Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Incomprehensive Palin/Plan

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, September 18 edition

Well excuse me, but I am a little offended by the American Public's beady eye looking down its long nose at what it considers to be the meager qualifications of Sarah Palin to be vice-president of the United States. "She was only a mayor of a small city," is the scornful cry.
Don't get me wrong, as a card-carrying member of the Save The Moose Society, and one who barely can distinguish the barrel from the stock of a rifle, not to mention one who believes our country's first positive step toward energy independence would be to ban NASCAR, I dwell in a severely depopulated community of views with Ms Palin. In fact, our only real agreement may be the proposition that Kids Are Nice, and Ms. Palin's passel is as fine as any. In just about every other policy issue, including basketball, she frightens me as much as the Press apparently frightens her.

But after serving for two terms as mayor of a "city," even one smaller than Woodstock I have no doubt Sarah Palin has the gumption, the fortitude, the wherewithal and above all the experience to be vice-president, and even president if, God forbid, John McCain's arthritis makes it impossible for him to veto pork barrel spending bills.

On the issue of pork, it appears Mayor Palin secured nearly $27 million dollars worth of the detested grease during her scant six years in office, including $500,000 for a youth shelter, $1.9 million for a transportation hub, $900,000 for sewer repairs, and $15 million for a rail project. $15 million for a "city" of 5500 souls! Forget Woodstock, all of Ulster County never wallowed in such tubs of fat. I can absolutely assure you that if Washington had offered me $15 million in grease while I was "mayor" it would have stopped my heart. Rather than look down on the woman it might be better to look over her shoulder and try to find out what is her magic.

But seriously, who better to face down a defense secretary in a lather over budget cuts than someone who's faced down a highway superintendent in the same high dudgeon? Senators and governors, our high and mighty class of politician from which we generally select the next Leader of the Free World, are always surrounded by aides and assistants and aides to the assistants and assistant aides, and they dwell in big office buildings that requires opening at least ten doors to get at them. So fat chance of you ever getting to holler at them. Not so with small town mayors; if it weren't for their noses there would be nothing separating a mayor's brains from a fist. And forget the defense secretary, how about Putin? He's a wiry fella, but up against a mayor who bit her own mother-in-law and shoots wolves from airplanes? Not a chance.

* * *

Don't you hate it when somebody quotes you without attribution? Councilwoman Liz Simonson said at the town board meeting that "a previous town board member" called the proposed comprehensive plan "so poorly written" that he wouldn't support it.

Hey, that was ME!

And I wasn't the only one who thought so. So did the committee that produced that ill-fated document. The document was so garbled when it was delivered to them that they had special meetings comparing notes on how poorly written it was, and then put one of their members up to the task of communicating their critiques to the company that wrote it. Problem was that member at that point was so bored with the mess he never sent the comments on. The committee, what remained of it, then sulked for three years before finally fobbing the gobble-de-gook off on the town board.

The comprehensive plan, in case you're interested, conjured tens of thousands of words, and pages and pages of maps to describe this vision for Woodstock; Cram development into the area roughly described as that between Plochmann Lane and the Bear Café (because water and sewer are either in place or feasible to extend in such area), and make the rest of the town a park. Okay, I simplify, but I defy anyone to come up with a better description in seventeen words or less.

I won't tell you the plan is necessarily a bad one, as it does adhere to principals of Smart Growth, which basically say develop where you have available infrastructure and try to leave the rest of our blessed earth as peaceful and undisturbed as possible. But go ahead, read the document yourself and tell me how many oceans of molasses you've had to wade through before making port on that simple idea.

I just wouldn't put my name to it. Period. No regrets, either.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, September 16

This article appeared in the Townsman, September 18 edition

The business meeting of the Woodstock town board began with a protest of the changing on the locks on the Community Center and the new policy instated by supervisor Jeff Moran requiring users of the facility to pick up and return its key to the Woodstock dispatch service located in the Town Hall. Amy Goddes, treasurer for the Senior Recreation Committee and Anita Yuran, member of the Woodstock Recreation Commission both considered the new policy cumbersome, time consuming and unnecessary. Moran defended the action basing his policy on the Town's need to protect the security of the facility. After some back and forth it was agreed he would meet with Yuran to see if a better solution can be found.

In another matter with potential impact to the Community Center, the board will decide at a future meeting whether to close the Town Hall meeting room to groups using the facility from November 1 to April 1 in order to save on heating costs. Councilwoman Liz Simonson will work with the Town's bookkeeper to determine what actual savings might be realized by such action. Moran feels certain that the groups using the Town Hall will find space available in the Community Center, maybe with some "minor inconvenience."

The town board heard a request from the Woodstock Film Festival to reduce the rental fee 20% to the sum of $1699 for the four days they would be using both the Community Center and the Tall Hall for their annual film festival. The Festival was entitled to such discount, according to Festival representative Amy Witkis, because their use of the buildings exceeded one hundred hours, a threshold in the Town's recently adopted fee schedule. California Quarry Road resident Randi Steele spoke out against the rental scheme, claiming that the Festival's use of the internet to pre-sell tickets to its shows discriminated against the sight impaired. Ms Steele is legally blind, and has not been able to see preferred shows because of the lack of a box office where she in the past had been able to select tickets. "Shame on the Woodstock Film Festival," she declared. The board agreed she had raised good points, but felt it should separate the issue of the Festival's right to the discount from her concerns, and after calling upon the Film Festival to address the matter voted unanimously for the reduced rate.

Dennis Doyle, Director of the Ulster County Planning Department, and professional planner Peter Fairweather, upon invitation of Councilman Chris Collins, made a presentation concerning the Town's stalled comprehensive plan. "We can't come to Woodstock every two years to talk about comprehensive plans," joked Doyle. He urged the board to adopt a plan, describing it as a strategic vision of the community. "You are going to grow," he asserted. "The question is; how do you want to grow?" He offered several strategies to move the plan forward. Fairweather, who had worked for the company that wrote the voluminous never-adopted plan still sitting on the shelf, suggested the board simply adopt the executive summary. He advised the board to engage professional staff and commit to getting the project done in six months. The presentations were followed by agreement on the board to each read again the executive summary, and discuss it at a future meeting.

Christina Vazquez, representing Vaz-Co Reclaiming Service, was invited by Councilman Jay Wenk to address the board on the subject of removal of buried fuel tanks. Vaz-Co is a company recognized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as competent to properly remove buried fuel tanks. Ms Vazquez offered up solutions heard before, including sending out surveys and trying to get several projects scheduled together in order to reduce costs. George ("Jerry") Washington, a member of Wenk's committee to address the buried fuel tanks threatening the Town's aquifer, explained the difficulty of getting cooperation from an area where "many houses are in ill repair," and where residents "are a tenant and the landlord doesn't give a damn." Washington again cited a law that he has never been able to produce, which he claims would give the Town authority to simply remove tanks. Washington invited Ms Vazquez to a private meeting to discuss his data.

Long time Woodstocker Rene Cantine introduced to the board Magdelena Gouvei, a member of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts, who proposed a fashion show on the Village Green on October 5 from 1:00 to 3:00 PM. The show will be a prelude to a fashion show to be held at the Woodstock Playhouse some time next year, proceeds of which will go to the Playhouse for improvements. A fashion show planned earlier this month at the Playhouse fell through. The board authorized the action, contingent upon approval of the Woodstock Reformed Church, which owns the Village Green, and the Town's committee on safety.

Mark Jargow had a more difficult time with his proposed "Bike Day," scheduled for October 19 between the hours of 11:00 and 4:00 PM. The board felt the proposal was too skimpy in detail, but finally agreed to approve it contingent upon a more fleshed out plan and approval of the Town's safety committee.

Committee reports were mostly a recitation of plans for future discussion, and nothing concrete with respect to Green Fleet, the Carbon Neutral Initiative and expanded cell phone service was advanced. Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum reported that the Recreation Commission was preparing the ice rink for use this winter, and that parks commissioner Gordon Wemp was progressing in discussions with the Comeau Users Group on improvements for the Comeau trails. Moran read from the 1998 report from the Facilities Committee, and urged the town board to address issues concerning the Town's infrastructure. Councilwoman Liz Simonson urged the town to take up the expired cable television franchise.

After many years of work the amendment to the zoning law that would regulate development near wetlands and water bodies is scheduled for public hearing on October 21 at 8:00 PM at the Community Center. Copies of this proposed legislation were not available at the meeting.
The resolution to pay the monthly bills totaling $170,279.35 passed with Collins abstaining on the grounds that he never inspected the vouchers. The Town Clerk's report, budget transfers and minutes for previous meetings passed without objection.

After a half an hour of discussion, the evening ended with adoption of Wenk's very watered down anti-idling resolution by a 3-2 vote, Moran and Rosenblum voting nay. The meeting adjourned at approximately 12:10 AM.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ric Sanchez, September 15, 1922 - September 2, 2008

This article appeared in the Townsman, September 11 edition

A lot of Woodstock's old beats, bohemians and even veterans of the age of 'flower power' were distressed to receive reports of the passing of Ric Sanchez, who died September 2nd in Benedictine Hospital from pulmonary disease and a ruptured aneurysm. Sanchez had been a resident of Woodstock on and off since the end of the Second World War and, since 1996 lived in the old school house now located behind the new Ulster Savings Bank on Mill Hill Road.

A collector and connoisseur of classical and jazz recordings, in 2006 Sanchez donated to the Catskill Mountain Foundation's Pleshakov Piano Museum in Hunter, New York, thirty-thousand 78 rpm 'phonodiscs,' some representing the earliest recordings of that type. In a statement prepared by "donor Richard Warren Sanchez," in the Pleshakov 2007 program, Sanchez describes witnessing a parade on Fifth Avenue in New York celebrating Charles Lindberg's 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight as "a goodly fanfare to start off a young life." He then noted his subsequent discovery of recorded music, which occurred during a music appreciation class in elementary school. "This was the beginning of a life of love," wrote Sanchez. "I learned to appreciate right then and there for the rest of my life what a vital force music can be."

His endeavor to preserve great recordings of this "vital force" became a life's work greatly aided by the invention of 33 rpm "long playing" records, which caused people to dump their old 78s. For decades Sanchez combed thrift shops, yard sales and even landfills for discarded recordings and eventually amassed the collection some have estimated to be worth tens of thousands of dollars if indeed it is not priceless.

Ric, Ricky, Richard, Ricardo - depending on what period of his life one knew him - began life in a Dickensian setting. Born in New York City to parents of German and Argentine heritage, he spent his first five years in an orphanage before being adopted by a Mr. and Mrs. Cowan. The Cowans resided in Northport, Long Island, and Mr. Cowan was of Scots ancestry, had a career in advertising and maintained an office on Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Cowan, of French ancestry, was said to have helped inspire Sanchez's love of music and fine cuisine. The Cowans named their adoptee 'Clyde.' For reasons not made clear, but which may have been Mr. Cowan's lack of approval of his adopted son's artistic sympathies, 'Clyde' was on his own from an early age, perhaps as young as fifteen. Around this time he discovered his birth certificate and on it his birth father's surname. From then on he assumed the official name Richard Sanchez.

After leaving the Cowan household for New York City, and in the years before WW II, according to unexplored, vaguely recalled or almost forgotten asides to friends, a Jesuit remembered only as Kelly, who introduced Sanchez to the writings of Joseph Campbell, mentored Sanchez. (Later in life Sanchez was known to defer questions concerning religion to Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces.) Sometime in this period he made acquaintance with Anton Busch, brother to the noted musician Adolf Busch of the Busch String Quartet. Also around this time Pietro Di Donato, author of Christ In Concrete, took an interest in young Sanchez, often inviting him into his family's home. Whether or not these men had deeply influenced him, Sanchez spent WW II laboring, some say as a medic, in an internment camp for conscientious objectors located somewhere in middle America.

After the war Sanchez pursued painting, with most of his attention drawn to the abstract-expressionist movement. Old newspaper clippings just discovered in his files indicate his particular interest in the career and works of De Kooning. Perhaps his artistic endeavor initially brought Sanchez to Woodstock around 1945 where he first resided on The Maverick. (Some old friends think it was Joseph Campbell's residency in Woodstock at that time that attracted Sanchez.) He claimed to have introduced the painter John Ernst to his wife-to-be poet Pearl Bond. He continued painting into the 1960s, his works exhibited in the Hamptons and New York City as well as locally. An exhibit of his works sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s was noted in the local press: "Art Critic, Stuart Preston of the New York Times, guest in Woodstock over the weekend paid particular tribute to the painting of Judson Smith exhibited at the Woodstock Art Gallery and the paintings by Rosemary Beck and Ricardo Sanchez now on show at Parnassus Square." Eventually Sanchez became fed up with the "art scene" and put aside his brushes but for the occasional compositions that either served as gifts for friends or simply disappeared. Sanchez considered it flattering to have art stolen from him. Paintings from his abstract-expressionist period cannot be located.

1972 saw the birth of two local newspapers, one of which survives. The other, Woodstock Review '72, which began its run with a front-page photo and article about the federal government's closure of the Sled Hill Café, was founded and edited by Sanchez and lasted through thirteen editions.

Throughout his life Sanchez held various occupations; work in (what was called then) an insane asylum, a window dresser for Macy's department store, a building superintendent, a waiter (he often would comment on a restaurant's service); some vaguely remember that he had worked in a Ford aviation plant. It was house painting and his excellent cooking that ingratiated him in 1970 with Joan Schwartzberg, the new owner of what had been the Eleanor Lamb ("Lamby's") Guest House on Tinker Street, and helped begin an association with Ms Schwartzberg that lasted until his death. He otherwise got by with small jobs and as a negotiant.

Sanchez is credited with possession of a rare presence of mind. Years ago, when confronted by two teenage boys who had just rapidly consumed a toxic amount of hard liquor and who demanded he judge which was the "shoberest," he took them one by one outdoors, pressed his fingers into their stomachs causing them to purge, an action that possibly may have saved their lives. One evening a distressed woman demanded he help her asphyxiate herself by running a hose from her car's exhaust to its cab. He promptly took her car keys and threw them into the snow, the woman's death wish suddenly subsumed by a huge, life affirming annoyance she might never find her keys. She lives to this day. "He had a gift for the uncomplicated," says his daughter Camille.

Sometime in the latter part of the 1940s, Sanchez married a woman named Luanna and fathered a daughter some remember as Cecile, or Cecelia or Celá. There is no available information about Luanna's later life or certainty of when she divorced Sanchez. The daughter from this marriage died sometime in the early1970s.

His daughter from a later relationship, Camille Benjamin, and a grandson, Gabriel Fernandez, survive Sanchez. Camille and her husband, Craig Ungerman of Pomfret, Connecticut, were with Sanchez during his last moments, as was Joan Schwartzberg and one of the men whose life he saved decades ago.

Tonto, Susie and Gracie also survive Sanchez, who had a life long affection for cats.

Funeral arrangements are with Lasher Funeral Home of Woodstock. There will be calling hours from 4:00 to 8:00 pm on Sunday, September 14, and a memorial service beginning at 1:00 pm on Monday, his birthday, followed by procession from Lasher's to the Artists' Cemetery where he is to be interred. Markers will be provided and friends are invited to give some thought to writing on Ric's casket a farewell message that will accompany him with "goodly fanfare" forever.

Alexandria Redux

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, September 11 edition

Fellow Townsman, from Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary:

"Library n., 1. a place set apart to contain books, periodicals, and other material for reading, viewing, listening, study, or reference, as a room, set of rooms, or building where books can be read or borrowed."

With the second consecutive defeat of the Woodstock Library budget on September 4, an unprecedented event in Woodstock's cultural history, it is time to give thought to this extremely important institution. I say thought as opposed to bashing. Fellow citizens as plain and simple as you and me, unpaid, and who give their time to the library constitute the board of trustees responsible for its policy, upkeep and operation. However critical we are of their decisions their dedication deserves our respect. With that agreement let us continue.

Last year's defeat of the library budget, the product of an outpouring of seething voters was easy to comprehend. Taxpayers were expected to digest and approve a very expensive capital project with barely two weeks notice. Even people normally very sympathetic to the library's mission felt profound doubt and cast their votes against the budget more in sadness than anger.

Rather than take its lumps, some library trustees compounded the error by whispering blame of certain individuals and/or issuances against the public's lack of "understanding." When it comes to money the public does not wish to understand, it need be persuaded. Five million bucks is a tough argument requiring almost five million reasons to support it. "More meeting space" didn't cut it. It should be noted that when a library budget is defeated it automatically defaults to the previous year's budget, and therefore the January 2008 tax levy for the library was identical to that of January 2007.

This year's proposal would have seen the library budget increase 15% from $466,000 to $537,000. Whether residue from the public's sense of breach of trust from last year, or a new found deeper interest in the library budget, this year's turnout for the library budget vote was high, almost 600 voters, and the margin of defeat convincing (362 nay to 232 yea). Most tangibly this means the January 2009 tax levy for the library will be identical to that of January 2007. Good year for tax haters, but good for the library?

Yes, good for the library. As much as we love and need libraries, they are publicly financed and everybody employed by or overseers of libraries can expect and should expect the taxpayers' interest. Our library trustees have not been diligent in this regard.

A couple of weeks ago, well before the September 4 vote, I read a letter to the editor that said;

"No doubt the library trustees believe that having to work within an austerity budget this year is reason enough for taxpayers to vote yes on a 15% budget increase for 2009. So I decided to compare budgets of several libraries in the area and am left scratching my head as to why there is such a discrepancy between the operating budgets of our town library vs others.
"Here are the numbers for 2008: The Town of Saugerties (population 19,868) Library is operating on a budget of $419,969. Town of Ulster (pop. 12,544) Library budget: $250,822. Rosendale (pop. 6,352) Library budget: $223,700. West Hurley (pop. 2,105) Library budget: $161,990. Stone Ridge (serving Marbletown, pop. 5,854) Library's '09 budget of $217,642 just passed. The Woodstock (pop. 6,241) Library is now operating with a $465,296 budget and we are being asked to increase that budget to $537,772! I think the trustees have a lot more explaining to do. I bet you can guess how I'll be voting."

Mary Ann Ahroon, a taxpayer and a woman who has made enough of her own contributions to the community to deserve our respect, signed the letter. I was certain that somebody from the library board of trustees would write a response, and I even expected his or her response to be reasonable. There was plenty of time before the budget vote.

I had been naïve to think so; there was no response to Ms Ahroon's query. This was a terrible mistake on the library board's part. It only made people think, including me, that perhaps there was no reasonable answer. These days money is too precious to give up based on simple declarations of need.

The trustees of the library have an obligation both to the institution and the public. I predict that unless they respond to Ms Ahroon's letter, and other matters, including prompt filings with Ulster County Civil Service and addressing routine maintenance of the current facility as recommended by a report dated April, 2007, the January 2010 tax levy for the library will be identical to that of January 2007.

I have to admit when reading the April, 2007 report I was surprised to see the library had recently installed an in-ground oil tank.

It's yours to fix, trustees. Good luck.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting

This article appeared in the Townsman, September 11 edition

Woodstock, September 9

Like the Beijing Olympics the Woodstock town board meeting began and ended in fireworks. The board met at the unusual hour of 4:00 pm since four of its five members, councilwoman Liz Simonson excepted, are involved in primary races for the Woodstock Democratic Committee and decided at a previous meeting to conduct business early enough to allow their participation in get-out-the-vote initiatives. Only supervisor Jeff Moran, councilman Jay Wenk and Simonson arrived on time and the meeting began with Wenk taking testy exception to Moran's proposed seating arrangements. Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum arrived at about 4:20, with Collins, who was expected to be late, arriving at 4:30.

Before getting to the business Wenk announced his abandonment, based on his own discussions with plumbers, of his proposal to install a tankless water heater in the Community Center. A Wenk motion to install such a device had been tabled at a meeting earlier this year. He also announced a proposal for the Town to install bicycle racks at various locations including the Chamber of Commerce building, the Community Center, Bradley Meadows shopping center and possible upper Comeau. Details will be fleshed out in the future.

A resolution to authorize the supervisor to sign an agreement with Brinnier & Larios PC to provide engineering design services for the Rock City Road sidewalk project for a fee not to exceed $22,000 was tabled when concerns with the Town's actual ownership of the sidewalk were not satisfactorily resolved. Resolutions to engage engineering services from the same company for Rock City Road crosswalks and additional walkways, fee not to exceed $6000.00, and to provide engineering design services for the upper Comeau parking lot, fee not to exceed $4500.00 were adopted unanimously.

By resolution the town board amended the Town's Traffic and Parking Law to prohibit parking within thirty-five feet of the Pine Grove Street entrance to the CVS parking lot. Although signs will be installed to demarcate the prohibited zones there can be no legal enforcement until the local law is formally amended after a public hearing.

Town employees represented by the Communications Workers of America union, working since January under a lapsed agreement, will see annual 4% wage increases for 2008, 2009 and 2010. The 2008 wage increase is retroactive to January 1. The remaining employees of the Town saw their wages retroactively adjusted to 4%, with the exception of the police department, which works under separate agreement. There was little board discussion prior to the contract's ratification.

The Woodstock Reformed Church on Tinker Street, in compliance with a recently amended Tree Law was given authorization to remove a badly diseased maple tree.

Amendments to the Zoning Law, which have bounced back and forth between different agencies and the company hired by the Town to codify its laws, are now on their way back to the planning board for their review.

The highway superintendent, Mike Reynolds, was given authorization to purchase a used plow truck for $47,000 from low-bidder Boyles Motor Sales.

A resolution subject to permissive referendum to tap the highway equipment reserve fund for up to $260,000 for various pieces of highway equipment was also adopted. Legal notices will appear in the Town's official newspapers.

With the business on the agenda completed, supervisor Moran raised the issue of the Town's policy with regard to water leaks in residences that are connected to both the municipal water and sewer services. Up until now when leaked water was determined by the sewer superintendent not to have entered the wastewater collection system, for instance a burst water pipe emptying water into a basement, the customer was required to pay the full water charge but the town board could assess a sewer charge based on an averaging of the previous four quarters of use. The 2008 charge for water is $0.28 and sewer is $0.81 per hundred gallons. Supervisor Moran was concerned the process for waiving sewer costs was being abused, but after some back and forth on the issue it was dropped.

And then the war came.

As far as could be determined, these are the facts: Earlier this year the town board in unanimous votes appointed Fran Breitkopf and Alison West to two vacant seats on the Woodstock ethics board. Ms Brietkopf is a member of the Woodstock Democratic Committee, and Ms West is a member of the Woodstock Republican Committee, and all parties knew this at the time. Last Friday, September 5, planning board member Paul Shultis jr. brought to the attention of Collins and Moran the fact that the year 2000 local law establishing the ethics board had the requirement that "No member shall hold office in a political party or hold elective office in the Town of Woodstock." By Collins's reckoning this cast into serious doubt either woman could legally remain on the ethics board since they both "hold office" in political party committees. Collins found it particularly galling that Ms. Breitkopf was seeking another term on the Democratic Committee.
Wenk also became incensed by the matter, urging the board to "take responsible action to remove" Breitkopf and West.
Supervisor Moran first questioned the meaning of "office," and then thought that even if it did apply the board might consider amending the law, taking into account the fact Woodstock is a small town and that volunteers are not easy to come by.
Wenk and Collins weren't buying it. "People on the ethics board are breaking the law," Collins heatedly claimed. "What are we going to do about it?"
Rosenblum, when attempting to interject, was roundly advised to recuse herself from the discussion since she is a "significant other" to Ms Breitkopf, which the local law describes as "an individual of the opposite or same sex living in shared quarters for the purpose of constituting a family unit." It was not explained why Rosenblum couldn't continue to participate in a discussion that also involved Ms West, with whom she has no relationship.
It should be added that this tortured debate ensued without mentioning Ms Breitkopf's or Ms West's names.
Sensing that the board might proceed with a precipitous action, Rosenblum expressed her amazement that a board that would ignore a letter from the Recreation Committee calling upon the board to "warn the public" of the "obscene behavior of a member of the public" was now not willing "to wait a couple of days" before making a determination about the qualifications of the two ethics board members in question.
That brought a sudden if temporary hush to the debate, Simonson claiming, "I don't know what you are talking about," but not asking for any clarification. Collins, not deterred, insisted the two ethics board members either "comply or remove yourselves."
Rosenblum's statement, however, seemed to reduce the boiling debate to a simmer, and it finally after forty minutes petered out on complaints by Simonson and Shultis concerning the process by which the ethics board conducts its business, and also a consensus around the suggestion the supervisor write to the ethics board advising it of the imbroglio and asking it to help with a solution.
Wenk finished off the meeting rehashing old business that had already been decided, and the meeting adjourned at approximately 6:25.

Woodstock Democatic Party Committee Race

This article appeared in the Townsman, September 11 edition

Woodstock, September 9, 2008

The composition of the Woodstock Democratic Committee was markedly changed as a result of Tuesday's primary. Nine of ten candidates generally perceived as collegial won their races. Each of Woodstock's nine election districts are represented on the committee by two members.

In District 3 incumbent Tom Ocker's 37 and Jane Valand's 18 votes edged out Ralph Goneau, 13 votes and perennial loser Mike Veitch, 13 votes. Valand is a new comer to the local political scene.

District 4 voters returned Steve Knight to the committee with 31 votes, and Thurman Greco's 27 votes were far more than enough to deny David Lewis, 11 votes and Adam Pollack, 7 votes. Lewis, currently serving on the Woodstock Environmental Commission, in 2005 and 2007 went for the Democratic nod for town supervisor, coming up short in both attempts. Pollack recently came up short in his bid for a seat on the Onteora school board.

In District 5, Woodstock Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum, current chair of the Woodstock Democratic Committee, grabbed 21 votes with Woodstock Environmental Commissioner David Gross picking up 18, thereby knocking back the husband-wife team of councilman Chris Collins, 11 votes and incumbent committee member Sheila Eisenberg, 11 votes.

The race in District 6 returned to the committee incumbents Fran Breitkopf, 32 votes and David Corbett, 36 votes, who ran against the husband and wife team of Linda Miller Gregorius, 21 votes, and Ulster County legislator Don Gregorius, 28 votes.

The evening's blockbuster was District 9, where Sam Magarelli, 33 votes in tandem with with Sasha Gillman, 35 votes, denied legendary vote-getter Tobie Heilbrunn, 30 votes and councilman Jay Wenk, 27 votes from continuing to serve on the committee. It is not known whether Wenk was financially supported by the Committee For Woodstock's Future, the shadowy group that has raised and dispersed moneys last year for Wenk's and other local political races while not registering with either the state or county boards of election.

The remaining election districts had no contests. Ulster County legislator Brian Shapiro and Marcia Panza, both incumbent members of the committee, were unopposed in District 1. In District 2 incumbent Jeff Moran, who is also serving his first term as Woodstock town supervisor, and former Woodstock town board member Bill McKenna were unopposed. Councilwoman Liz Simonson, current District 2 representative, had not petitioned for another two-year term. Long time committee member and former commissioner of the Ulster County Board of Elections Harry Castiglione was unopposed along with Cathy Magarelli to represent District 7. Magarelli has served as the committee's treasurer. In District 8 incumbents Rennie Cantine and former Woodstock councilman Gordon Wemp were also unopposed. Cantine was instrumental in arranging the many open-air music concerts in town, and Wemp currently serves on the Woodstock Recreation Commission.

Comment was difficult to understand in a phone call to Rosenblum's residence, where sounds of jubilation were obvious. Sam Magarelli said he was "thrilled that Woodstock Democrats decided to vote for unity." Rosenblum said, "We are invigorated by the results of the vote in our quest for a more inclusive, open and competitive Democratic Committee. Now let's get Democrats elected!"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Substance of Life and Death

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, September 4, 2008 edition

Some musty old book I read centuries ago had a very interesting definition of life; life is that which maintains form through a change of substance. Read that a couple of times and admire the mind that can strip the upholstery from a word that us ordinary folks might pad with a thousand metaphors and still not seat anyone comfortably but ourselves. Do yourself a favor and memorize it because you never know when you might be able to use it to stop a dull, meandering conversation dead; you know the conversations I'm talking about, What is Life, What is Beauty ("beauty is aptness to purpose") or What is Truth ("truth is that which profits man"), the conversations that bring our brains to a simmer but cannot poach an egg or even brew a satisfying cup of tea so why bother.

Beauty and Truth can have their own column, for now let's stick with Life. Our modern age has made it possible to addendum its definition as follows: life is that which maintains form through a change of substance in strict conformance with our schedules and desires.

Let me explain.

Early this year I received a phone call from a very excited cousin. She was going to have her first baby! This was really good news because she was nearing a point in her life when such a blessing would become far less likely. Naturally I heartily congratulated her and for a few moments we enthusiastically agreed no news good be more precious and wonderful, when I asked her what the due date was. She told me the boy would be delivered on July 25. And he was.

My wife's and my first child was born almost 26 years ago. We knew "it" would push its way into the world "sometime around late August or early September." She was born September 3. Or second child was born a little over 22 years ago. We knew "it" would crash the party "sometime around the middle of May." He was born May 11. In both cases my wife and I each were supposed to work those days, but for these inconveniences. In neither case did we stock up on blue or pink baby clothes because we had no idea what gender to expect. When we discussed possible names for the "its" for every "Susie" there was also a "Johnny." To make a long story short, we not only upset our work schedules, but we then blew another day running around buying gender appropriate garb for the little bundles.

I have read how in our nation the number of so-called C-sections has rapidly gained in proportion to that of vaginal births. One explanation is that obstetricians are becoming more and more cautious about subjecting the baby to the stresses and potential hazards of vaginal birth, or in some cases the potential hazard to the mother's health, and recommend more and more the option of putting the mother under general anesthesia, slicing into her womb, bringing the child into the world and then stitching mom back together. This option is more often than not precisely scheduled.

I've also read that more and more moms are insisting on the option. I'm sure in most cases the decision is based on reasons similar to those of obstetricians, and there are many good reasons above and beyond from the ones I have described. Whatever the reason, it does appear that a growing number of parents today are taking steps to determine just what zodiacal sign their child will be. For instance, had my cousin chosen a date four to five days sooner she would have a Cancer instead of a Leo in the bassinet.

So here we are in a modern age when it is not the strangest or most unlikely thing to be told in January that a specifically gendered little cousin will come promptly into the world on, say, July 25.

I wish my rumination could stop here, but the ability to schedule life just today took on another dimension.

Yesterday I got a phone call from a friend. Our mutual friend who for the past several days lay in a hospital bed with a respirator snaked into his lungs decided that he wanted to die today. He had the legal right to have his respirator removed, and was fully aware that without it his damaged lungs would not sustain him. He asked that his daughter be summoned, and by four o-clock this afternoon she arrived with her husband. Earlier several friends had visited to say their farewells. His daughter spent time with him alone to understand for herself the clarity of his wishes. There was some discussion with him about funeral arrangements, the care of his cats and the final disposition of some of his property. The doctor was contacted. The doctor called members of the hospital staff and advised them on procedure.

At about 6:10 PM the respirator was removed. He was given sedation. Even an eighty-six year old body with very damaged lungs does not submit easily. I will only say that there was intense love and compassion from the four of us each trying to comfort him. At 6:40 he was dead. He left us on his own terms with a punctuality that did not characterize his life.

If it had been our mood we could have made the dinner hour.

Such is the modern world.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

End Summer Night's Dream

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, August 28 2008 edition

Tuesday had settled into a perfect evening and what better place to enjoy it than on the patio of one of Woodstock's charming restaurants in the company of friends. The summer so rapidly approaches its end I considered a conversation on its merits, the moderate temperatures, generous rain and a village green never so pleasingly colored by its array of flowers and shrubs. The streams remained full the summer long, and cries of a dry well were not heard. Was it my imagination, or did the early mornings sing with more flocks of birds? Is it my aging, or did the youths competing in the Beijing Olympics - which wholly entertained me - look more graceful, more dexterous, more handsome and lovely than ever? Yes, these were thoughts, and others like them, that crossed my mind and were about to exit the door of my mouth when…

…When the beeper belonging to a volunteer fireman in my company went off.
A car accident. Near the elementary school. And ZOOM, off he went running across the street, into his truck and then toward the mishap. A few moments passed before vehicles with blue lights (belonging to volunteers) raced by. Moments later came the emergency vehicles; two fire trucks and an ambulance, sirens blaring. I recognized almost all the people in the vehicles. They were each men and women who had worked all day at their various occupations, were probably right in the middle of their suppers when the call came.

One might think that for a reverie so blaringly interrupted one should feel disturbed or annoyed. No, it was yet another very pleasant sound in a summer that had been filled of them. It was the sound of caring. Of helping. Of involvement. Of sacrifice. It made me wonder again, Which can be more beautiful, nature that surrounds us or the people who inhabit nature? Each can be very, very beautiful, but for that moment the people won by a mile. It is true that people can also equal nature in cruelty, but as I looked at our volunteers that balance was for the moment forgotten. We live in a community where fortunately that dark ambition is rare, and kindliness is not.

A half an hour later my friend was back. It was not, as it turned out, a terribly serious accident. The car was made useless by its attack on a telephone pole, but because of airbags the driver was not made senseless. I listened to the report thinking, ahh, another nice sound of the summer.

* * *

For those of you anxious to see a Democrat in the White house next year, I have the perfect solution to the Obama - Clinton imbroglio. Yes, sadly, there are many dissatisfied Hillary supporters who still have not reconciled themselves to the fact that their candidate came up short for the Democratic nomination, attributing the setback to among other things sexism. No comment. But after listening to Michelle Obama's speech on Monday night, I say MICHELLE FOR PRESIDENT. Obviously she would get her husband's support, and how can any woman in her right mind not support her? Come on, fellow Townsman, contact your representatives now.

* * *

Hunker down, the fall is coming and then the winter. Hopefully they will be as gracious as has been the summer. I'm leaving now to listen to Hillary's speech. I want to see if BLOCK HEAD made any impression on her when she visited our town last week. (By the way, there were a number of you who contacted me wondering who BLOCK HEAD is; to no surprise most of you guessed right even before asking.

2009 Reval?

This article appeared in the Townsman, August 28 2008 edition

Woodstock, August 25 2008

The Woodstock town board will be receiving a letter from the assessor, Marc Plate, recommending a re-valuation (“reval”) of the town’s properties to be conducted during 2009 and coming into effect January 1, 2010. A re-val is the process of examining all the tax parcels in the township, either by inspection or computer modeling, for the purpose of apportioning the burden of taxes in a more equitable way.

“I believe that the timing is right for a revaluation,” writes Plate. “Traditionally, revals are viewed with consternation by the general public, but this year, taxpayers are actually requesting one in view of the changed real estate market.”

The town’s last reval occurred in 2003 and took effect 2004. At that time the Woodstock’s equalization rate, established by the New York State Office of Real Property Services (“ORPS”) hovered around .50, meaning that the average property was being assessed at about 50% of its market value. ORPS determines the equalization rate annually by examining samples of recent real property sales in the township and comparing the actual sales price to the assessed value. The equalization rate is used to apportion each municipality’s share toward county and school district levies.

Currently Woodstock’s equalization rate is .83, approximately 5% higher than last year’s .79. It indicates a weakening in Woodstock’s real estate business, but from a tax perspective is a positive development since Woodstock, according to Margaret Dugan of Ulster County Real property Tax Service, is one of three or four municipalities out of Ulster County’s twenty-four that saw such an increase. “It is very unusual,” said Dugan, adding that county wide “values are dropping a little.”

The development is both bad and good news; no one likes to see their property value decrease, but compared to the plummet of real estate values in many areas across the nation it indicates the resilience of property values in Woodstock in particular and the county in general.

According to Plate the total dollars in Woodstock sales decreased 1.4% from the same period a year ago. Property inventories are up, and days on the market are longer. So-called ‘high end’ (read: high priced) properties are still selling reasonably well, as are properties selling for $225,000 or lower, rare as they are but less rare than they have been in the recent past. “The most compelling reason for conducting a reassessment project is the fact that property tax inequity has crept back into Woodstock since our last project in 2004,” says Plate.

Woodstock, as reported by town supervisor Jeff Moran at numerous meetings of the town board when attempting to persuade the board to either increase users’ fees for use of town property or to determine ways to save money, saw a dramatic decrease in its mortgage tax revenue as of this past June. In the recent past Woodstock had received as much as $525,000 annually from the 2.5% tax on real estate transactions that involve a mortgage. So far this year the Town has received $143,595, putting it on track for an annual total of approximately $300,000, assuming the market maintains its current pace.

In an interview Plate described Woodstock as in a good place presently with relation to its apportionment of school taxes, especially in the Kingston and Onteora school districts. The City of Kingston’s recent reval, combined with Plate’s successful effort to diminish the impact of the “non-homestead” tax differential in that part of Woodstock located in the Kingston school district will help Zena and the south-east parts of Woodstock with their school tax. The Town of Olive’s recent concord with the City of New York over the valuation of the Ashokan Reservoir, which has reduced Olive’s equalization rate from approximately 1.27 to 1.00 as of last June, will see a shift in Onteora school district taxes away from Woodstock and toward Olive. “By starting the reval now,” writes Plate, “we will have the advantage of using past sales as well as the potentially lower sales of July 2009, thus lowering the town’s value, as well as its share of future school taxes.”

Plate feels it is necessary that the assessor’s office revaluate the parcels in Woodstock because of the increasing inequity of the existing apportionment. Some types and categories of properties have changed in value compared to others, he maintains. The number of calls to his office complaining of unfairness has increased, “and to be honest, some of them have a case,” said Plate. As in the case of previous revals, Plate does not foresee dramatic impacts on any one category of property, and in general predicts the usual ‘one third of the properties will see an increased tax impact, one third of the properties will see a decreased tax impact, and the remaining third will be left unchanged.’

The proposed reval would have an impact on the assessor’s office budget, which is also what prompted the letter from Plate to the board, which will begin to address the 2009 budget in the coming weeks. By acting now the Town may save on some expenses, according to Plate. “Saugerties will be conducting its revaluation at the same time, and they are intending to hire a company, Gar Associates, to review their commercial properties. Woodstock could benefit from this, since Gar will work simultaneously on both Saugerties and Woodstock commercials, more efficiently deploying their resources, and therefore charging a reduced rate,” writes Plate, adding that he intends to do the residential reval in-house, as well as collect the commercial inventory data.

“Equity is extremely important to the town, and we will give the assessor’s letter very careful consideration,” said supervisor Moran when reached for comment.