New Scotland elections: Town board race hotly contested again as two Republicans challenge incumbent Democrats, Democratic supervisor, judge, and highway superintendent unchallenged

NEW SCOTLAND — The town board race in this once rural, rapidly-turning-suburban town is hotly contested again this year.

Republicans Peter Drao and Charissa Mayer are challenging Democratic incumbents Bridgit Burke, seeking a second four-year term, and William Hennessy, seeking a fourth term. 

Two years ago, Drao and Mayer came surprisingly close to unseating their Democratic opponents, also both incumbents.

It was surprising because there had been no major controversies or upheavals, and party enrollment skews heavily towards Democrats.

New Scotland currently has 7,181 registered voters: 2,776 are Democrats, 1,693 are Republicans, 228 are Conservatives, 21 are enrolled with the Working Families Party, and 17 with the Green Party — meaning a whopping 2,446 are not enrolled with any party.

All of the elected officials in town are Democrats.

Mayer and Drao are also running this year on the New Scotland Together party line.

“The group decided to foster community,” Mayer told The Enterprise, with an “agnostic” party line.

Hennessy and Mayer also have the Conservative Party line.

The only other contested race is a re-run of the clerk’s race in 2021. Incumbent Democrat Lisa Williams, who also has the Working Families line, is being challenged by Lori Dollard on the Republican and New Scotland Together lines.

Supervisor Douglas LaGrange, from a generations-deep farm family in town, is unchallenged. He is seeking a fifth two-year term and has the Democratic and Conservative party lines.

Two years ago, LaGrange was challenged for the first time as supervisor by Erik Grissell who is not running this year.

Tim Stanton, a New Scotland farmer who has run on the Republican line for town board three times in the past and also run twice for the county legislature, submitted paperwork to the Albany County Board of Elections to run for supervisor this year.

“I was just a placeholder till they could find someone else,” Stanton told The Enterprise. Stanton said he is too busy with his farm to run for supervisor. Ultimately, no GOP candidate for supervisor materialized.

Asked on Election Night two years ago if the outcome was closer than he thought it would be, LaGrange said it was “closer than it should have been.” Because, he said, “an unknown comes to town and runs on what we’ve already done; it shouldn’t have been that close,” he said, adding he thought turnout might have been an issue as well.

Two other town offices are on the ballot this fall — both uncontested. Incumbent Justice David Wukitsch is running for re-election as is incumbent Highway Superintendent Kenneth Guyer. Both candidates have the Democratic and Conservative party lines.

Election Day is Nov. 7 and early voting runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 5.

For the town board race, The Enterprise conducted an online forum this week, which can be viewed at the newspaper’s website or on its YouTube page. The town board candidates are profiled under their pictures and the questions they were asked are boxed alongside this story.

A summary follows of their responses to these issues.



Senior citizens

Three of the four candidates, including Bridgit Burke, praised Deb Engel, New Scotland’s senior liaison, for the work she is doing.

Burke said she herself has spent much of her career working on de-institutionalizing folks with disabilities and that is just as important for seniors. 

New Scotland, she said, does a “great job” of helping seniors, providing food several days a week, and offering transportation.

She believes grant money can be used to pay for a new van. “If the grant money doesn’t come through, I voted that we should absolutely still pay 100 percent for that van,” said Burke.

She also supports increasing the exemption for seniors to get tax breaks, based on recent state legislation.

Burke praised the volunteer days in town and said she, her husband, and her son spent an “absolutely delightful” day helping an elderly resident with yard work.

She added that the board has also been willing to address problems raised by individuals. “We love to do direct constituent services …,” said Burke. “Seniors have given so much to our community and it’s our turn to give to them and make it possible for them to stay in their homes and thrive in the community.”

Charissa Mayer said, “I’ve spent pretty much my entire career focusing on the aged and aging in place. I’m a national expert for long-term services.”

Mayer noted there is currently a national shortage of caregivers and in health care generally.

“We have to address this issue … It’s not new news that we have an aging epidemic right now,” said Mayer.

She said that, when she worked for the New York State Association of Health Care Providers, she “brought in millions of dollars both from federal and state and private and public organizations.”

Mayer said of the town, “We can get a bus, we can get senior meals.” While she called Engel “amazing,” Mayer said, “It takes a village collectively … We can’t rely just on public funding.”

Mayer also said she worries about her 86-year-old father who almost died during the pandemic. “I know some day, I’m going to get that bad news that my dad is not able to take care of himself anymore.”

As she has campaigned door-ro-door, Mayer concluded, she can see “so much social isolation right now” that she knows something needs to be done collectively.

“This is a vital issue in the town and we certainly have been on top of it,” said William Hennessy, citing the hiring of Engel. “We knew she had the zeal, we knew she had the smarts to handle that job.”

While he supported spending  $50,000 from New Scotland’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for a new van, Hennessy said, if other grant money doesn’t come through “maybe we need to use even more ARPA money.”

He also said, “Weekly, we provide free meals for seniors in town,” including transportation to and from the meals.

Zoning can be amended “to accommodate housing for this,” Hennessy said of seniors aging in place. He mentioned that some areas in town already have such accommodations and named Voorheesville, Feura Bush, and Clarksville.

Peter Drao said that part of his work with the state Senate is coordinating grants, singling out SAM grants, which are State and Municipal Facilities Funding available for not-for-profits. He said, “I believe we could work with Senator Breslin to secure a SAM grant to pay for a senior bus.”

Engel said at the Oct. 15 town board meeting that she has written to Neil Breslin about funding for the van and is awaiting a reply.

“There’s got to be a lot of behind-the scenes stuff done,” said Drao. “I think with Charissa’s grant-writing knowledge and my … intimate understanding of the New York State legislative process, we could correctly do this.” 

He also said a shelter should be built for the senior bus.

Drao went on, “If elected, I would ask for a hearing on fixed assets.” This would examine not just repairs needed to the senior center, he said, but also look at the condition of the highway garage and its vehicles.

Finally, he suggested amending the town’s zoning to better accommodate seniors.


Climate change

“It’s a time right now where the state is imposing a lot of requirements on the towns and, quite frankly, I think town government really has to advocate on what the community wants … as opposed to a state mandate,” said Charissa Mayer.

She went on, “I think climate change is real …. We all play a role in picking up trash, doing our best,” Mayer said, noting she often reminds her kids to turn off the lights.

She went on, “There has to be more community input rather than unfunded mandates … One thing I don’t want to see all over the town is solar panels,” she said, stating they can be placed in a way “that’s aesthetically correct.”

Mayer concluded, “I live on three acres right now so I’m always outside cleaning and doing things. But, at the end of the day,” rights shouldn’t be infringed upon, she said, and the town “should be our advocate.”

William Hennessy said that he is certain humans have been part of the cause of climate change. “It’s sad that some people don’t agree with that,” he said.

Hennessy went on, “I’m happy to have the education and scientific knowledge that to me proves that humans have clearly been … the major cause of climate change,” he said, citing the use of fossil fuels.

“The town has made several planning and zoning initiatives to try to protect that,” he said of the environment. He gave the example of requiring that mature forests not be removed as a way to encourage carbon sequestration.

He also cited the town’s support for renewable energy sources and its efforts to have a solar facility built on its old landfill but said that the current utility transmission infrastructure is not large enough to support that use.

“We continue to talk to the state about that potential to improve that utility,” Hennessy said.

“While it’s great to blame the federal government …,” he said with irony, “and they have to make the corrections, I  believe that local governments should be making changes to their zoning and planning to try to address this to help mitigate these problems that we have.”

Peter Drao said, “As a proud member of the Voorheesville Rod and Gun Club, I’m a committed conservationist.” He is a proponent of taking care of the land and making sure a place is better when you leave than when you came upon it, Drao said.

“Broadly stated,” he went on, “I believe humans contribute to climate change but I’m not a scientist. I don’t know the other dynamics of it. I don’t know if humans are driving the boat on climate change.”

Drao said he supports “a well-ordered transition to renewables. It has to be done in a rational and sensible way that we don’t cause job displacement and we don’t deteriorate electrical-generating capacity of the grid.”

He asked if solar technology might be like computer technology where an expensive computer in the 1990s couldn’t do half of what a cell phone does today.

“So are we in a place where the solar panels in 10 years from now are going to be twice as efficient? Are they going to be more ready and up to meeting our energy consumption needs of today?” he asked. “And, if so, are we going to have a landfill full of lithium-based exhausted solar panels that are obsolete and are depleted?”

While he said it’s “not green” to clearcut mature forests for solar facilities or to use farmland for solar, Drao concluded, “It’s clearly private property rights. If you want to put solar panels on your land, it’s your right to do so.”

Bridgit Burke said, “I not only think that humans are responsible in large part for global warming but humans are responsible for addressing global warming.”

She said that her husband, a physicist, had spent his career mentoring small businesses in “developing the technology that we really need to address this problem.”

Her house has solar panels and geothermal heat and she drives an electric car. “I’m all in on this issue,” said Burke.

She went on about the town board, “We’ve been getting the job done.” She mentioned encouraging solar on private property when the landowner wants it but encouraging that trees be planted, not cut down.

“We have preserved open space and we have addressed many water issues and flooding issues,” said Burke. She said the town has more to do, not just with addressing water flow but also with drinking water.

“We all speak to the state government,” she said. “But we’re the town government. And so it’s not just about advocating for someone else to give us the right or the power to do things, but for us to do it ourselves.”

She also said that public forums are held once or twice a month in the form of town board meetings and that the town has increased online access to those meetings so residents “can sit in the comfort of their own homes and watch the meetings and participate.”

Finally, Burke said that Drao was using “scare tactics.” She concluded, “He’s talking about things that are really not a problem in New Scotland. And I think we need to stick to the facts and talk about what’s really working in New Scotland.”


A sense of place

William Hennessy said that the town was “very proud to help start the Historic Resources Commission” and continues to support its work.

Hennessy, who has lived in New Scotland for more than a quarter of a century, said that the current town board has “demonstrated more support for historic preservation than any board in my time in the town.”

He gave the example of saving the Hilton Barn, which had been slated for demolition to make way for a housing development. The barn was moved across the street from where it was built more than a century ago.

“We saved that barn in roughly three months,” said Hennessy. “We could not have done that without a lot of help from a lot of historic preservation people. But I was glad to be part of it as an engineer.”

Hennessy went on, “By continuing to improve that barn and save it back to its original luster, we gained a 15-acre park.”

He also said, “We have changed our zoning,” citing the creation of a hamlet zone, to “provide a sense of place and community centers on [Route] 85.”

Further, Hennessy, a  small-business owner himself, said he was a charter member of Our New Scotland.

“Our town has pursued all of these efforts through our comp-plan update years ago,” he concluded.

Peter Drao said, “New Scotland is a beautiful town with just lots of history … It’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

He also said that any place that experiences growth experiences challenges on how to manage growth.

“I think the best thing that a town and government in general can do for small businesses is to get out of their way …,” said Drao. “We should make it easy for these businesses to get up and running and get their brick-and-mortar presence in place so they can expand with their online fulfillment.”

Bridgit Burke acknowledged that everyone running for the town board loves New Scotland and its natural beauty, historical significance, and energetic community.

“The first thing in trying to preserve anything is in truly trying to understand,” she said. “Our board is a group of people who’ve been part of this community for a very long time and have welcomed new residents … and have gotten out and talked to the public.”

She said that the town’s comprehensive plan “not only looked at the natural resources in the community” but asked about its identity. “We’re home or a place where people commute from here into bigger regions; they’ve defended and will continue to defend against any infusion of large-box stores, big businesses that will destroy the natural environment … will create too much traffic and too much just general environmental problems.”

In addition to the comprehensive plan, Burke said, the town has codified its zoning so that it’s easier for sustainable development to occur.

She concluded, “It’s never the role of the town board to simply just get out of the way but it is the role of the town board to responsibly use our authority to make sure that we’re using it in a way that’s helpful to our residents, that’s supportive of the landowners, that protects our environment — and that’s what we’ve done. We’re not putting unnecessary restrictions but we’re really serving our place.”

Charissa Mayer said, “There’s a lot of people coming in that are new to the town. There’s a lot of people that have lived here forever. I think it’s a balance. I think new people bring fresh perspectives; they bring ideas and creativity. They bring business acumen, and they bring things like their children that want to have a sense of purpose in the community and be involved.”

She went on, “There’s no winning ticket here because you’ve been in the town forever; it’s about who the people love best and who’s going to do the job for you.”

Mayer said of herself, “At the end of the day, I came here for the beauty.” She said she loves campaigning because she drives through all parts of the town and sees their beauty. 

She also said that she personally frequents local businesses. “That’s my first preference if I can do it close by,” said Mayer.

“We’re pro-small micro-business,” Mayer said of herself and Drao. “We want to make sure that people have what they need locally without having to drive away. But then driving far away for some of the big things because we don’t want anything big in the town. I’m certainly against that.”

Mayer said further that it is important to have the town government support nonprofits which “play a big role in the community.”

While she wants to get people “charged” up about celebrating the anniversary of New Scotland’s founding, Mayer said the Hilton Barn has “been a very controversial topic in our community.” She mentioned concerns about structural integrity and what would sustain it financially.

“We know for capital projects, we need to have that long-term financial stability and I strongly believe there needs to be more public forums to get input on long-term sustainability.”

Mayer concluded that she is running on quality-of-life issues and, “with a lot of growth,” she said, we have to be very mindful and thoughtful around that as a town in making sure we’re making the best-informed decisions for the folks that live here before we continue to grow and grow and grow because a lot of us came here for that open space and beauty.”

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