Public office is a public trust

“Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.”

— Henry Clay, 1829

 

Kenneth Runion accomplished much in his 16 years as Guilderland’s supervisor.

He ran a tight ship financially, doing away with practices that allowed for unaccounted government spending. At the same time, services were maintained and improved — like looping a water line that had formerly caused too-high readings of potentially dangerous chemicals.

His frugal approach stood the town in good stead during the Great Recession, and the state-set tax-levy cap that followed. Guilderland has never come close to exceeding the cap.

Runion oversaw a comprehensive plan for the town — after years of leaders saying the existing zoning laws served that purpose. Each neighborhood in the sprawling suburban town had a chance to define itself and plan its future.

He took particular pride in the town’s parks and was at the helm when Guilderland purchased its golf course, providing another opportunity for recreation as well as preserving an important green corridor as development pressures mounted.

Runion didn’t always agree with our editorial stances, but he returned our calls — often calling back several times with more information — and spoke his mind.

We were saddened, then, that he tarnished this legacy by leaving office a little over a month before his term ended.

“I made my plans clear back in September or October that I planned to retire around Thanksgiving,” Runion told our Guilderland reporter Anne Hayden Harwood last week. “I want to spend time with my family and there’s no better time to do that than at the holidays.”

We don’t begrudge anyone spending time with his family over the holidays nor do we begrudge anyone retiring.

But during workdays, as opposed to holidays, an elected official should be at work. It’s a matter of public trust. He should retire after his term is over, not before.

Our reporter reached Runion on his cell phone out of state, but Runion declined to say which state he had moved to. He sold his house in Altamont and moved to Florida, we learned from his elected successor, Peter Barber, who was appointed by the town board on Tuesday to fill out Runion’s term.

We may have felt differently if there were some family illness or death, some sudden calamity, that weighed in the decision to abdicate his duty to serve those who elected him. But selling a house in town earlier than expected doesn’t qualify; there are certainly places available to rent for a month in Guilderland.

Runion told us he had originally hoped to retire in August, when he turned 62, but did not want to give either candidate in a hotly contested election an advantage. That would have been truly egregious. It’s a technique that’s been used in other towns we cover, most notably Westerlo: An elected official who plans to retire waits to announce the retirement until after the date election petitions are to be filed; then, the single-party board appoints one of its own who serves until the next election.

“My family and I want some privacy at this time,” Runion told our reporter last week. He’s entitled to his privacy after Dec. 31 when his term is up. But, until then, he owes the public answers to questions because he was elected to serve them.

Public office is a public trust. When voters elect their leaders, as we’ve written before, a contract is formed. The contract, whether for the nation’s president or a town supervisor, carries an obligation to serve and should not be taken lightly.

Thomas Jefferson may have said it best: “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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