Oneonta Common Council
has contentious vote
on housing commission appointment,
confirms new fire chief
By KEVIN LIMITI • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA — In a two and a half hour meeting, the issue of housing was forefront as the Common Council struggled to come to agree on the choice of an out-of-city resident as part of the housing commission on Tuesday, July 20.
This appointment was narrowly approved, 4-3, with Kaytee Lipari Shue, Len Carson and Scott Harrington being the dissenting votes.
The motion to appoint Audrey Benkenstein, with the addition of Oneonta resident Peter Friedman, was brought up for a second time after being voted down during the last common council meeting, something that Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig told AllOtsego.com last week was “mystifying,” since Lipari Shue had pushed for a non-city resident to be on the Arts Commission.
The main point of contention was that Benkenstein was not a Oneonta resident. However Herzig pointed out her appointment was voted down “only minutes after approving a Cherry Valley artist” for the Arts Commission.
Herzig said the Arts Commission held real power whereas the Housing Commission was an advisory position, and therefore those appointed to the Housing Commission were not considered officials with any kind capacity to approve anything.
“In filling the spot for the new commission, I want to be certain that we pick people who have the qualifications and experience,” Herzig.
Benkenstein, he said, had “fair housing planning knowledge.”
“I started to receive some very angry messages from members of the Sixth Ward, one even accused me of being a rat,” Herzig said.
Some of these messages, according to Herzig, accused him of trying to use the Housing Commission as a way to approve the RSS housing project, which he says he doesn’t support. He said the messages ” took me by surprise.”
A slim majority of council members found Benkenstein’s qualifications to be important enough to vote for her.
“There are four or five wards with less than 50% living here year round,” council member Davis Rissberger, D-Third Ward, said. “We don’t need people to find the issues. We need people who find the solutions.”
Rissberger compared the situation to the city’s Airport Commission, which also waived requirements of city residency, saying both commissions required specific knowledge which made finding outside appointees with good qualifications to be necessary.
Council member Luke Murphy said he can’t afford property in the city.
“I have a lot of faith in this nominee,” Murphy said. “It’s a problem that needed to be solved yesterday.”
Council member and mayoral candidate Mark Drnek said he believed housing would be top of the list in issues facing Oneonta residents and ultimately voted for the appointment.
Mark Davies advocated for Benkenstein’s appointment strongly, calling the issue a “housing crisis.”
“We need to solve this and we need to solve it now,” Davies said, arguing there weren’t enough people in the community to fill these positions. “I have to beg people to join a commission.”
Lipari Shue said she felt it was important that Oneonta appoint people for the Housing Commission who lived in the city.
“There are people in the community who want to serve on the commission,” Lipari Shue said, emphasizing that city residents would “feel the impact of the decisions that’s made” and there was a “disconnect from city hall.”
Council member Scott Harrington concurred with Lipari Shue.
“We’re personally hurting them,” Harrington said. “By not appointing people in the community who want to be involved. That’s what we do. We represent the residents of Oneonta.”
Harrington said by waiving the requirement for appointees to be residents of Oneonta it would “send out the wrong message.” He suggested they instead use Benkenstein as a liaison instead of a full fledged commission member.
Carson, a mayoral candidate, spoke along similar lines as Lipari Shue and said, “I know people in the city of Oneonta who want to volunteer with similar experience” before voting no on the motion.
Other important actions taken by the council included appointing Brian Knapp as the new Fire Chief, a motion that unanimously approved.
Knapp said he was excited to work with the fire house calling them “a bunch of great guys” and said he was excited to work with the common council.
The council members congratulated Knapp with a round of applause and also thanked outgoing Fire Chief J. Michael Mancini.
In addition, a motion to fund the future dog park in Neahwa Park was approved unanimously. Carson and Drnek both referred to it as a quality of life issue. Harrington, although initially hesitant because he felt as if the money would be better spent on things that would attract college students and others to live in Oneonta, ultimately voted for the motion.