I’ve been paying attention to politics and governance since the Eisenhower administration. It’s always been an important part of my life, from dinners as a boy listening to the news on the radio, and talking about it with my family, all the way to today, listening to and reading about the current Congressional hearings, and talking about them with my wife.
So in 2011, when Rich Murphy suggested that I run for the county Board of Representatives, I didn’t hesitate. Now that I’m a newly minted private citizen after eight years on the Board, I’d like to share some thoughts about county government with the county in general.
First and foremost: the quality of the folks who serve you in Cooperstown.
We hear a lot about government corruption and malfeasance and how you can’t trust politicians. From the state level on up, some of this is true and most of it is not.
But in Otsego County, it’s clear to me that everyone who serves on the county board is there to provide a public service. No one’s getting rich, there’s no power to speak of; and not once in eight years did anyone call me and offer to buy my vote.
Public service is one of the great foundations of American patriotism, and it goes back to the Founding Fathers and even before that. That’s what happening in Cooperstown – patriotic folks who want to make a difference, to contribute to their community, to give back.
They’re there to serve you – and to spend your money wisely: Otsego County has stayed beneath the tax cap ever since there’s been a tax cap, and we’ve got the lowest tax rate of any county in the State.
And, by the way, all that partisan stuff you see in the news? They just don’t have time for it in Cooperstown. They’ve got work to do. In eight years, I do not remember a single party-line vote.
So when you get the urge to complain about government and lawmakers, aim higher. The folks in Cooperstown are giving up time, energy, and in some cases, income, to serve you.
We accomplished a lot during the time I was on the board, but I’m disappointed we did not move the Board meeting times into the 21st Century. The Rules of Order say that county board meetings are at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month. That might have worked in the old days, but those days are past.
Meeting in the middle of a working day reduces transparency and accountability, and it has to change. Many counties have board meetings at night, and the sky hasn’t fallen.
Changing the meeting time would take a supermajority – two-thirds – so it’s a high bar. Call your county representative and tell them that you’d like to be able to attend a meeting – maybe even speak at one! – if maybe someday they changed the meeting time so that most citizens could attend without taking time off from work.
All my best to my friends on the board as they take on the challenges of 2020 and beyond,
On Jan. 1, Gary Koutnik completed four terms on the Otsego County Board of Representatives, representing District 11 (Wards 1-2, Oneonta), most recently as vice chairman.
COOPERSTOWN — In its final meeting of the year, the Otsego County Board of Representatives today bid farewell to three of its members in unanimous resolutions:
• Kathy Clark, R-Otego, former board chairman, was praised for “sincere effort … to represent the county’s best interests,” and — as the first woman to chair the board — “an important role model for young women and girls.” She served six terms, or 12 years.
Usually, roses are budding before local candidates start circulating nominating petitions.
This year, with the primary for state races joined with federal offices and moved up from September to Thursday, June 25, petitions are being circulated before the first crocus.
That change set off a flurry of electioneering in the past few days.
In the City of Oneonta in the week prior to Tuesday, Feb. 26, the starting date for circulating petitions, seven candidates announced they are running for five Common Council seats being vacated this fall.
For the Otsego County Board of Representatives, Clark Oliver, chairman of the Otsego County Young Democrats, announced he’s running to succeed the board’s vice chairman, Gary Koutnik, D-11, before many people even knew the veteran legislator is retiring.
ONEONTA – Today is the first day petitions may be circulated for this fall’s local elections, and a surprise has already surfaced: Gary Koutnik, Democratic vice chair of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, plans to retire. This time of life comes to everyone at different points, but whatever age you are when you decide to leave work, take a look at these retirement tips to see how to make the most of it.
The news surfaced in a press release from Clark Oliver, who chairs the county’s Young Democrats organization, announcing he plans to run in Koutnik’s District 11 in Oneonta.
ONEONTA – Saying the language “was softened,” County board Vice Chair Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, today voted against sending a “Climate Smart Community Pledge” resolution, as revised, to the full board for action March 6.
However, his colleagues on the Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns Committee nonetheless agreed to forward the adjusted resolution, 4-1, for the full board’s consideration.
“The language did reduce the sense of Climate Change being a crisis,” Koutnik said. “My vote was largely a symbolic one, so it would be in the public record for future generations to see.”
COUNTY BOARD OF REPRESENTATIVES, DISTRICT 11 (unopposed)
COMMUNITY OF RESIDENCE: City of Oneonta
EDUCATION: BS in Education, Bucknell University; MS in Administration, SUNY Albany
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: School Psychologist and Director of Special Education (OCSD)
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Hyde Hall Site Interpreter; Farmer’s Museum Dramatic Interpreter; Glimmerglobe Theater; Catskill Players Executive Committee and VP; Otsego County Democratic Committee Executive Committee; Oneonta Assembly of God.
FAMILY: Wife Abbey (married 1979), two sons: Randall (26) and Whitsun (23)
PHILOSOPHY OF GOVERNMENT: “There are some things that we can’t do unless we do them together. When we do them together, that’s called government.” Barney Frank
MAJOR ISSUES FACING OTSEGO COUNTY: Matching people to training and training to existing jobs. Preserving our awesome natural resources and landscape. Fighting back against the devastations of poverty. Building up our County human resources – and therefore quality services – after a decade of cuts.
STATEMENT: The County must begin to serve the needs of its citizens and not the political needs of its leaders. These are difficult times which require bold decisions. We need to plan carefully and thoughtfully for a short, medium and long-term future, and this process takes vision, hard work, and courage.
MY QUALITIES: Passion for democracy; work ethic; ability to collaborate; long experience and relationship with Otsego County residents from all walks of life.
EDUCATION: Wantagh High School, Wantagh, NY – 1968. BS in Ed – Bucknell University, 1972. MS in Admin – UAlbany – 1999
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: School Psychologist, School Administrator, Historic Interpretation
COMMUNITY/POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT: Executive Committee, Otsego County Democratic Committee. Many years of Church governance and committee work, mostly in church growth. 30+ years working with families with disabled children in Oneonta and Otsego County and surrounding counties. Delegate to Democratic National Convention, 2012.
FAMILY: Wife Abbey, two sons: Randall (San Francisco) and Whitsun (Oneonta)
IN TWO OR THREE SENTENCES, EXPLAIN YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF GOVERNMENT: “There are some things that we can’t do unless we do them together. When we do them together, that’s called government.” (Congressman Barney Frank)
WHAT ARE THE THREE MAJOR ISSUES THE OTSEGO COUNTY BOARD OF REPRESENTATIVES FACES, AND HOW WOULD YOU ADDRESS THEM?
– Comprehensive Plan: Board looks at mid- and long-term planning for County: what do we want to be in the business of; prioritize our efforts; move toward greater effectiveness and efficiency in all areas, starting with highest priority issues.
– Coordinate all activities County-wide: This would probably (but not necessarily) be a County Manager, a kind of CEO for our two dozen departments and 500 employees.
– Budget: Longer-term budget development based on planning and coordination above.
WHAT QUALITIES/EXPERIENCE DO YOU HAVE THAT MAKES YOU THE BETTER CHOICE IN THIS RACE: Experience on the Board; 35 years working and living in Otsego County, both in the City and in many of the towns. Experience with management, budget and supervision. A passion to provide the benefits of governing to all citizens, with nobody left out.
IS THERE A STATEMENT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH VOTERS? I’ve gotten to know hundreds of families in Oneonta from all walks of life during my career. I’ve talked with them about their hopes and dreams, especially for their children, and I’ve learned about their frustrations and anxieties. I’ve spent my whole career getting to know the people of Oneonta. And I’ve met too many families in Oneonta who have been left out of the benefits of democracy. Democracy is for every last citizen, with no one left out. If I’m reelected, I’ll continue to work for all of us. Fiscal responsibility, certainly. Hard choices, certainly. But no collateral damage. No one intentionally left out.
COOPERSTOWN – Democratic unhappiness over how state Sen. Peter Oberacker was replaced on the county board spilled over at today’s reorganizational meeting.
County Board Chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, was reelected, but the vote was 10-3, plus one abstention. And not before Bliss was criticized for partisanship, poor communication and a lack of vision.
“The people of the county deserve a county chair who puts the good of the county above party and does not work the rules for partisan advantage,” said Michelle Farwell, D-Morris, one of two reps speaking out against Bliss’ reelection.
The other was Jill Basile, D-Oneonta, who said, “We saw our lack of transparency, partisanship and poor communications in the appointment of the District 6 representative,” Jennifer Mickle, R-Town of Maryland, who succeeded Oberacker.
Democratic county reps this week were one vote away from shared control of Otsego County’s $120 million government for the next 14 months.
They could have shared fully in who becomes the board’s chair and vice chair.
They could have split committee chairmanships.
They could have required consensus on every important decision as the county emerges from the COVID-19 threat.
Still, “I don’t think it would be fair to leave a district without representation,” said county Rep. Jill Basile, D-Oneonta, a comment echoed by other Democrats on the county board.
“It would be a bad thing for the voters of (predominantly Republican) District 6,” said Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, “because it means they wouldn’t have representation for a year in all likelihood.”
Whether that sentiment carried the day will be known by the time you read this article. (Check www.AllOTSEGO.com)
The county Board of Representatives was scheduled to vote Wednesday, Dec. 2, on whether to appoint Oneonta businesswoman Jennifer Mickel, a Town of Maryland resident, to succeed state Sen.-elect Peter Oberacker as county rep from District 6 (Maryland, Worcester, Westford, Decatur.)
But with Republican Oberacker’s Nov. 16 resignation from the county board, neither the GOP nor the Democrats had a majority.
If Democrats, as a bloc, withheld their votes, Mickle couldn’t be elected. But neither could anyone else.
A Democratic nominee, former Worcester town supervisor Diane Addesso, appeared before the board’s Administration Committee on Monday. But since Admin has already endorsed Mickle the
Thursday before, Martini withdrew Addesso’s nomination before a vote.
If Mickle wasn’t approved, here are three possible outcomes:
• SCENARIO ONE: District 6 might now remain without a county rep until the board’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 1, 2022, after the November 2021 elections.
• SCENARIO TWO: Governor Cuomo might order a special election, but that’s rarely done, said Martini.
• SCENARIO THREE: The county board has 30 days after Oberacker’s nomination – until Dec. 16 – to name a successor. If Republicans and Democrats can agree on that person, a special Admin meeting could be scheduled, and the county board could approve him or her when it meets Dec. 15 to pass the budget.
County board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield, said he wasn’t sure what would happen at Wednesday’s board meeting.
Later in the day, he planned to call Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-Cooperstown/Otsego, who the day before was quoted as saying Democrats would vote as “a bloc,” but declined to clarify what that meant.
“I would hope (Democrats) would endorse Jennifer Mickle,” he said. “I’m in favor of her. I think she would be a good representative. Plus, Pete has endorsed her.”
Some of the Democratic unhappiness goes back to last Jan. 1, when the Republican majority reelected David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield, as chairman, and Meg Kennedy, a Conservative allied with the Republicans, as vice chair, according to county Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta.
The move broke recent precedent: A Democrat, Gary Koutnik of Oneonta, had served several terms as vice chairman.
“It was disappointing,” Lapin said. “Even though Meg Kennedy makes an excellent vice chair and Dave an excellent chair. It was backsliding.”
He planned to vote “no” on Mickle. “It’s not Republican or Democrat,” he said, “it’s picking the best person for the job.”
The parties’ county chairman offered their assessments.
“This is one of those times you put governance above politics,” said GOP Chairman Vince Casale. “I don’t think it’s in the interest of good government to allow residents and taxpayers in four towns to go without representation for an entire year.”
Democratic County Chairman Clark Oliver said he hasn’t sought to pull his party’s reps behind one position or another. “That’s why I’m proud to be a Democrat,” he said. “We have smart people who work with their own constituents on their own accord, and vote the way they think.”
COOPERSTOWN – It was only supposed to be a temporary move – 10 years ago.
“I had gotten my master’s in theater and theater education at NYU,” said Danielle Henrici. “I was working as an actor and a stage manager, but I decided to leave Manhattan temporarily, move Upstate and save money.”
In 2010, Henrici founded the Glimmer Globe Theatre, now a program of the Fenimore Art and The Farmers’ museums. “I taught some acting classes, then got the job at the Smithy, and they welcomed those theater components.”
She met her husband Michael Henrici in 2012, and that was when things really began to come together, she said. “There are gaps in my skill set as far as lighting design and building sets, but Michael does all those things,” she said. “And we could combine our powers.”
The two now serve as the co-artistic directors of the company, which produces two plays every summer at The Fenimore’s Lucy B. Hamilton Amphitheater alongside Otsego Lake, as well as the annual “A Christmas Carol” at The Farmers’, plus the Next! Playwriting Competition and reading series.
“Live performance as an art form has an incredible power to open minds and hearts,” she said. “It’s a shared experience, it’s moving, it’s exciting, it‘s inspiring, it’s a whole new way of looking at the world.”
Henrici was the director of education at the museums in 2014-18, bringing the company with her and expanding the live offerings of the museum, creating the Templeton Players to perform era-appropriate skits throughout the tour. “It followed me like a little duckling,” she said.
The first performance under the museums’ umbrella was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” starring the couple as the murderous Scottish king and his diabolical wife.
“He has this line about storms and raging winds and just as he said it, a bolt of heat lightning crackled across the sky!” she said. “We’re able to use nature as a backdrop, as a character, the way Shakespeare did.”
Both Danielle and Michael have backgrounds in Shakespeare, and the company does one of the Bard’s plays every season. “It feels right to do Shakespeare outside,” she said. “It’s more like the groundlings, it’s a very earthy, very real feeling, like what it was like to see a show in Shakespeare’s time.”
This year, they will perform “The Tempest” and Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”
“We like doing theater from the last 150 years,” she said. “It’s about making the classics accessible. No one else was doing Shakespeare, and it fits so beautifully with the museums’ celebration of art and culture.”
They added “A Christmas Carol” in 2013, with Michael starring as Scrooge since 2015, (succeeding Oneonta’s Gary Koutnik, who just retired as vice chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives.)
“I thought Cooperstown embodied the spirit of the story, not to mention that the village harkens back to the 19th century!” she said.
And although their summer season focus is on classics, the Next! Playwriting series is about discovering work that has not yet found an audience.
“I always loved going to Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan to hear work from up-and-coming playwrights, but there was no opportunities like that here” she said. “We saw a gap we could fill. Theater is about putting something out there and getting a reaction, and so many playwrights don’t get to hear that process on the stage and how an audience responds.”
Playwrights must live within 100 miles of Cooperstown, and every year, three are selected to be read as a staged reading in March. “The first year, we had eight submissions,” she said. “This year, we had more than 30.”
COOPERSTOWN – When the 9-4 vote affirmed Meg Kennedy as the first woman vice chair of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, Andrew Marietta leaned over and said, “Meg, you know I support you.”
The Conservative for Hartwick, Milford and New Lisbon and the Democrat from Cooperstown and the Town of Otsego both shook hands and smiled.
But for the preceding few minutes Thursday, Jan. 2, at the Otsego County Board of Representatives’ organizational meetings, things were a bit more tense.
David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield/Cherry Valley, had been unanimously reelected board chairman. Dan Wilber, R-Burlington, then nominated Kennedy – “our Citizen of the Year” – as vice chairman, and freshman Rick Brockway, R-Laurens, second it.
Bliss called the vote, but Michele Farwell, R-Morris, asked tentatively, “Is there discussion?”
What followed was a discussion about the future of bipartisanship, with Farwell noting that two years ago, when the county board was also split 7-7, now-retired Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, “was nominated, and he got unanimous support of the board. I thought that was a very positive show of bipartisanship.
“I’m just a little bit concerned we might be taking a step backward, and that would be unfortunate.”
Marietta, who as senior Democrat was the party’s leading prospect to succeed Koutnik, agreed. “Having that bipartisan approach contributed to how we worked well together,” he said. “… I think we lose some of the value of the past two years by not having that structure.”
Two Oneonta Democrats, Andrew Stammel and freshman Clark Oliver, speaking for the first time in an official capacity, concurred.
But another Oneonta Democrat, Adrienne Martini, said, “I also think it is nice to have some diversity in terms of who is the vice chair, and I think Meg brings that in terms of gender.”
In the end, Kennedy’s election was bipartisan.
Voting aye were Republicans Bliss, Wilber, Brockway, Unadilla’s Ed Frazier and East Springfield’s Keith McCarty. And Democrats Farwell, who paused for a moment before voting aye, Stammel and Martini.
Voting nay were Marietta, and the other three Oneonta reps, Oliver, Danny Lapin and newcomer Jill Basile.
Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, was absent with the flu.
After the vote, Bliss said, “I agree we’ve done some great work together lately as bipartisans. And I will endeavor to continue.”
He pointed out Kennedy, a Conservative, “is neither Republican or Democrat. And she’s proven her worth, and I know she will endeavor to be as bipartisan as possible.”
Still, Farwell regretted the Democratic loss of the vice chairman post. In an interview, she also noted that Koutnik, an environmentalist, was replaced by Brockway, “a climate-change denier,” on the board’s Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns Committee. And that Oliver was only named to one committee, Human Services.
“I wasn’t expecting a return to partisanship,” Farwell said. “I hear over and over that they want functional government, and not party nonsense like they see in Washington. I feel some trust has been lost.”
In an interview, Bliss said Marietta had expressed interest, “and I would have had no problem with Andrew as vice chair. Andrew was great. Meg was the better candidate.” The climate-denier statement surprised him. He said that Oliver was also named to Performance Review & Goal Setting, a special committee that is about to be elevated to full-committee status.
“Bipartisanship, by my definition, is the best person, the best candidate, the best idea,” the chairman said.
Throughout the debate, speakers were at pains to separate the issue of bipartisanship from Kennedy herself.
“I think Meg – representative Kennedy – will do a great job, and she has my respect and esteem,” said Farwell. Marietta said, “I think Meg will do a tremendous job.” And Stammel, turning to her during his remarks, said, “Meg, I think you will obviously do a great job.”
In the just completed term, Kennedy had chaired the two most time-consuming committees, Intergovernmental Affairs and Administration (ways and means), which won approval for a county administrator form of government and the establishment of the county Energy Task Force.
By LIBBY CUDMORE & JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.COM
COOPERSTOWN – The Otsego County Board of Representatives, 9-4, with one absence, today elected Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick/Milford/New Lisbon, as vice chairman.
David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/ Middlefield/Cherry Valley, was elected chairman for a second two-year term.
Dan Wilber, R-Burlington, nominated “our Citizen of the Year” for the post, a reference to Kennedy receiving that designation last week from Hometown Oneonta, The Freeman’s Journal and wwwAll.OTSEGO.com.
Voting nay were Democrats Andrew Marietta, Cooperstown/Fly Creek, and three Oneonta reps, Danny Lapin and two freshmen, Jill Basile and Clark Oliver.
Editor’s Note: This is the last of three profiles of new members of the Otsego County Board of Representatives who will take office Jan. 1.
By JAMES CUMMINGS • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – It was in elementary school that Clark Oliver realized he would always have to fight for what he believed in.
“Maybe if your kid didn’t wear pink shoes, he wouldn’t get bullied,” a teacher told Oliver’s mom, Karen.
“I was a young gay person,” he said. “Growing up in this town was hard. I experienced bullying at different times in elementary school and that was my catalyst. I want any kid to wear pink shoes and be safe in school.”
And years later, that moment would be one of many that inspired Oliver to venture into politics, now becoming the youngest Otsego County Board member in the history of the county.
“More than just voting matters, activism and direct involvement matters,” he said.
But it wasn’t until 2012, when gay marriage was legalized, that Oliver recognized the influence of politics.
“I knew the fight that was going on. I knew that gay people couldn’t get married in many parts of this country, but I saw the White House lit up in rainbow and I realized that people we had elected did that and that voting matters,” he said. “That was the moment I realized the power of politics.”
Oliver, an Oneonta native, attended Valleyview Elementary from kindergarten to fifth grade, before going on the national tour with “101 Dalmatians,” playing one of the puppies.
He graduated from Oneonta High School in 2016 and recently graduated from SUNY Oneonta. During that time, he decided to join the Young Democrats and by August, became the president.
“I wanted to make sure that Democrats were better represented in Otsego County. When I became president, there were four Democrats and 10 Republicans on county board. That disproportionate of a tilt was not OK with me.”
For Oliver, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the election of Donald Trump in 2016. “I had a large desire to do more after I saw the election of Donald Trump and the dysfunction in Washington,” he said.
His idea was the Young Democrats would help hold back the Republican majority in Otsego County in the fall of 2017.
“We now have seven Republicans and seven Democrats,” he said. “The Young Democrats were the primary driving force behind that shift. We enacted a ground game that hadn’t been present before – knocking on doors and organizing phone banks. We also had a candidate in 13/14 districts. It was unprecedented.”
Afterwards, he spent time helping Brian Flynn during his Congressional Primary campaign in the spring of 2018 and later managed Joyce St. George’s state Senate campaign.
“We increased the Democratic vote share by 10 percent and I’m really proud of that,” he said.
When Gary Koutnik retired from county board in early 2019, he endorsed Oliver.
“I prioritize and want to encourage youth involvement in politics. I wanted to show young people that they’re just as qualified, just as capable as anyone in office.”
Clark has plans for when he takes his seat in January, starting with the county administrator position.
“Now that it has passed, I want to make sure that we hire the right person. I would like to see it be someone outside of county government,” the new representative said.
HARTWICK – Leadership gravitated toward Meg Kennedy, to hear her tell her story.
She first realized that was happening at an Oneonta Farmers’ Market vendors’ meeting in 2008 or 2009, where a difficult issue was being debated.
As the point of decision approached, Tom Warren, who runs the Stone & Thistle Farm, raising meadow-fed lamb and other natural products in East Meredith, spoke out: “Whatever Meg thinks we should do, that’s what we should do.”
To hear her tell it, Kennedy was as surprised by Warren’s comment as anyone.
“You suddenly have this reputation,” she reflected the other day in an interview in front of a roaring fire at her family’s Pleasant Valley Road home on being named 2019 Citizen of the Year by Hometown Oneonta, The Freeman’s Journal and www.AllOTSEGO.com. She added with a grin: “You have to make sure you aren’t saying anything stupid.”
Just starting her third term, Kennedy, the sole Conservative Party member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, represents Hartwick, Milford and New Lisbon. The facts: but they just scratch the surface.
Warren reiterated his respect for Kennedy the other day: “She stays calm in the storm. She’s very reasoned about how she thinks and talks. If she reaches a decision, it’s done with a great deal of consideration.”
County Board Chairman David Bliss called Meg Kennedy’s selection as Citizen “a very good choice.” He singled her out for key roles because “she’s intelligent and hardworking, and has a lot of common sense: Intelligence and common sense don’t always go together.”
He was confident she would approach difficult issues “with an open mind. She didn’t prejudge. I could trust her to do good work.”
All those qualities – and the woman who personifies them – were front and center in 2019, The Year of Meg Kennedy, if you will, which can be defined in at least four ways:
►ONE, COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR
Opposed to the idea of a county manager/administrator/executive when she first ran in 2015 – she considered it “another layer of government” – she gradually changed her mind on experiencing the complexities of county government.
She grilled Gerry Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz vice president, when that local government expert keynoted a community meeting locally in December 2017, soon after election to her second term.
Named the next month by the new chairman, Dave Bliss, to chair the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (and the key Administration, the ways and means committee), she scheduled a second monthly meeting for the IGA – every month for 24 – dedicated to studying the optimum managerial option for this county.
On Dec. 4, the Otsego County Board of Representatives voted 11-2, with one absence, to create the job of county administrator, moving Otsego with its $120 million budget out of the last half-dozen counties statewide that lacked professional management.
► TWO, THE ENERGY TASK FORCE
In the year’s first month at the Otsego Chamber’s Energy Summit at The Otesaga, she announced the formation of the county board’s Energy Task Force, 21 members in four “work groups” – Building & Efficiency, Energy Supply & Distribution, Environmental Development, and Environment – plus 14 technical advisers.
The goal: to bring a range of sometimes warring advocates – renewable purists on one side and fossil-fuel bridge builders on the other – together behind a coherent,
workable energy future.
After a year of fact-finding, the group received a $50,000 state grant Dec. 19 – the county’s anteing up another $50,000 – to hire a consultant to pull together this year’s fact-finding into a Community Energy Plan by the end of 2020.
This year, she was also elected to New York State Association of Counties’ board of directors, the first Otsego County representative to receive that honor. That puts her in touch with cutting-edge ideas in county governance, which she can then use for the benefit of the rest of us back home.
►FOUR, THE FULCRUM
In the run-up to this year’s Nov. 5 county elections, when Democrats talked about winning a majority, and some Republicans may have worried about losing it, the arithmetic became clear – it’s a Meg Kennedy majority.
Six Republicans command 3,421 points in the board’s weighted-voting system; seven Democrats, 3,433, a difference of 12 votes. That means Kennedy, on partisan matters, Meg – her dad, Paul Kennedy, is Otsego County Conservative Party chairman (and founder) – controls the outcome.
Meg Kennedy rules! (But given her record to date, it’s unlikely she would do so without deliberation, discussion and reflection.)
She was born in 1967 at Stamford Hospital; her parents, Paul and Margaret Kennedy, had moved up from Long Island and bought a farm in Roxbury. As Kennedys multiplied, the parents moved to Laurens in 1974 so the kids, eventually 12 in all, could get a Catholic education at St. Mary’s School in Oneonta.
In conversation the other day, Bliss’ sister Patty, herself a former St. Mary’s principal, recalled her girlhood, seeing the Kennedy clan each Sunday filling a pew at St. Mary’s “Our Lady of the Lake” in Cooperstown. (The Bliss family, with eight children, would be arrayed nearby.)
Paul and Andy (a decorated Marine colonel) are older, but – after Meg – came Betsy, John, Tricia, Owen (Owen Jr. was star center on last year’s CCS state championship basketball team), Jim (vice president of the international Chicago-based Ball Seed Co.), Susan (a Dominican nun with a Ph.D., now based in Nashville), Katie, Joe and Anne.
As third eldest, and eldest daughter, Meg’s leadership skills were soon required.
“I always got the young kids to do what we needed to do at home,” she recalled.
Growing up in the family’s Federal-style home – painted green, appropriately – that may date back to the 1700s, she wanted to do what her older brothers did, playing outside – in particular, riding horses. Of many horses raised on Pleasant Valley Road property over the years, the family still has seven, all born on the farm.
Meg credits St. Mary’s School with giving her an ethical grounding, from the 10 Commandments, the Rosary and the church’s other teachings and rituals. “It was a small school, I knew all the kids,” she said. “The teachers were very kind, and made sure everyone lived up to their potential.”
At CCS, “the teachers expected a lot of us.” With sister Betsy, a year behind her, she played field hockey and volleyball, and ran track. An indication of her future career in elective office, she was president of her sophomore and junior class, and was elected Student Council president her senior year, staging fundraisers for famine relief in Africa.
“I always could coalesce a group,” she said, again seemingly surprised. “You don’t see these things as you are moving through them.”
Graduating from high school in 1985, she followed brothers Paul and Andy to Cornell, the College of Agriculture & Life Science, studying horticulture and greenhouse management “with the idea I could come back and work in the greenhouses” – the family’s greenhouses on the Hartwick farm – “to do what needed to be done.”
Early on, her father had taken over his father’s Andrew R. Kennedy Seed & Bulb Co., selling to grand estates in the Hudson Valley and around Philadelphia; at its height locally, the family had 27,000 square feet of greenhouses – and Meg took over office functions after graduating from Cornell in 1989.
In addition to running Kennedy Seed, the family began selling flowers at the Oneonta Farmers’ Market, expanding to Cooperstown’s, Delhi’s and Callicoon’s, in Sullivan County. As the seed and bulb business changed, the farmers’ markets became a much larger part of her family’s operation.
In 2010, soon after Tom Warren made his pronouncement, Meg was approached by Fred Fields, the former Hartwick Town Board member, and asked to fill a vacancy on the Planning Board, (where she still serves.)
That set the stage for 2015, “one of those years where there were going to be a lot of open seats,” recalled Republican County Chairman Vince Casale. Held by Democrat Ed Lentz, District 5 “was one of the districts we knew we had to win. We were having a hard time finding the right person to commit to that seat.”
As he scanned the town boards and planning board in the three towns, he saw Meg’s name. Bingo.
“I picked up the phone and called her. I knew there had been some hot issues she had contended with on the Planning Board,” Casale said. Within a few minutes, “it was obvious she was up to the task. You knew she was one of those people who had instinctive leadership qualities. We talked for two hours.”
He added, “We never think of her as being from another party. She fits right in. She aligns with the values Republicans hold.”
Even though their father established the Conservative Party in Delaware County in the 1960s, then brought it here, her brothers and sisters are a mix of Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Kennedy said.
Conservatism fit her, she continued: “I take a more careful approach to change. I have to get it proved to me.”
As it happens, she was asked about a county manager in 2015 during a candidates’ night with Lentz at the Hartwick Community Center on Route 11. He supported the idea; she was unconvinced. Fracking was also an issue.
That fall, she won, 813-590, including 99 Conservative votes. “I won because I was more neutral on the issues,” she believes, adding, “I know a lot of people.”
Hearing the news, Tom Warren said something she still reflects on: “Meg won because of who she wasn’t.”
In 2017, she turned back a challenge from the former Hartwick town supervisor, Pat Ryan, 1,055 to 524. This year, she was unchallenged.
Joining the board in January 2016, she only knew Dave Bliss, also a freshman, and – just a bit – Oneonta then-rep Craig Gelbsman. “I wanted to get to know the people, to get an understanding of what they were doing.”
She was assigned to the IGA, Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns, and the Human Services committees.
Asked about a defining moment, she paused, then spoke of an executive session involving a personnel matter. “I believe my contribution saved the situation from escalating to the point where there could have been a very different outcome,” Meg said.
Since executive sessions are confidential, she couldn’t get into details, but said, “I was really glad I was there that day.”
What happened that day? Her approach coalesced into what we’ll call here, “The Kennedy Method” of problem-solving. One, listen. Two, hear. “They aren’t the same thing,” she said. Three, “what’s the fairest thing to do?”
“Then,” she concluded, “we could stay within the box of appropriateness.”
The 2017 campaign was a vigorous one – Democrats fielded candidates in 13 of 14 districts – and more of a consensus approach emerged from the organizational meeting, with Bliss, who represents Cooperstown and the towns of Middlefield and Cherry Valley, elected chairman, and Democrat Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, as vice chairman.
“I knew when I voted for Dave” – his predecessor, Kathy Clark, R-Otego, had been a mentor of sorts toward Kennedy – “I was voting for more work.”
He appointed her chairman of the IGA and Administration committees – the two most challenging – and, later, to the committee that built the 2020 budget. Plus, she served as vice chairman of the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank, tasked with rehabilitating or razing blighted buildings to get property back on the tax rolls.
In 2018, amid a general energy debate, 150 XNG natural-gas tankers were criss-crossing the county daily, and activists were protesting plans for a gas-decompressing station at the Oneonta Commerce Park.
A Democrat, Michele Farwell, representing Butternuts, Morris and Pittsfield, joined the board, and eventually approached Meg Kennedy with the idea of forming an Energy Task Force, as Tompkins County had done. “Maybe we could get everybody seated at the table and talking to each other and past each other,” Farwell said.
Kennedy, by then chairing the IGA, agreed. “What that shows about Meg is that she’s very open to hearing new ideas and talking,” Farwell said, adding, “As a leader, she is very happy to let other people play as much of a role as they may like.”
Meg had observed an impasse in the energy debate, and was concerned it would prevent much-needed economic development. “We need to do something,” she told herself. “If we do nothing, nothing will ever happen. We need to get started, and see where it takes us.”
Coming out of Benjamin’s December 2018 presentation at Springbrook, “County Manager v. County Executive,” Kennedy’s IGA Committee also took on the task of exploring that choice.
“People who voted for Dave to be chair, they also wanted to talk about a county administrator,” Meg said, adding characteristically, “We started with a clean, blank slate.”
A first key decision was not to pursue an executive, which would have been an elected position and require the county to develop a charter and take it to referendum. If the vote was nay, the effort would be back to the beginning.
The IGA’s study – it included inviting in top executives from similar counties, and such experts as Steve Acquario, NYSAC executive director – also found an elected executive can elevate politics in county government, vying with a county board for primacy.
“An executive was not a good fit for a rural county with a small population,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes, lower population centers are overlooked.”
And so the county administrator option was pursued. In the New Year, the challenge of filling the job begins, and Bliss has said he plans to ask Meg to lead the search.
At one point during the process, Meg Kennedy was waved over to a table to join a conversation. Looking back, she followed her internalized tick list: Listen, HEAR, what’s fair…
“Wow,” she said to herself as she got up, “we just had a very productive discussion!”