into a two-tiered, civilian-led agency:

Our District Attorney

“So as time went by, I connected with the co-chairs of the Working Group twice, spaced out in time and said ‘Hey, just trying to be pro-active here.  I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to connect and that you can hear from my perspective which I think is unique in the community because nobody else sees the work product of the Ithaca Police Department in the way that my office does.’

“Each time that I reached out to the chairs of the Working Group, I was told, ‘Hang tight.  We’ll get back to you.  Don’t worry; we’ll get back to you.’  And they never did.  And then the next thing that happened is this report came out.”

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Earlier, D.A. Van Houten in an April 6th Op-Ed to The Ithaca Voice (edited for brevity):

“As District Attorney, my primary focus is public safety. Every person in Tompkins County deserves to live in a place where they are both physically safe and treated with dignity and respect. We should be able to trust the system to work equitably to address conduct that threatens our personal well-being and the sanctity of our homes and businesses. I recognize that we can and must do better, and it is incumbent upon the elected leaders in Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca to embrace this process in good faith with an open mind….

“From the very beginning I repeatedly expressed my willingness to assist with the reimagining process. I emphasized the unique perspective my office has with regard to how IPD operates. The District Attorney’s Office relies on the local law enforcement agencies, including the Ithaca Police Department, for the justice system to work effectively.

“Though I was designated a technical advisor to the working group, my efforts to provide a background presentation about the local system, the alternatives to incarceration, and the quality of work product we need from IPD were rebuffed. I have been compiling data and analyzing the demographics from our local justice system and I have valuable insights to share.

“As a result, I’m concerned that the RPS Working Group has operated without full knowledge of how the local justice system functions. This is reflected in the report about restructuring the Ithaca Police Department. Without an understanding of the interaction between the Ithaca Police Department, the courts and the District Attorney’s Office, a vital piece of the equation is missing, relative to any organization that responds to calls for service…. 

“When it is necessary to file criminal charges against an individual it is critical that the first responders are trained to investigate and collect evidence. If the point is to insist on equity in all interactions with law enforcement, we must conduct thorough and accurate investigations to preserve the rights of all parties involved. Often, we only have one chance to document an event and there can be irreparable consequences if a proper investigation is not conducted. As District Attorney I need assurances that any new approach would not impair the quality of investigations.

Our County Report; the City’s came later.

“For example, under the proposal submitted by the working group, an unarmed civilian responder could be the first person to interact with a victim of sexual assault. If evidence is not collected timely and properly, the entire case could be jeopardized. What tools will the civilian responders be equipped with to document an incident? Will they have body-worn cameras? Will the civilian responders be trained in the collection of evidence? Public safety could be compromised if we are unable to support a criminal prosecution because of insufficient evidence. 

“The report, on page 30, questions how to measure success, asking ‘did the presence of the Division of Community Solutions reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes, like arrest or use of force?’ Reducing the use of force by law enforcement is essential. While arrests are inherently negative, they can result in our ability to provide services and the support and supervision that may be necessary to address the underlying conduct.

“I support all of the training suggested by the report (crisis intervention, procedural justice, implicit bias, enhanced communication techniques, trauma-informed training, brain development, conflict resolution, critical thinking/problem-solving, collaborative public safety, data collection, among others) but these suggestions don’t go far enough. For example, there is no mention of the training that would need to be provided to the dispatchers who take the calls and determine whether to send an unarmed civilian or an armed police officer.  

“The opportunity to reimagine and improve our public safety institutions in Ithaca and Tompkins County is one that we should take with the utmost seriousness. This is a chance to rebuild the community’s relationship with the police and regain the trust of its most vulnerable citizens. Taking this process seriously means listening to all stakeholders. It’s not too late to get this right, but that will require a more cooperative effort than we have seen so far.”

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We need say no more.  What needs to be said already has been.

Bob Lynch

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