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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 15, 2009
By Zach Simeone
WESTERLO With two open town judge positions, the number of candidates has dropped from four to three in Westerlo. Democrats Andrew Brick and Heidi Stroh will square off against Kenneth Mackey on the Republican line.
Laura Palmer, who had planned to run for town judge on the Republican line, has withdrawn from the race due to her mother’s death, she told The Enterprise.
“It’s too bad she’s not available; we think she would make a great judge,” said Bonnie Kohl-Laub, who chairs Westerlo’s Republican Committee. “But, right now, she is grieving for her mom.”
Since Palmer dropped out of the race so close to elections, she is still on the ballot. Also on the ballot is Judge Alan Bauder on the Independence line. Bauder has retired and is not running for re-election.
“They’ve already sent out the absentee ballots with her on them,” Kohl-Laub said of Palmer. Kohl-Laub is planning on posting signs at the polling places in Westerlo, notifying voters that Palmer is no longer running.
The Republicans decided not to replace Palmer with another candidate, as those they considered had federally funded day jobs, and the Hatch Act prevents such individuals from being a judge.
“I don’t just want to put up a body,” Kohl-Laub said. “We talked to a lot of people, and felt some were not appropriate, and that we would rather wait for the right person to come along…There are several other people that are qualified, but, at this time, they are part of federally funded projects, and will hopefully be available next time,” she said.
Nonetheless, long-time fireman and rescue squad member Kenneth Mackey will appear on the Republican line, making his third run for a seat on the bench.
On the Democratic ticket will be incumbent Judge Andrew Brick and challenger Heidi Stroh. Brick is also on the Independence line.
The candidates have shared their thoughts on assigning community service instead of sentencing someone to jail time; public access to court records; and dealing with the fact that, in a small town like Westerlo, there may be times that a judge sees a case involving a friend, relative, or neighbor.
Prior to being appointed town judge in February, Brick had been planning board chairman after Leonard Laub was removed from his post last year. Brick has lived in Westerlo for eight years, is part of the town’s volunteer fire department, and has been practicing law for 13 years, he said.
“My experience and qualifications can be seen both prior to assuming the bench by working in the courts both as a prosecutor and representing defendants, and also in the experience I’ve gained by sitting on the bench and hearing and deciding cases since February,” Brick told The Enterprise. “Since February, I’ve probably heard and acted upon a couple hundred traffic matters, a number of small claims actions, and a number of landlord-tenant matters, so I’ve gotten full exposure to the various types of cases that come before the justice court.”
When he isn’t on the bench, he works as an associate attorney at the law office of Donald Zee. As an attorney, Brick has prosecuted over 10,000 cases, he said.
“I was the prosecutor for the town of Coeymans and the village of Ravena, and I would do 60 or 70 cases a night, five nights a month, for three years,” Brick said before being appointed as judge in February. “I prosecuted on behalf of the New York State Troopers, Coeymans Police Department, and the village of Ravena police department.”
Brick has also worked as deputy city attorney in Schenectady, as town attorney for Greenville and Rotterdam, and as senior assistant town attorney in Babylon.
Community service, Brick said, should be considered if it is allowed by state law, which varies depending on the crime.
Additionally, if a case were brought before him in which he knew one or both parties involved, he would be obligated to recuse himself, he said.
“I have not yet had to do that,” Brick said, “which is probably a result of the fact that I’ve only been there eight years. With Judge [Alan] Bauder, who is the senior judge, there were instances where he had to recuse himself and transfer the case to me…But, if I didn’t have to recuse myself from a matter, then the consideration would be the same fairness sand impartiality anyone else would get.”
There is also a mechanism for instances where both town judges are obligated to recuse themselves, he went on.
“You can inform the administrative judge for the district, and he can reassign it to another town justice in the county,” Brick said.
With regard to public access to court records, Brick said that they are public record, unless sealed.
“Two instances jump to mind,” he said. “The first would be where records are sealed by court order, and that can happen for a number of reasons. The second is if the offender is given youthful-offender status: If someone gets charged criminally, and they’re under 18, it may give them youthful-offender status, and that may result in a record being sealed.”
Heidi Stroh, 34, a general practice attorney, finished law school in 2005, with degrees from Albany Law School and Smith College, as well as a master’s degree in education from The College of Saint Rose.
After graduating, she worked in the law office of Terrance Kindlon in Albany, and went on to be the assistant attorney for Green County.
Stroh thinks she would make a good judge due to her familiarity with the law, with the justice system, and with court procedures, she told The Enterprise this week.
“I started out my law career doing criminal defense, which is still my preference,” Stroh said this week. “When I first started, I used to be asked, ‘How can you defend somebody who committed these crimes?’ And I said, ‘I’m not defending the crimes I’m defending the integrity of the system.’”
She went on, “I’ve spent time in many courts, in many counties, and I’ve seen a lot of cases of miscarriage of justice, and it makes me see the need for someone who has experience, and who has the presence of mind and conscience to apply the law appropriately, and ensure that there are no miscarriages of justice.”
Originally from Berkshire County, Mass., Stroh moved to Westerlo in 2003.
In addition to being an attorney, Stroh is also a former co-owner of a home-based, retail nursery business. In her free time, she cooks, hikes, gardens, and is in the process of getting her hunting license.
“I just took a bow-hunting safety course,” she said.
Stroh is also the author of Preserving Fine Art from the Ravages of Art Restoration, and Puppy Love: Providing for the Legal Protection of Animals.
Stroh is open to assigning community service in place of jail time, she said, depending on the case.
“I’m really open to any solution that’s permissible under the law, and I would have to look at every situation on case-by-case basis as far as determining an appropriate sentence,” she said.
Though Westerlo is a small town, it is essential for a judge to maintain impartiality, Stroh said.
“It’s inevitable in the practice of law that you’re going to come across people you’re familiar with, but it’s about preserving the integrity of the system,” she said. “Of course, if I thought my judgment was going to be influenced by a prior relationship, I would recuse myself.”
Further, Stroh said that whether or not the public can access certain records would depend on the case, but she emphasized the importance of the Freedom of Information Law.
“I believe that that’s why the FOIL law has come into place, and that access needs to be preserved and continued,” Stroh said. On whether or not certain records should be restricted, Stroh said, “It would be on a case-by-case basis; I would have to see an individual case in order to make that determination.”
Mackey, 55, spent his early childhood in Berne, but moved to Westerlo as a teenager.
He has been a member of Westerlo’s fire department and rescue squad for 30 years, along with his wife, Debbie Theiss-Mackey, and has been treasurer for the Albany Rural Fire Chiefs Association for 11 years. He works as a welder at Hannay Reels, where he has been employed for 21 years, and he has taught snowmobile safety for five years, he said.
His desire to be a town justice is rooted in an event that took place more than 10 years ago, when he was fire chief, and he had an unpleasant exchange with recently retired Judge Joseph Dean, he said.
Dean could not be reached for comment; Supervisor Richard Rapp told The Enterprise this week that Dean is now in an assisted living facility.
“I’m unhappy with the justice system in town,” Mackey said. “We had a hazardous incident on Route 402. Big power lines were down, and I had fire police blocking the roads off so nobody got electrocuted. A person drove right through my fire police line; I was responsible for everybody, and this person almost ran one of my fire police over, and she asked me to do something about it.”
Mackey took it to court.
“Judge Dean told me I was too quick to judge, that I shouldn’t be dragging people to court for something like that,” Mackey went on. “Well, [Filkins] was trying to protect this person’s life, and the point was not to have anybody get electrocuted. He basically laughed me out of court,” Mackey said of Dean.
Being a long-time volunteer in town, Mackey is a strong advocate of giving out community service in place of jail time.
“When I first applied for the job when Judge Dean retired, I brought that up during my interview with the town board, and told them that maybe it would behoove the town to get more done if there was some community service,” Mackey said. “Maybe some kids vandalizing the park, if they helped mow the grass, it might give them some better insight on things than jail time. And that’s not beyond my reach either. They could follow me around for a little bit. I could always use some extra hands, and they could see what it’s like to volunteer.”
Having lived in Westerlo for close to 40 years, Mackey is familiar with much of the community, but he said this would not affect his ability to hand down a sentence.
“Unfortunate as it may be, if you’ve broken the law, and the law says that you have to be sentenced, that’s the way it is,” he said. “It is what it is.”
On public access to court records, Mackey said, “I suppose it would depend on the case. If it was involving a younger person, where you can close their files, so to speak, then I don’t think anyone should have access to that. But as a rule, I think…if people knew who was in trouble and who wasn’t, it might give them a better insight of what kind of people we have in the town. If you drove drunk and caused a big accident, I don’t see any problem with your name being out there.”