COOPERSTOWN – Otsego County shouldn’t be waiting for Governor Cuomo’s permission to reopen as the coronavirus threat wanes, says county Rep. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus.
Oberacker, who is also running for state Senate, was the sole “nay” vote as a resolution asking the governor to reopen the county “safely and as soon as possible” passed the Board of Representatives today by a 13-1 vote.
“Why can’t we go to our governor and tell him: We understand it. We need to open. Here’s our plan to move forward,” said Oberacker in an interview after the meeting. “Let’s put together a structured plan to reopen Otsego County.”
The resolution the county representatives passed was less specific.
COOPERSTOWN – The county board will be asked to ally itself with similar counties – Schoharie, Delaware and Chenango, for instance – to be first in line to phase out of the coronavirus shutdown, county Rep. Meg Kennedy, R-Hartwick/Milford/New Lisbon, said this evening.
When it met earlier this month, Kennedy said, the county board’s Administration Committee, which she chairs, unanimously approved a resolution, which is still being drafted, asking Governor Cuomo to combine counties with like qualities – rural, with low COVID-19 infestations – in deciding which areas enter the “new normal” first.
COOPERSTOWN – Governor Cuomo’s plan to close the state’s $6 billion budget gap includes passing more Medicaid costs on to the counties, county Rep. Meg Kennedy, R-Hartwick/Milford/New Lisbon, told her colleagues at their March meeting this morning.
It could cost Otsego County a maximum of $1.9 million, she said, having been briefed as a member of the state Association of Counties board of directors.
That would require an “immediate 15-20 percent property tax hike in the county,” board chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, observed.
#KeepTheCap! This is a rallying cry for local government officials from around the state. What cap? The New York State 0% growth Medicaid Tax Cap that has been in place since 2012.
It goes hand in hand with another cap – the 2% cap on property tax levies that has been in place for NYS municipalities since roughly the same time.
They were instituted to work in tandem to decrease the pressure on local governments – to keep property taxes from increasing to meet the rising cost of providing Medicaid services to residents in all of the counties and New York City. The state would cover a portion of the increases and local governments would work harder to create efficiencies across the rest of their budgets.
For a decade this has worked, but the caps are in danger of diverging in this year’s state budget process. The Executive Budget reveals a strategy whereby the cap on the state side is removed and the cap on the local side stays the same, at the same time that $150 million of Medicaid costs are transferred to the counties and NYC.
The numbers that result are bringing together counties from across the state to send a unified message – Keep the Cap!
Earlier this month, county board Chair Dave Bliss and I spent the day in Albany. We were joined by dozens of county Officials and the staff of the state Association of Counties (@nyscounties).
We attended a meeting with the chairs of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Local Government. The message was clear. The message was urgent. Keep the Cap!
We have shown good faith on our end of the tax cap – bringing in budgets under 2% growth in the tax levy. Please work with us to avoid the fiscal stress this move will bring to local budgets.
There is no way the math works for us – without the help of NYS to share the costs associated with Medicaid at or near current levels, we cannot stay under 2% growth without making drastic cuts to non-mandated services. Even with cuts to such services, we would struggle.
We met with our local representatives in their offices in the Legislative Office Bldg and the Capitol. Assemblymen John Salka, Brian Miller and Chris Tague and Sen. Jim Seward expressed concern over the proposals and commitment to fight to #KeepTheCap. At the local level, this is a non-partisan issue. Everyone agrees that removing the cap on Medicaid spending would create fiscal stress in county budgets.
In an ideal world we promote prosperity and reduce the cost of Medicaid to each county by fostering economic development, the creation of jobs, expanding the tax base through increased investment and reducing the number of people who require assistance through upward mobility.
We can and should work toward that model.
In the short term, next year could bring unprecedented growth in the county’s share of the cost of Medicaid to our residents. New York is unique in having counties pay a share in this federal and state program. The cost of the program is set at state and federal levels. The 0% cap shields county government from the rising cost of the program that it neither controls nor designs. Keep the Cap! Protect local taxpayers.
The question was, “Do you think THEY will let the county administrator do the job?” They, of course, being the county Board
But the question misunderstands how the new county administrator job is envisioned.
Judging from discussions surrounding the new job’s creation, the county representatives aren’t looking for someone to tell them what to do. They’re looking for someone who will allow them to do what THEY want to do more efficiently.
The control of county government will remain in the hands of the 14 elected representatives, elected every two years from their districts, who are entrusted to act on their constituents’ behalf.\
Not such a bad idea.
For the past few weeks, a name has been circulating as a prospect for the county’s first administrator: Allen Ruffles, the Republican county treasurer who has just returned from a year-long assignment in East Africa with the New York State National Guard.
The position must first be advertised, candidates vetted and a vote taken. A better candidate may emerge. Regardless, he or she might benefit from at least a few Ruffles-like characteristics.
First, he had a varied background as a school teacher, insurance agent, banker (Key Bank’s former branch manager in Cooperstown), as well as a soldier, and the discipline that connotes. That should give him sympathy and understanding of a range of people.
Two, he’s a county native, with a family: wife Amy, daughter Mia and son Cooper, so he has a stake – a personal stake – in the middle- and long-term prosperity of the county. Being a native is not a requirement, but a candidate should have a plausible reason for coming here.
Third, he holds an elective office, so he would likely be sensitive to pressures county representatives feel, having to represent a varied voter base.
Fourth, he’s developed collegial relations with the county’s 20-some department heads, a group that – according to a survey county Rep. Meg Kennedy’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee conducted – is most resistant to the idea of reporting to a single boss.
That’s understandable: Most of us would prefer less supervision to more, but things are going to change. Ideally, he will develop the department heads into a team, focused on meeting the board’s directives.
Fifth, he has led preparation of two county budgets, and participated in two more as deputy to former County Treasurer Dan Crowell. It’s going to be a central function of the county administrator. Short-term, anyhow, his able deputy, Andrew Crisman, would ensure good relations with the Treasurer’s Office.
Sixth, Ruffles is not just experienced, but agreeable. Hard and soft skills, in whichever candidate is successful, is most important to ensuring the success of the new position. Put another way, building confidence, credibility and trust with all constituencies – the board, the department heads and the public.
Seventh, the county board, meeting Feb. 5, set the administrator’s salary at $100,000, considerably less than the $150,000 recommended to entice an out-of-county professional – $100,000 though, would be a nice raise for the county treasurer as he learns the new job.
That’s a lot of pluses.
Asked Monday about the chatter, county Rep. Andrew Marietta, the ranking Democrat, said he’d heard county board Chairman David Bliss mention Ruffles’ name in a meeting. “If Allen applied, it would be great,” Marietta said. “But it’s not a done deal.”
“I think a lot of Allen,” said Kennedy, whose IGA committee is handling the recruitment. “But it would be shortsighted of us to stop looking. There’s a lot to be gained by examining different candidates as they come forward.”
For instance, another potential candidate, former Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz, has been mentioned for the job, and brings an impressive, albeit different, skill set.
“It’s going to be a county board decision,” Marietta said. Not a Republican or Democratic one.”
That’s exactly right. Still, thinking about someone like Ruffles helps focus on what qualities would help our county’s first top executive succeed.
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.
Where will you find a person who would know all about all 24 departments in the Otsego County system?
The department heads will be giving the manager the information that he or she needs. The department heads know the laws, state mandates and the ins and outs that apply to their departments.
We have a county treasurer and deputy that do a great job with the budget.
I see that the board is putting out the cost will be $150,000 for the manager. I bet this person will have a deputy and secretary so it could be over $200,000. The manager is just another layer of government.
Think about it: If the board gave one of the board members a raise, but not $150,000, and the job of working with all the department heads and taking information they need back to the full board, it would be less cost to taxpayers.
Look at the City of Oneonta. It is on a third manager in a short period of time. The county is much larger, with a lot more different departments and covers many more miles than the city does.
The unfunded mandates are going to keep coming from New York State and this board will have to deal with where all the money comes from for the unfunded mandates.
Sheila Ross is retired Otsego County Republican elections commissioner
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.
In a way, our Citizen of the Year designation – it will continue, of course – has come full circle.
Interviewing Meg Kennedy, this year’s designee, brought to mind Tom Garretson, the first designee, in 2006.
Throughout that stormy year, when the Cherry Valley area was torn between those who feared 24 industrial-sized windmills would degrade the town’s environment and ambience, and those who saw a boon in new tax revenues, Tom always kept his cool.
And there was a lot at stake, municipally and personally: His father-in-law, who he had succeeded that Jan. 1 as town supervisor, strongly favored the wind project.
At meeting after stormy meeting, Garretson kept order, listened intently and – as
Kennedy would have observed – not only listened, but heard.
In the end, he came down against the turbines, and led the enactment of a law to hinder them. Reunion Power of Vermont finally gave up.
What changed Tom’s mind in the end wasn’t the arguments, but it was a trip he took to Fenner, a flat, indistinct town south of Utica, where a windmill farm was already functioning.
Garretson – a farmer, as is Meg Kennedy – came back with renewed enthusiasm for his adopted hometown – the Garretsons had come from New Jersey in the 1950s; the Kennedys from Long Island a decade or so later.
Compared to Fenner, he concluded, Cherry Valley simply had too much to offer – too much to preserve. Stunning scenery, among the richest and most textured local histories in the nation, a comfortable lifestyle, a farming community enrichened by the Glimmerglass Opera’s world-class culture.
He listened, he heard, he explored, he made the right decision.
This year’s designee, the county representative from Hartwick, Milford and New Lisbon, arguably made the best decision in coming up with a first step in professionalizing Otsego County’s $120 million government – a county administrator whose mandate is to implement the will of 14 representatives who, in effect, are our neighbors.
That what’s always been a controversial discussion obtained the support of 11 of her 14 colleagues is astonishing. And this was done with no table pounding or arm-twisting, but by calm consensus building.
She described what we’re labelling “the Kennedy Method.”
You listen. You HEAR. You ask, what’s fair? Then you decide. (One other step: You collect information.) “I have to get it proved to me,” she said.
Thinking as far back to the days when mom Margaret expected her to herd her nine younger siblings, she concluded, “I could always coalesce a group.”
Up to this point, it seemed impossible that the Energy Task Force effort she’s chairing would go anywhere. Now, there’s reason to be much more optimistic about a consensus result, targeted by the end of 2020.
While Kennedy made it happen, as important, the chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives for only one term, David Bliss, allowed it to happen. That’s another unappreciated aspect of his polite, level-headed and increasingly steady leadership.
He saw her potential. He saw her willingness to work. He saw a kindred spirit and let it fly. (Nor was he absent, attending most of Kennedy’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee and joining IGA members in casting key votes.)
As with Tom Garretson, Meg Kennedy isn’t seeking to change Otsego County – nor is Dave Bliss, for that matter. The idea is, incrementally, to make things better, to create enough jobs to fill our needs; to solve problems one by one, not all right this minute; to make our communities more consistently vibrant in a quickly changing world.
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!”
COOPERSTOWN – If – as is anticipated – Dave Bliss is reelected chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives at the organizational meeting Thursday, Jan. 2, one of his first acts will be to name a committee to recruit the first county administrator.
In an interview, he said he sees no reason why county Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, who led the effort to create the new position, shouldn’t chair the search as well. “She’s done an excellent job,” said the Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield Republican. “I don’t see any reason to make a change there.”
Serving on the board of NYSAC (the state Association of Counties) gives her contacts and easier access to information that will help guide the recruitment process as it did the two-year study that preceded the county board’s 11-3-1 vote Wednesday, Dec. 4, to create a professional position at the top of the organizational chart.
The county board included $75,000 in the 2020 budget, also approved Dec. 4, with the idea it will take until mid-year to fill the $150,000 position, ($100,000 salary plus benefits and expenses.)
For her part, Kennedy called the vote “monumental,” adding, “it’s exciting – and a little scary at the same time.” That excitement was echoed by long-time supporters of the concept.
Former county board chairman David Brenner (and later, Oneonta mayor) said he was “very pleased” at the vote, and he praised his current successor: “This fellow Bliss, he’s been outstanding.”
Noting the current chair’s 25 years as Middlefield town supervisor, Brenner said, “He’s an old hand, and this looks to me like a skilled hand at work. He’s selective about what battles he cares to discuss. He’s picking the right priorities.”
Also expressing satisfaction was Kay Stuligross, formerly of Oneonta, now retired in Lansdale, Pa., who ran for the county board in 2007 specifically to see a professional administrator hired. The next step – hiring the right first person – is critical she said: “If we get someone who can’t do the job, it will set us back 10 years.”
At the Dec. 4 meeting, former county board Chairman Kathy Clark, R-Otego, held up Allegheny County’s failure – it has had three county managers since 2016, and the job is again vacant – as one reason for her nay vote.
And her former vice chairman, Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, who didn’t attend the critical meeting, has argued $150,000, the estimated cost of the cost, will become double that and more at a county administrators adds a deputy and support staff.
County Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, also voted nay.
On the first point, Kennedy said much depends on the success of the hiring process and how the county board welcomes the new hire. “I don’t want to micromanage the new administrator,” she said. “I want to pave their way to establish their authority within the county dynamic.”
She said “our action as a board” will determine success, and anticipates the county reps “becoming a stronger legislative body,” more firmly setting priorities to ensure the county’s best future.
Bliss said he anticipates periods of stability and periods of turnover. “Find one that works, and they end up staying for a long time. Then there may be two or three more before they find the right fit again,” he said.
Both representatives said the ballooning of county manager budgets can be misleading, often simply reflecting how existing resources are adjusted to fit the new model.