Enfield Board advances Elective Office Changes to Referendum
Posted July 22, 2020, 11:15 PM; updated July 23, 2020
by Robert Lynch
In a series of 3-1 votes with one member excused, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday (July 22nd) advanced to Public Referendum two controversial and publicly-opposed local laws that would end the elective offices of Highway Superintendent and Town Clerk when incumbents Barry (Buddy) Rollins and Ellen Woods’ current terms expire in December 2021.
The Board’s action, in defiance of public sentiment expressed at Wednesday night’s two public hearings, means Enfield voters will decide this November whether the elective offices would become Town Board-appointive positions, taking future control of those offices out of the hands of Enfield voters.
Both Highway Superintendent Rollins and Town Clerk Woods attended the Board’s zoom conference meeting and spoke out strongly against the proposed changes. At least 15 Enfield residents also spoke at each of the sequential hearings, most saying without question that they prefer to keep both offices elective.
To place each of the initiatives on the November ballot, the law required two votes. Each time, the same three people, namely Supervisor Beth McGee, and Councilpersons Stephanie Redmond and Mimi Mehaffey, voted in their favor. Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), repeatedly cast the lone dissent. (Councilperson Virginia Bryant had been excused.)
Board supporters of the two ballot measures placed a unique spin on the lopsided public opposition, insisting it actually proved support for holding the referendum, not abandoning it.
“I feel the residents have clearly said they want a choice. So here’s your choice,” argued Redmond.
“I’ve heard resoundingly almost to a person that they want the choice. They want to choose. They want to be able to have their voices heard,” said Mehaffey, concurring with Redmond’s interpretation, but remaining noncommittal as to her vote in November.
“I wonder if you heard the same hearing that I heard tonight,” Lynch responded. “Public Hearings have a purpose. And the purpose tonight was for people to say they don’t want the change. So why bother?”
Lynch said in light of the Board’s action, ignoring public sentiment, “a cynical public is going to say that these Public Hearings were farces.”
Lynch presaged the issue would “tear this town apart” in the fall, a term Redmond faulted as evincing “a lack of professional behavior,” since to her, constituent input does not tear apart a town unless people are “acting really unprofessionally.”
Town Clerk Woods delivered the hearings’ most passionate comments as she alleged the Board’s majority had declared “open season on myself and the Highway Superintendent.” Woods asserted that some Board members have already begun to “wage a destructive campaign of fault-finding” in attempts to adopt laws that other towns, including, recently, Ulysses have found to be “unpassable.”
“I have faced constant accusations, most often unfounded, fantastical and baseless, with always exaggerated (claims) and lacking any semblance of grace,” Woods said, referring to recent criticisms leveled against her by McGee and other members, often through Town emails. The Clerk added, “I do not trust some members of the current Town Board with my future.”
Later in Wednesday’s meeting, Woods further alleged that those she described as “the female members of the Board” have undertaken “an elaborate pink-collaring” of her aimed at silencing her voice, degrading her status, and reducing her “imagined value per hour” beneath that of similar professional women.
Other hearing comments often struck a common chord:
“I think this effort is a waste of time and unfortunately, quite misguided,” said former Board member Greg Stevenson. “Can it and move on.”
“This is a no-go,” said former Supervisor Ann Rider, echoing majority sentiment.
It’s “taking even more power from people who don’t have very much power in the first place, said Gray Road’s Cortney Bailey, arguing to keep the positions elective. “Granted, the voters don’t always make the best choice, but at least they have a choice this way,” she added.
Though Woodard Road’s Joanna Green acknowledged “the electorate doesn’t necessarily actually have a good handle on who’s the most qualified,” Green said she’d trust the electorate more than the Board to make the right choices and that Board-made appointments would be “too ripe for cronyism.”
Rollins defended his elective position saying he’d prefer “over 3000 residents” of the Town to hire and fire a Highway Superintendent, rather than hand it to a three-member Board majority, many of whom, he alleged, are still learning their own jobs, let alone his.
“Who on the Board right now can honestly say they understand highway work and (highway) law enough to choose a Superintendent?” Rollins questioned.
Only former Enfield Councilperson Becky Sims testified in favor of advancing the office changes to referendum. But even Sims acknowledged she probably would not vote for making the positions appointive. Instead, she favored the referendum so as to enable a ballot initiative of some kind to occur in the interests of democracy.
Supporting the referendums, Supervisor McGee saw November 2020 as a prime opportunity for a vote, given the massive turnout likely in a Presidential election year. McGee further asserted that the “intimidating” and “aggressive” conduct she’s sustained at Enfield meetings during her tenure in office, lead her to conclude that “the only place that a resident can make this choice safely is in the privacy of the voting booth.”
McGee again confirmed that she would resign as Supervisor before the November election, a move she’s suggested doing since March. She promised to vote on the measures, but only as a citizen, and not campaign either for or against their passage. McGee also accused Lynch and Rollins of making “sexist and misogynistic comments” against female Board members.
But though McGee may have judged his words differently, Lynch remarked before his final votes, that he felt “a little sad” for his colleagues, all of them women. He called those colleagues “good people; honest, able citizens.” Yet Lynch predicted they were “writing their defeat in the next election.” He also warned Redmond that if she runs next year for Supervisor, as most suspect she will, “You’re going to have an uphill climb.”
Taking my Privilege of the Floor:
The following is Town Councilperson Robert Lynch’s prepared remarks, delivered by him to the Enfield Town Board at the close of Wednesday’s (July 22nd) second Public Hearing on the elective-to-appointive proposed office changes for Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent:
Let’s make one thing clear. The decisions before us tonight are not about choice. They’re about power; raw political power. Say their names. You know them. But to be polite, I’ll say only my own, Councilperson Robert Lynch. The question before us tonight is whether I and my four colleagues can grab as much power as we can, by taking it away from others, namely our constituents. It’s the power to elect the next Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent. Let’s be precise. It’s the power of any three-member majority of us to do so.
Why do we seek that power? Because some unnamed members among us don’t like Buddy Rollins or Ellen Woods all that much. We scrap with them at meetings and launch snarky exchanges on Town email. That’s not a good enough reason for me. Elections resolve personality fights like that. Stealing Democracy from the voters does not.
I, for one, don’t want more power. As one of five on this legislative body, I’ve got enough power already. I don’t want to rule the excavator, patch the pothole, or sell the dog license. Nor hire the person who does that stuff. Let the voters do the hiring… and the firing, not me.
I’ve been told these proposed referendums are about giving the voters a choice. But to me, the argument rings hollow, collapsing on its face through comparison.
We can decide lots of things by referendum. Suppose I proposed we abolish the Town of Enfield? It might save money in this pandemic. Split our town right down Route 79. The north goes with Ulysses; the south to Newfield.
“You’re crazy, Bob!” most would tell me. “We love our Town. Why did we ever vote for you?”
“But I’m only offering you a choice,” I might respond.
“We don’t want that choice,” they’d answer. We want Enfield.
First, they’d vote down my initiative with near unanimity. Then they’d exact revenge, removing me in the next election with Democracy’s equivalent of banishment to Alcatraz.
My own term comes up in 2023. I’d like to be re-elected. And I’d like this community’s respect then and now. I would think you, my colleagues, would also want that respect, whether or not you intend to run again.
That’s why I will proudly vote “No” tonight on these local laws. I hope you will vote “No” as well.
Then Taking a Stand with My Vote:
Before casting my lone dissent on Resolutions to advance to Public Referendum two local laws to make the elective positions of Enfield Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent appointive, I, Robert Lynch, offered my Town Board the following unscripted comment:
“I’m a little sad tonight for reasons you might find somewhat surprising. I’m sad for my colleagues, because even though I disagree with the four women with whom I make decisions for this Town on a kind of semi-weekly basis now, I respect them. They’re good people. They’re honest, able citizens of the Town. But unfortunately, what you’re doing tonight is showing that you don’t really have great respect for representative democracy.
“And a cynical public is going to say these Public Hearings were farces. Because we came out, we attended, we said ‘don’t go there’ with these Resolutions; and here we go, going down the primrose trail with something the public of Enfield doesn’t want. And my fear is that my colleagues, whom I respect sitting with and deciding issues, are basically writing their own defeat in the next election if they choose to run. They’re telling the voters, ‘Vote me out of office and vote somebody (else) in.’
“So, I’m sorry for that. I will vote No on these Resolutions. I wish each of my colleagues what is well.”
July 22, 2020
Note: Later in the meeting, Supervisor Beth McGee described the afore-stated comment as “sexist and misogynistic.” Others disagree. You decide. I meant what I said. I intended no disrespect. I stand by my words, as I do these remarks, addressed to Councilperson Stephanie Redmond, a likely candidate next year for Enfield Town Supervisor:
“Well, Stephanie, I’d say that if you run for Supervisor next year, against whomever, you’re going to have an uphill climb.”
Again, I wish her well.
Oh, and one thing more:
May I add this statement from Town Clerk Ellen Woods, spoken to the Board the same night as Supervisor McGee hurled her allegation against me:
“I do want to say for the record that Robert Lynch and Buddy Rollins are currently the only members of Enfield Government that treat me as a respected elected official.”