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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 2, 2012

With art by Forest Byrd

Let the people choose a new leader

Public office is a public trust.

When voters elect their leaders — whether the nation’s president or a small-town supervisor — a contract is formed. The contract, the obligation to serve, should not be taken lightly.

So we were surprised and disappointed to read what Marie Dermody wrote last week in a letter of resignation from her post as Rensselaerville’s supervisor. Dermody wrote that the “culture” created by the present town-board majority made it “almost impossible for me to continue making forward progress for the town of Rensselaerville.”

Dermody was elected to a four-year term of which she served just a month more than two years, about half her term. It was her first term as supervisor —she had previously been a board member for two years — and perhaps she was naïve. During Dermody’s first two years as supervisor, she was part of a Democratic majority on the board. In that time, she did not work well with the two Conservative council members — Robert Bolte and Marion Cooke.

In the November elections, the long-time Democratic councilman seeking re-election, Gary Chase, was ousted and his running mate, a newcomer, was trampled as well. Bolte was the top vote-getter while Independence Party challenger Margaret Sedlmeir came in second.

This meant, starting on Jan. 1, Dermody no longer had the automatic three votes for her agenda. That’s when true leadership comes into play. On the national level, Barack Obama, two years into his first four-year term, no longer had the majority in both houses of Congress. An elected leader shouldn’t just pack up her marbles and go home.

Governance takes patience and compromise. It shouldn’t be about handing down edicts. Rensselerville in recent years has been ravaged by partisan sniping, which does not serve the public. As we’ve written in this space before: Polictical debate, hearing two or more sides to an issue, is a valuable part of the democratic process. But once differences are aired — most productively, in a civil manner — the elected representatives of the people must put their constituents first.

Asked on Election Night what caused the shift from the Democrats, Bolte said, “It’s real simple.” He recalled the town board’s meeting in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, heavily attended by residents of Preston Hollow, which was badly flooded. Bolte and Cooke wanted to open the floor to the public, but the motion was defeated by the board’s Democratic majority. Residents were not allowed to ask questions or make statements at the meeting.

Robert Freeman, director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, told us at the time that town boards are not legally required to allow for public comment at meetings. But, responding to the circumstance of that particular meeting, he went on, “Normally, I wouldn’t editorialize, but I will in this case. After a natural disaster, wouldn’t the governing body of the town want to hear the points of view and questions raised by people whose homes, in many instances, were either badly damaged or destroyed?”

This, he said, is how a “responsive and responsible” government should behave. We heartily agree.

“When the three Democrats voted against the people from Preston Hollow speaking at that meeting, it hurt them bad,” Bolte told us after the November elections. “When you get into politics, and you’re on the board, and you think that you’re the boss of the people, you are wrong. The people are still your boss.”

We hope the current board remembers that as it moves forward in finding a new supervisor.  We would advocate holding a special election — a process that allows views to be delineated. The next scheduled election is nine months off. While appointing a supervisor, rather than electing one, would save some money — estimated at about $4,000 or $5,000 by an Albany County election commissioner — a board appointment could undermine trust in an already deeply divided town. The cost of a special election soon would be well worth it so that the people can directly choose their new supervisor.

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