With Knox GOP majority comes the chance for dozens to be replaced

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

Counting on a win: Ken Saddlemire, in the center of the crowd, adds up votes on Election Night in Knox. Saddlemire won the election to town council along with Karl Pritchard.

KNOX — At the last town board meeting of the year in Knox, there was applause and exchanges of gratitude for the town officials who would be leaving, including town board members, a town justice, the town attorney, the town clerk, and a highway employee.

Several of those leaving will be replaced by Republican-backed candidates, an odd thing in a town with a majority of Democratic voters. On election night, GOP-backed candidates experienced a sweeping victory, taking all the seats up for election. The winning candidates were also mostly challengers, besides Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis and the only two candidates backed by both Democrats and Republicans: tax collector Diane Champion and highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury.

With new candidates stepping up comes the potential for dozens of appointed positions in town government to be filled with new people.

A divided board

Since his election in 2015 that ousted the long-time Democratic supervisor Michael Hammond, Lefkaditis — a Democratic who has run and won twice so far without the backing of his own party — has often voted differently than the four all-Democratic council members. At the last re-organizational meeting in January he requested the current town attorney be replaced and that a different planning board member be appointed chairman. His motions were either not seconded, or were defeated 4 to 1. Appointments to groups like the zoning board and conservation advisory council were approved 4 to 1, with Lefkaditis being opposed.

In November, Lefkaditis kept his position as town supervisor while two current town board members lost theirs. Councilwoman Amy Pokorny declined to run for re-election, instead running against Lefkaditis for supervisor on the Democratic line. Planning board member Brett Pulliam, who is not enrolled in any party, ran for her seat. Councilman Dan Hanley ran for the second time, after narrowly defeating Democrat Ken Saddlemire — who ran a write-in campaign —  in a special election in 2016. Both Pulliam and Hanley lost.

Saddlemire and Karl Pritchard, a mechanic not enrolled in any party, both backed by the GOP, won.

Although Pritchard had expressed several times that he would voice his opinion if he did not agree with the supervisor, the election results mean that the majority on the board will be Republican-backed candidates. Two Democrats, were not up for re-election, remain: Dennis Barber and Earl Barcomb.

“I’m very excited to work with the new board, the new clerk, the new justice … ,” Lefkaditis told The Enterprise on Election Night. “I think you’ll have more open-minded board members and that’s what we need.”

Who stays and who goes?

The town board’s upcoming re-organizational meeting in January will include the appointment of over 40 positions, some of these are multiple posts currently held by one staff member; others are liaison or committee positions held by board members who will be leaving like Pokorny.

Lefkaditis said last week that the town board has currently heard from 21 interested applicants for appointed town government positions, which he said includes planning and zoning board seats, town attorney, and dog-control officer. He said that the interested applicants covered a range of positions, “virtually every position there is,” he said.

“And I expect that number to grow,” he said, of the 21 applicants.

The town has been advertising for these positions, Lefkaditis said, adding that he wants to eliminate the practice of hiring friends and family into town government.

“What we’re trying to get away from is the old-boys network … ,” he said. “Cronyism is the rust on this great government’s metal.”

The current town attorney, John Dorfman, was absent from the Dec. 12 town board meeting. Lefkaditis said at the meeting that Dorfman is currently in Germany, and, though he has not received a letter of resignation from Dorfman, he expects to see one soon.

Lefkaditis also announced at Tuesday’s meeting that the current chairman for the zoning board of appeals, John DeMis, will be resigning.

Lou Saddlemire, who holds three appointed positions as dog control officer, park laborer, and highway department laborer, declined to comment before the appointments are made.

“I feel right now I shouldn’t say anything political,” he told The Enterprise last week.

At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Saddlemire argued with Lefkaditis over the reason the town hall generator broke. Saddlemire asserted Lefkaditis was covering up something. Lefkaditis countered that a report from the repair service explained the generator’s malfunction. Saddlemire further said that he had not received a new key for the janitor’s closet after leaving a note requesting it, making it impossible for him to access salt needed for ice. Lefkaditis responded that rock salt was sitting outside the closet where it normally is kept.

Certain positions are appointed by the town clerk or town justices and approved by the board; the current town clerk and one the town justices were ousted by Republican-backed challengers in the election.

Timothy Francis, a Republican who ousted Democrat Jean Gagnon as town justice, said that he had spoken with town justice James Corigliano and had concluded that they did not want to replace the current court clerk, Deborah Liddle. He said that they would be happy with her appointment.

At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Highway Superintendent Salisbury said that his deputy superintendent, Loren Schafer, will be retiring.

“It’s going to be really tough to replace him,” he said.

One of the newest planning board members could be ousted. Travis O’Donnell, a former conservation advisory council member, was appointed to fill the term left vacant when planning board member Daniel Driscoll died in 2016, a term that expires at the end of this year. Planning board Chairman Robert Price said that O’Donnell is interested in keeping his seat, but there is concern if that will happen.

The town board went against the planning board’s recommendation to not establish a new business district at the intersection of routes 156 and 157 in Knox, and O’Donnell was one of the members who voiced his opinion, disagreeing with Lefkaditis.

Lefkaditis had sought to replace Price as planning board chairman at the last two re-organizational meeting with planning board member Tom Wolfe, the only planning board member who supported the proposed new business district.

“I’m not aware of anything,” said Wolfe last week, when The Enterprise asked if he thought if his name would be brought up again. “So no comment at this time.”

Price told The Enterprise that Lefkaditis had asked planning board member Debra Nelson this past month if she would be interested in being chairwoman of the planning board, which she declined. Price said he is not concerned with losing his position, as he believes this could only occur if O’Donnell is replaced with someone interested in leading the planning board. Nelson did not return a call for comment before press time.

O’Donnell said he is interested in keeping his position on the planning board, and had contacted the town board about doing so.

“I think we have to wait and see,” said O’Donnell, of the planning board compostion.

He said that the planning board, while sometimes challenged by a lack of resources, has important tasks ahead.

“I think that it’s really important for the planning board to do a thorough review of the zoning ordinance,” he said.

O’Donnell said that he found the current zoning ordinance to be too permissive in some areas and too restrictive in others. In the business district, for example, he said that there are little restrictions on what type of businesses can be developed or how they may appear. In contrast, he said, there are restrictive rules on establishing home businesses.

The town board is currently looking at updating its comprehensive plan, something that O’Donnell believes should accompany updating the zoning law. He himself has made suggestions at planning board meetings regarding home occupations in the zoning law but did not the see the town board follow through.

“The comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance are designed to go hand in glove,” he said.

He added that it is typical of municipalities to update these documents together.

Finishing unfinished business

Current town clerk Tara Murphy intends to complete a significant project before the end of her term on Dec. 31. This summer, Murphy obtained a grant through the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund of the New York State Department of Education, and received the first half of a $23,156 grant to reorganize and refile town records.

Murphy said that she first purged old records with the assistance of Pokorny and a regional representative from the State Education Department, and then removed the old library shelving that was used to store records in the town hall basement with the assistance of Pokorny and Pokorny’s husband, Russell, the town assessor. After the room was cleaned out, the remaining records were reshelved in archival boxes on archive shelves.

“I want to wrap it up so I could hand it off in a finished state,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the records will be filed in a digital database that will allow the town clerk to look up a record and determine the shelf and box number is located in, describing it as a kind of “map” for documents.

“That database will have to be updated,” she noted.

She has also brought in two consultants with the grant money to go over proper record filing with her successor and other town hall staff. Murphy also said she recently had her request for the second half of the money granted.

“So it doesn’t cost the town anything … ,” she said. “All that will be left is really training.”

At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Murphy discussed the project, noting that the records used to be kept in Rubbermaid bins and occasionally became moldy.

“We just sort of had a philosophy of ‘You have to keep every piece of paper,’” she said, of the previous organization of the records.

It was noted at the meeting that the grant also funded the purchase of a new laptop computer and archival scanner for the town clerk, and that the records organization was done in conjunction with the Knox Volunteer Fire Company.

Murphy is also seeking to complete Freedom of Information Law requests before the end of her term, as well as “just the day-to-day things — the grant project was the biggest projects that I was working on.”

Murphy has been in contact with Traci Schanz, an Independence Party member who ran on the Republican line and ousted Murphy. Schanz is a full-time occupational therapist assistant for children with disabilities.

“I hope she enjoys the job as much as I do,” said Murphy.

Murphy said that, when she herself was about to start her first term as town clerk, she took classes and workshops to prepare herself, in particular at a conference for elected officials.

“There’s a lot of pieces to keep that office going,” she said.

Schanz told The Enterprise following Tuesday’s town board meeting that Murphy had let her shadow her a few hours before the meeting began to learn about the preparation for meetings. Schanz took notes during the meeting. Schanz said Murphy also left her manuals to go through.

“She was very nice to help me out,” she said.

Schanz said she also attended a webinar presented by the New York State Comptroller’s Office and plans to attend two others: one presented by the Association of Towns and one presented by the New York State Clerks Association. She also has spoken to other town clerks that she knows.

Schanz said that she does intend to bring in her own deputy clerk, replacing the current deputy clerk, Amy Pulliam. She said she has two people in mind who she will be speaking with.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said, of her new role. “I’m excited.”

 

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