By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
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!”
The Kennedy Method lives.