How will Westerlo replace Supervisor Rapp? Let’s put it to a vote.

Four United States presidents have been assassinated, killed in office. It is a credit to the strength of our democracy that succession in each case has been transferred smoothly to the vice president.

Any government is shaken when its leader is removed, particularly when the means is unexpected and violent. In each case, the man who assumed leadership — Andrew Johnson after Abraham Lincoln’s death, Chester A. Arthur after James Garfield’s death, Theodore Roosevelt after William McKinley’s death, and Lyndon B. Johnson after John F. Kennedy’s death — was known to the American people, having been through the election process.

Town governments in New York, directed by state law, handle vacant offices differently — through appointments. If an elected town official resigns before his or her term is up, the town board is free to appoint anyone to fill the vacancy. We believe this system is flawed and can lead to a club mentality where those in power choose others who favor their own views.

We’ve advocated on this page for local elected officials to fulfill their obligation to the people who put them in office, and serve out their terms. We’ve criticized those who have left office because it was harder than they thought when they campaigned or because they wanted to pursue other personal goals.

Sometimes, however, resigning is the best course. Such was the case in the town of Rensselaerville in December when an audit revealed Steven Pfleging, the town’s supervisor for almost a year, had written town checks to himself; the Rensselaerville Town Board asked for and accepted his resignation. Pfleging was later charged with grand larceny and falsifying business records, both felonies, and official misconduct, a misdemeanor.

Rensselaerville’s deputy superintendent, who had been elected as a town councilman, John Dolce, was subsequently appointed by the town board to the supervisor’s post. This was a smooth transition. Dolce had been elected by the people; is familiar with town government, having served on the board; and also has experience as a businessman.

In Westerlo this month, Supervisor Richard Rapp announced he would resign from his post on March 5. Rapp has been Westerlo’s supervisor for more than 45 years. When he ran four years ago, Rapp told us his reason for running for another term was he wanted to hit the half-century mark.

In recent years, Supervisor Rapp has been consumed with caring for his wife of nearly six decades who suffers from dementia; both of them are in their eighties. While we can admire his personal devotion, we couldn’t help but note he was neglecting his public duties.

Further, he had lost control at recent town board meetings, shouting he was “not stealing anything” despite no such accusations being made. He is right to resign, to make way for new leadership.

Westerlo faces some long-standing problems that need to be addressed. Many times in recent years, Westerlo has violated the state law that requires a town’s preliminary budget be filed by Sept. 30; the town board must be presented with a tentative budget by Oct. 5, at which point the board adopts a tentative plan; and the final budget must be adopted by Nov. 20.

This timeline gives citizens who care a chance to review the proposed spending plan and make their views known.

Also, the tax rolls in Westerlo are badly skewed, again in violation of state standards, since a town-wide revaluation has not been conducted in well over half a century — most properties in Westerlo have a taxable value under $3,000. Newcomers are paying a disproportionate share of taxes.

The problem comes not with Rapp’s resignation but with what follows. There is no clear line of succession. Edwin Lawson, who had until recently served as deputy supervisor, was the town’s code-enforcement officer; he left that post to serve a similar role in nearby Rensselaerville.

William Bichteman was subsequently named deputy supervisor although he had been ousted in his re-election bid for town councilman. During Bichteman’s years on the board he had served as the unelected supervisor, handling many of Rapp’s responsibilities.

There is a 10-month gap between the date of Rapp’s resignation and the start of the new year when someone elected in November would become supervisor. At least Rapp announced his resignation before the next town election in November.

After the Westerlo elections in 2012 — in fact, the very day after Election Day — two councilmen, Gregory Zeh and Edward Rash, submitted letters of resignation. Zeh had moved out of town long before, and Rash said he wanted more time for recreation. Both knew well in advance they were leaving their posts and broke their contract with the people who elected them.

The timing of their resignations handily circumvented the chance of the people to choose their representatives; the appointments were left instead up to the then-all-Democratic town board.

What happened next was in clear violation of state law. Rapp and another board member voted to fill the vacancies by appointing Bichteman and Theodore Lounsbury. The third board member, Anthony Sherman, voted against the appointments.

By state law, a majority of a board — that is three members of a five-member town board — is needed to take action. Rapp said at the time that the illegal appointments would stand.

The situation wasn’t righted until the February 2013 board meeting when Sherman changed his vote and the appointments were made with three votes for each appointee.

With the March 5 resignation of Supervisor Rapp, the Westerlo Town Board will be left with two Democrats and two Republicans. If the votes for a new supervisor are tied, 2 to 2, Westerlo will be without a supervisor.

We urge the board to hold a special election so that people can elect their leader directly. That would be the fairest course.

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