For half-a-century, ‘Dick got the job done’

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp resigned on Tuesday after working for the town for over 50 years.

WESTERLO — After more than a half-century of working for the town — the last 41 as its supervisor — Richard Rapp resigned at noon on Tuesday, March 5. Westerlo has changed dramatically over the course of his tenure.

In recent years, Rapp has tended to his ailing wife — both of them are in their eighties — as other board members have assumed some of his duties. He declined to be interviewed for this retrospective.

A Democrat, Rapp rarely faced challenges in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 2 to 1. He worked as the town assessor for 10 years before he ran unopposed in 1977 to succeed Supervisor Edwin B. Haverly. In 1991, he was named the chairman of the town’s Democratic Committee.

Rapp oversaw the modernization of a town that, when he started working for Westerlo, had mostly dirt roads, no highway garage, no town hall, no library, no town park, and no museum.

At the same time, Rapp resisted the expertise of appointed planning board members and stubbornly declined to have the town undergo property revaluation despite being in violation of state standards for decades.

Rapp worked a full-time job for years as head of Albany County’s public works department while simultaneously working part-time as Westerlo’s supervisor.

Robert Snyder, a farmer who served as a Democratic Westerlo town councilman for 48 years, retiring about eight years ago, described Rapp as an ordinary man who had lived his whole life in Westerlo and was known to everyone. He recalled campaigning with Rapp years ago, going door-to-door to talk to residents.

“We listened to the people, what they wanted; some places nobody had ever been to,” said Snyder. “So we wrote down what they thought they would like; they’d come back and thank us … .”

Rapp’s time as supervisor wasn’t without controversy but he rode out turbulence with calm. When he was indicted for perjury in 1991, he still had unanimous backing from the town’s Democratic committee to run for supervisor.

“When I was campaigning once, this man told me, he says ‘We know what we got, and we don’t know what we’d get if we run somebody else,’” noted Snyder, while talking about Rapp’s campaigning.

Rapp has refused to reassess property values, skewing tax rates in violation of state standards. For the last 20 years, the town has been assessing property around 1-percent of full-market value.

Westerlo in the late 1990s banded together with neighboring Berne and Knox, hiring the firm of Cole Layer Trumble to reassess properties, using comparables from across the Hilltowns. When residents became upset, Westerlo withdrew. Knox and Berne proceeded, conducting townwide revaluation in-house.

Snyder said that Rapp’s stance has kept the taxes low for long-time residents, one of the reasons people continued to vote for the supervisor, he said. Rapp has previously said that Westerlo last underwent a revaluation in the 1950s.

Roland Tozer, who chaired the town’s planning board before it was disbanded, has known Rapp most of his life, having also grown up in Westerlo. Tozer said that much of the town seemed happy with the way Rapp did things.

“Dick’s always treated me like a gentleman and so forth, but I’ve had profound disagreements with how he conducted business on many occasions,” he said.

When the town board heard complaints from developers about the time-consuming process of having their plans reviewed by the planning board, the town board, under Rapp’s leadership, dissolved the planning board, with the town board serving that function in its stead.

Rapp led the town board meetings with little opposition, said Tozer. He described notoriously short meetings that could be missed if someone were even five minutes late, and a lack of readily available information at meetings or even meeting schedules changed at the last minute.

“I always got the feeling that they would stifle things in many ways … working with the public was like an inconvenience; they eliminated controversy by making it not convenient,” he said “And I have gone to town board meetings since, from time to time, and you can see the same things going on.”

But both his critics and supporters agree Rapp got the job done. Snyder said that he was at town hall everyday, often first thing in the morning.

“Dick put a lot of time into the town,” he said.

“It would be hard for me to say, you know, ‘Dick’s not doing his job,’” said Tozer. “Because he was getting the job done and I’m sure he was doing a lot of things I wasn’t aware of.”

Indictment

In 1982, Rapp began working for the Albany County Department of Public Works, where he was appointed commissioner six years later. He retired in 2000. He had previously worked for 26 years for the Hudson River Construction Company of Albany.

In 1991, Rapp, while working as public works commissioner, was indicted by an Albany County grand jury for perjury after he was accused of lying under oath about his former foreman for the department’s Coeymans garage, Edward Dixon.

Dixon was charged with using county workers, materials, and equipment to build a 1,000-foot road on his property in Coeymans as well as a 2,500-foot fence in Westerlo. Rapp told the grand jury that he had never been informed of Dixon’s actions, when in fact a taped discussion recorded an employee telling Rapp that Dixon forced him to work on private property and use county materials there.

In 1993, the charges were dropped, with the district attorney’s office describing it as a “weak perjury charge” in comparison to other charges.

Despite the indictment, the residents of Westerlo continued to support Rapp, with 40 people attending a town board meeting shortly after he was indicted, and he continued to be reelected as supervisor even as he still faced the charges.

“Well, Dick grew up right here in the town, so that made a lot of difference with the people. The people knew Dick; Dick was honest. He’d bring anything that was wrong right out to the people,” said Snyder.

Planning board disbanded

Rapp disbanded the town’s planning board in 1992, and for 15 years the town board served as the planning board as well. It was reinstated after residents sued the town for alleging that the planning board made up by town board members is illegal. Snyder said that the disagreement with the planning board stemmed from its inability to approve projects.

“They classified us as being ‘overzealous … ,’” said Tozer, who was the chairman of the planning board at the time. He said that the board had only been trying to follow the town’s regulations on subdivisions. “We didn’t let things slide by the way as many felt we should.”

Applicants even filed lawsuits against the planning board, said Tozer, but none of the cases were successful. Tozer said that instead Rapp became known as the one to go to get things done, even subdivision approval.

“The town is happy to have someone like Dick with a lot of experience just handle things, and Dick got the job done, and people were happy to let him handle things and not let us figure out a lot of the details; and it worked for many years,” said Tozer. “There were ways of making things move along smoothly that I didn’t agree with but, again, there were many folks who were satisfied with that.”

Tozer said there was little outcry when the planning board was disbanded, although some people did tell him personally that they thought it was wrong. He said he felt many residents were afraid to speak up.

Tozer felt that, when the town board was overseeing projects, the board let them “slide.” He said at one meeting Councilman Robert Mangold even started to ask him about the regulations.

“I often felt that the town board didn’t pay too much attention,” he said.

Town Projects

Over his years as supervisor, Rapp oversaw the creation of a number of town resources and projects, including buying the Westerlo school building to be used as town hall. The town had been sharing a building with its highway garage until 2010.

“I think when we bought the school was one of the nicest things we done,” Snyder said, describing a difference of “day and night” of having town offices there. The plan had been controversial and a public referendum was forced, passing by a vote of 374 to 262.

Snyder said a lot of residents weren’t in favor of the decision, and had been doubtful of the park that the town established as well.

“A lot of people didn’t think we could get it,” he said, of the park. “But I think it was good for the town.”

Snyder also said that, when he started on the town board, most of Westerlo’s roads were dirt. Rapp, with his background in roadwork, got many of them paved, he said.

“He knew what the town needed,” he said.

In 1986, the town established its library in the donated building that had once served as the town’s general store. Town historian Dennis Fancher, who has known Rapp for 50 years, said that Thurman Bishop, the town historian before him, spoke to the store owner, Harold Bell, after his wife had died, and asked him to donate it to the town.

“The library was probably one of the best things we did,” said Snyder.

The town museum was placed in the back of the library before a building on Route 1 was bought in 1995, said Fancher. He worked with Rapp to establish the town museum, speaking with him about buying the building, Fancher said.

After buying the building, volunteers cleaned it out, and a heating system and other renovations were put in, he said. The museum was officially opened 20 years after the building was purchased, as part of the town’s bicentennial celebration in 2015.

“Dick was one of those people who actually pushed this to get passed,” said Fancher, of the museum. Rapp has always been interested in history, he said. He also authorized Fancher to buy the Westerlo bandwagon — on which the town band had once traveled — at an auction, as well as a tent of Westerlo artifacts, both of which were displayed at Westerlo’s 2015 bicentennial.

Bicentennial

Westerlo’s bicentennial celebration in 2015 included a play, parade, dance, picnic, and a 5K race. The history celebrated ranged from the play reenacting the Anti-Rent Wars, to items on display from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a connection with the town’s sister city of Westerlo, in Belgium, going back to the 1980s.

The connection with Belgium began during World War II, said Snyder, when his brother, George Snyder, was stationed there. Later in his life, while back in Westerlo, serving as the town’s highway superintendent, George Snyder invited a trio of travelers from Westerlo, Belgium to dinner at his home. The young men had shown up at Town Hall, eager to see the place in America that had the same name as their hometown in Belgium.

In 1988, a charter of friendship was signed by the elected leaders of the two Westerlos. At the town’s bicentennial, the mayor of Belgium and his wife visited the town. Rapp himself was grand marshal of the parade, which Snyder said he enjoyed. He and his wife rode in the parade with the Belgian mayor and his wife.

Snyder drove his original farm tractor, fully restored, in the parade.

The next supervisor

Finding someone to replace Rapp may prove difficult for the Westerlo Town Board. At its March 5 meeting, after about an hour in a closed-door session, the town board decided to not yet fill the supervisor’s vacancy.

In the meantime, Deputy Supervisor William Bichteman will serve as acting supervisor. Bichteman, after losing his re-election for town council in 2017, was appointed by Rapp as deputy supervisor at the beginning of this year.

Interim town attorney Javid Afzali said that Bichteman will have nearly all the powers of the town supervisor but cannot vote on the board, as he is not a town councilman. This may become problematic as the town board now has two Democratic council members and two Republicans.

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