THE TOWN SUPERVISOR in a place I once lived also published a small, local newspaper and wrote most of what was in it. Her reporting included covering her own run for reelection, and she published the results of the race at the bottom of the front page under a tiny headline announcing that she’d won a ballot line. You had to read further to discover that her opponent had actually beaten her by a landslide.
Asked afterwards about the misleading story, she said she was worried her mother could not survive the news of her defeat.
That was always my benchmark for how delusional local politicians become when they spend more time looking in the mirror than listening to constituents. But after a recent decision by the new majority on the Copake Town Board, I see serious competition for honors in the category of Most Clueless and Self Serving Rationalization by a Politician.
Copake has a new Comprehensive Plan, which sets out the broad guidelines and goals for future land use and development in the town. The Town Board now must evaluate whether its zoning regulations comply with the plan and, if not, it must change the zoning. So last fall the board created a new, volunteer Zoning Review Committee that would make recommendations to the board about what changes, if any, should be made to local land use laws.
In a noble gesture the board’s resolution creating the committee called for it to be “free of any political influences.” Yeah, right. Zoning is inherently as political as any action local government undertakes, and setting an impossibly high standard only invites speculation that the committee and the people who appointed its members haven’t lived up to the ideal. Still, the real test is whether a committee could arrive at recommendations generally viewed as both fair and responsive to the plan.
The 11-member committee got right down to work, and though the group made internal changes, none of them quit or publically complained about the process. Was that because everybody held the same opinions or was it because as citizens they decided to work together to accomplish the task they’d been given? We’ll never know.
Between the time the committee was appointed and last week’s Town Board meeting, power shifted on the board and a new majority, this time Democrats, became the majority. Last week the new majority disbanded the committee, vowing to start over with a new group of volunteers.
It was a political purge. The new majority says it has names and specific complaints of people who applied to be on the committee and were not interviewed or were discouraged from participating. The majority says those claims render the process of choosing the committee fatally flawed. But the majority will not reveal most of the specific charges or the names of the people making them. In effect, this deprives those who supported the committee the right to confront its accusers. Let’s be clear, this is not a criminal matter, but it raises the question of whether anyone among the majority has ever read Article 6 of the Constitution.
The Copake majority has the right to appoint any committee it chooses. It also has the power to reject or amend any proposals a committee submits. Committees don’t enact town laws; that’s what the Town Board does.
So while this committee purge looks like a power play by the new Copake majority, it has turned out instead to reveal a startling display of insecurity and weakness. Does the majority have so little faith in its own ability to evaluate zoning recommendations that it’s afraid to hear the ideas of others who might hold different views?
The board must conduct public hearings before amending town zoning laws. The electorate can use those hearings to address problems with proposed changes. Maybe the majority lacks faith in the wisdom of the voters.
The majority now expects to appoint a new committee. Even if it can find people willing to serve after this purge, the work of any new body is hopelessly tainted. Would anyone believe it was “free from any political influences”?
The majority does have an option. It can reverse itself. Admit its mistake and implore the original committee members to return under conditions that give them the freedom to do their job. This would not be a sign of political weakness. It would demonstrate restraint, reflection and humility. Everyone makes mistakes. Strong people do what they can to correct them.