Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

Time for change in Chatham

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VILLAGE ELECTIONS CATCH me by surprise. They happen in March in this state, about as far away as possible from the fall general election, so higher profile races for town, county, state or national seats won’t drown out this exercise in grassroots democracy. But who’s thinking about better government in March? All I want is better weather.

It turns out that some folks in the Village of Chatham have had elections on their minds for months and have organized a campaign to elect candidates for mayor and Village Board under the Chatham United banner. Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, they have already made an impact.

The effort started in earnest last spring as the Village Board was planning to increase the budget by 12%. Confronted by a roomful of agitated taxpayers, the board agreed that, well, maybe it could do a little better, and a day or two later the mayor and trustees magically reduced the budget increase by about third. In the end, they chopped out even more, but still adopted a tax increase of close to 5%.

Chatham did face special expenses, but village leaders insisted at first on an insupportable tax increase at a time of hardship, resorting to a “trust-me” secretiveness rather than opening up the decision-making process.

Now Chatham has embarked on a new budget cycle and bureaucratic sunshine practically blinds you at the town hall. The mayor and board conducted budget deliberations in public this week. Maybe they have learned that voters care how the village spends taxpayers’ money. But their sudden if incomplete embrace of transparency only highlights how long they ignored the need for changes to cope with the unprecedented challenges facing the village.

Paul Boehme has been the mayor of Chatham for all but two years of the last quarter century. Even his political foes will readily acknowledge his extraordinary public service and his devotion to Chatham. There isn’t anything about the village infrastructure he doesn’t know.

But he has misjudged how hard it is these days for Chatham taxpayers to make ends meet. And as much as he must want to, he can’t solve the problems ahead by himself or with a small group of insiders. The substance and style of village government has to change in fundamental ways if Chatham hopes to remain a terrific place to live and work.

Tom Curran, his challenger, has led the effort to share knowledge about village government. He addresses village issues in a thoughtful, responsive, non-confrontational way. He previously served on the committee that drafted the village comprehensive plan. He has the qualities to be the kind of energetic, open mayor that Chatham needs.

Some voters worry that Mr. Curran and Board candidate Joanne DelRossi, his Chatham United running mate, plan to disband the village Police Department. That’s silly. If elected they’d only be two votes on the five-member board, and though they have questioned costs associated with the department they have also said that decisions about public safety require lengthy discussion and extensive public participation.

Voters can’t postpone hard choices about the level of police protection the village can afford, no matter who is elected mayor. And taxpayers are well served when candidates and elected officials ask tough questions about government operations. Whether you’re concerned about your tax bill or your safety — or both — you have more to fear from politicians who don’t ask tough questions than from those who do.

Ms. DelRossi is just the person to ask those questions on behalf of taxpayers. As a former co-chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals, a member of the comprehensive plan committee and a Habitat for Humanity board member, she has both the experience and the temperament to be an outstanding member of the Chatham Village Board.

The other two board candidates are incumbents Lael Locke and Patrick Wemitt. As with the mayor, no one can question their dedication to the village and public service. But of the two, Ms. Locke has demonstrated a willingness to question the actions of the board.  As mild as her dissent has been, she has too often been treated shabbily when her concerns are acknowledged at all. Her knowledge and her ideas for the village will serve the community well. She should be returned to office.

The village elections in Chatham, Philmont, Valatie and Kinderhook are Tuesday, March 15. Polls are open from noon to 9 p.m. I urge Chatham village voters to select Curran, DelRossi and Locke.

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