By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – In Washington D.C., getting appointed to a municipal board takes connections and a lot of lobbying.
So when Joe Membrino, who is running for a three-year term on the Village Board March 18, and wife Martha retired to Cooperstown in 2013 and he considered ways of getting involved in the community, public office didn’t come to mind.
That is, until his sister, Milford Town Board member Marsha Membrino, encouraged him. “All these little towns need volunteers,” she said.
He had never met then-Mayor Jeff Katz, so he sent him an e-mail expressing interest, expecting to go through hoops. How about the Water Board? came a quick reply.
“Yes, thank you,” replied Membrino. So much for glad-handing: “I didn’t even make eye-contact with Jeff Katz for a year.”
Soon, Membrino was elevated to the Planning Board, and he praises the level-headed chairmanship of Gene Berman.
When Village Trustee Lou Allstadt retired early in 2019, Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch, over a cup of coffee at the Doubleday Café, asked Membrino to succeed him. He accepted.
All the people in village government he’s worked with so far have demonstrated “a seriousness of purpose. Thoughtfulness. A commitment to stewardship,” he said. “Everybody I’ve run into is in it for service – not power, not position.”
Membrino was raised in rural Prospect, Conn., and went to Sacred Heart High School in nearby Waterbury. He graduated from Georgetown in 1968 (learning since moving here that Jeff Woeppel, the Bassett Hospital administrator, was there at the same time), and Boston College’s law school in 1971.
He did legal work for the Native American Rights Fund, (portending his life’s work), then spent a year “hitch-hiking around the world” – Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Back home, he joined the U.S. Interior Department’s land-claims office, then spent 13 years in Interior’s Solicitor General’s Office; he served in the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1989, he went into private practice with Ross Swimmer, former Cherokee chief and BIA assistant director.
Mostly, he worked on water rights, concluding that, in the U.S. West, “water runs uphill, toward money.” He still does volunteer work for the Oneidas.
With “stewardship” as his byword, Membrino sees helping Bassett Hospital thrive here as critical. “This has to be the heart and soul of the community,” he said. “Some people say we should move the hospital out of the village. I don’t see it.”
Some of his focus came out of work on the village’s ad hoc Housing Committee, which led to easing zoning provisions to allow more apartments.
He has two particular interests if elected March 18. One is to develop the “appropriate” hydroelectric potential of the Susquehanna River at Mill Street. Bassett is interested, too, he said.
Two: He toured the sewage-treatment plant with Superintendent John Canker, who said, “Watch that smokestack.” Said Membrino, “All of a sudden, there’s 7 feet of flames, burning off the methane.”
Tapping that methane for some purpose, “that would be pretty cool,” he said.
As Finance Committee chair, Membrino cites how Cwynar & Co., the Norwich accountants, found Cooperstown “above and beyond other entities they audit … I think that’s a feather in Cooperstown’s hat. Not my hat, but Cooperstown’s hat.”