Somehow covering local politics here in the sticks, makes me feel like William Kennedy. Or dream that I might be like one of my writing heroes. Except we don't have party bosses, kickbacks or anything quite that dodgy -- or fun to write about. WE did however have a debate. The four candidates for town supervisor addressed questions and issues -- all done to the League of Women Voters format. Hosted by the Catskill Mountain News, and moderated by former litigator and tennis coach (my tennis coach, he's great) Mark Birman.
He was the only one in the room in a suit. The one thing about local politics is that every day is dress down with sweatshirts and workshirts and clashing stripes and plaids all in attendance on the candidates. I didn't write up the candidates' style in the Cats Mtn News, but about the debate itself. Which was fascinating. It even held the boy scouts' interest. Though they too were disappointed in the answers. Read on about the debate below:
A hundred and twenty-five people squeezed into the Arkville Firehouse on Monday evening to listen to the four Middletown supervisor candidates debate the issues.
The place was standing room only, with people sitting on the floor and Boy Scouts lined up near the kitchen. In the audience were two mayors, a deputy mayor, town and village board members and the Town of Hardenburgh supervisor.
The crowd included longtime residents, whose families go back generations, as well as new émigrés from the city. There were retirees and those with young families. All came out, making a statement that for at least one night local issues trumped Monday Night Football, the bowling league and watching the Cardinals nearly seal their fate in the World Series.
The evening was remarkable for many firsts; the first town debate in recent memory, the first time there are four candidates – all running without party affiliation, and the first debate to be covered not only by its sponsor, the Catskill Mountain News, but also on TV, the radio and online—a degree of media coverage one might expect in a larger community.
Often in agreement
Perhaps what was most remarkable was how often the candidates’ views overlapped. There were more issues on which they agreed than disagreed, and often the responses expressed merely nuances. The debate was also striking for how civil it was. That’s not to say there weren’t heated moments but they were never directed at each other or the audience. One candidate nearly swore, angry at the town’s inability to dredge, but there was little partisan posturing.
Not about parties
Jake Rosa seemed to sum up the sentiment when he said, “I don’t care what side of the aisle it comes from, a good idea is a good idea.” The night was also striking for the number of times the debaters said they agreed with each other.
Over two-and-a-half hours, questions ranged from what people considered the town’s biggest asset to taxes, the Crossroads Resort (about which Marge Miller quipped,” Dean Gitter has all the personality of road kill”) to the current budget, alternative energy, wind energy, fracking, the future of Margaretville and Freshtown, the Binnekill, tourism, second homeowners and working with local non-profit organizations.
The first question asked of each candidate was factual, a brief biographical statement, and here the candidates nearly divided into two camps, separated by age and experience. Joe Moskowitz and Marge Miller, the older two both graduated from MCS within a few years of the other and both left for careers in broadcasting and as an actor, while Jake Rosa and Wayd Jaquish, the two younger candidates, also graduated around the same time as the other, and both chose to stay near home working in more traditional local jobs.
Find higher ground
All four candidates want Freshtown to relocate, and all of them support the Belleayre Resort. In fact, Jaquish wants it to return to the original plan – though that had nearly no tax benefit for Middletown as it wasn’t located in the town originally. All pledged to continue stream maintenance for flood mitigation, and Rosa wants to raise federal and grant money to fund it. All supported wind energy in one form or another, and Moskowitz and Miller were outspokenly opposed to fracking. Jaquish and Rosa felt it a non-issue.
Three of the four are opposed to discussing any referendum on property taxes. Moskowitz felt savings should be addressed by finding redundancies in current services and spending, while Jaquish likened the town to running his appliance business: “We need to treat it like a business and run it so it stays within its own means.” Three of the four candidates stated that tourism is the town’s greatest asset, but little was offered in how to encourage it beyond a website and Moskowitz’s saying that the area isn’t like a traditional park with a gate and ranger. “We need to show people where to find activities.” Similarly when asked how to increase second-homeowners participation in the town and as a valuable resource, again a website was suggested.
Some in the audience felt like there was a lack of vision expressed. Each candidate said the Binnekill was a Margaretville-only issue, though the bulkhead to the Binnekill lies in the Town of Middletown, outside the village, and when asked about how they’d work with local non-profits like MARK, most simply affirmed their importance in the community after the flood.
Miller was the only candidate willing to discuss a referendum on taxes. It’s a risky position to talk tax hikes in an election year, but she said, “We can’t not increase taxes as costs increase. We cut 23 percent out of the highway budget so two percent sounds great on paper, but it’s hard to implement.” She went on to say that if we kept increases to two percent or less, that equated to cutting needed work and not replacing needed equipment. It would be better, she asserted, to have a referendum sooner rather than later, when we need to raise the budget by six to eight percent because of all the spending that had been avoided to keep the budget flat.
In discussing the town’s assets, Rosa offered up the forest. He called tourism, “the gravy” not the driver of our entire economy. “We need jobs to attract those 20-60 year-olds to grow the area and support schools and the aging population,” he said, and explained that a forest-based economy would help. Still, he wasn’t clear on specifics. It’s also an area where he not only has a clear interest (he works as a logger and serves on the board of the CFA and the WAC forestry commission) but is an expert and can see areas where we might be able to develop forestry further.
In discussing assets, none of the candidates mentioned water—which is clearly prized by New York City. And none used the question as a way of discussing the area’s relationship with the city or to talk about other assets—like developing the maple syrup industry and other value-added businesses from cider products to small-scale dairies and organic farming.
The evening ended with a question from the Boy Scouts. They wanted to know how each candidate would help restore the Fleischmanns Park. None of the scouts were satisfied with the answers. They all included some spin on, “It’s a village issue, not a town issue.” Miller and Moskowitz both promised to help with lobbying and fund-raising, but the scouts were disappointed. As one scout’s mother explained the next morning, “They thought all the candidates missed the mark. The park isn’t just a Fleischmanns' asset but a community one, that being the entire MCS community. The boys want the supervisor to recognize that and be willing to devote time energy and assets to that issue. They wanted a stronger commitment to something which means so much to the town school population, especially after all the talk about needing to give kids here more opportunities.”