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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 14, 2007

We, the people, are responsible for what our government does

Last week, Alice Fisher, a widow with six children, was homeless because the village had turned off the water to her house. This week, the water is back on.

In between, we ran a front-page story — "Kicked out at Christmas" — that made public something Fisher and her kids had been living with since last December.

Exposing a problem can lead to a solution.

Fisher, whose home is on Gun Club Road just outside the Altamont village line, had fallen behind, way behind, on her water bill. She owed the village $6,732 for water.

Fisher works at a day-care center and had been willing to have her wages garnished or her house mortgaged to pay the bill. The village lawyer determined the house was over mortgaged, he said, and so that would have no value.

On Thursday, the day our story ran, Richard Umholtz, president of Safe Haven, Inc., went to see Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, and negotiated an arrangement: Safe Haven would pay the bill, and the water would go back on. On Friday, the water was turned on.

When readers called, wanting to make donations, we referred them to Umholtz. We admire the man and his organization. Umholtz has a soft heart but the tenacity of a bulldog.

Fisher had told our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, "I promised my kids I wouldn’t split them up, but I ended up having to."

Umholtz told us, "It makes perfectly logical sense to bring a family together."

Helderberg Interfaith Community Safe Haven, based in the Hilltowns, provides temporary housing for children, adults, and families in turmoil and need. It keeps two apartments and uses local services to help those in need.

"It’s not just gimme, gimme, gimme," said Umholtz. "People have to give back, pay what they can, and work at straightening out their problems."

A lot of Safe Haven’s clients suffer from low self-esteem, he said, so getting them back on their feet involves helping them succeed. He tells one success story of a woman who was living in a car with her children because they had no place else to go. Now, she is happily married and she and her husband are raising the children in their own house.

Safe Haven was started nearly a decade ago when a Westerlo minister was concerned that members of families in turmoil often felt forced to leave their rural community to go to shelters in the city.

Umholtz is hoping for more than just donations of money. He’s looking for a few good volunteers, like himself, to give their time and talents. He’s hoping to find three active board members to join the current nine — which include a lawyer, a school counselor, a local business leader, a former mayor, a retired police chief, a college president, and a retired doctor.

"We need people with brain power and sensitivity to be board members, people who can reach out and problem-solve," said Umholtz.

As a newspaper, we can’t personally help someone like Fisher or donate to her cause. We need to remain objective to try to fairly tell all sides of a story.

Our job is to inform. We wish we could have informed the community about Fisher’s plight earlier. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Our reporter spent months chasing records, trying to piece together a story.

The mayor did not return our repeated calls this week as we attempted to detail what led up to shutting off Fisher’s water. But the deputy mayor, William Aylward, made a substantial effort to answer our questions. First, he thought there had been a November or December resolution by the village board to shut off Fisher’s water.

Treasurer Catherine Hasbrouck was helpful when we went to Village Hall to look for the resolution. She searched through the files and could find no such resolution. Aylward then went to look for himself, and determined that the decision was made by the village attorney and mayor.

We also tried this week to find out when Fisher’s bill first went unpaid. Her recollection was six years ago. Our reporter talked to trustees, since the mayor wasn’t returning calls, and to the lawyer handling the case for the village; no answers were given.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, assured us this was a matter of public record. When our reporter called Village Hall for the information, Kelly Best, the office assistant, managing the office in the absence of the clerk this week, said she does not handle Freedom of Information Law requests.

"It’s not in my job description," Best said. "This is very rude of you"It would be like my asking you about the finances of The Enterprise."

Public records are just that; they belong to the people. It’s our job to ask questions, and find answers, about matters of public concern.

Before the office assistant hung up on our reporter, Best said, "I’m going to get the mayor to talk to you." That would delight us.

Certainly, citizens need to pay their bills. Government would go bankrupt if everyone was in arrears. But just as certainly, there has to be a way other than throwing a widow and her children out in the cold just before Christmas.

Time and time again, on these pages, we run notices of events to raise funds for those in need and over the years we have been gratified by the response. Mayor Gaughan himself wrote in a village brochure, "We are very fortunate in Altamont. Our community is small enough that we really can look out for one another and help each other."

Alice Fisher told us last week, "I’ve never been homeless in my life. It’s embarrassing."

We should all be embarrassed. As members of a democracy, we, the people, are responsible for what our government does.

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