Democratic incumbent MacGuire Benton and Republican challenger Mary Margaret Robbins, top photo, share a shrug and a laugh after Village Administrator Teri Barown announced that the two tied, 272-272, for a seat on the Cooperstown Village Board in today’s election. Democratic incumbent Joe Membrino led the ticket, with 287 votes, winning one of the two seats outright. (His wife Martha hugs him, inset photo.) It’s unclear what happens next. One longtime political observer said the two options may be a runoff election – or a coin toss. In the morning, the county Board of Elections will be asked to conduct a recount. It was a tense evening. When the machine tallies were counted, it was Membrino, 234; Benton, 227, and Robbins, 208. Then followed the hand-counting of 108 absentee ballots, a process that took almost an hour and a half, as candidates waited tensely for the outcome. If Robbins ends up winning the seat, she would be the first Republican to serve on the Village Board in 10 years. At left is Matt Sohns, Robbins’ husband; at right is Deputy Mayor Cindy Falk. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
In the past few months, the Cooperstown Village Board’s default response to any traffic issue has been, put up a blinking light. After a driver rolled his car through the boat ramp at the end of Fair Street April 11 and drowned, suddenly a blinking red light appeared at Fair and Lake streets.
At the Sept. 23 trustees’ meeting, Viek, attending with a crowd of perturbed neighbors, reported the light was blinking, blinking, blinking all night long on his bedroom wall.
Plus, because of the nature of the drowning – the first ever at the site – a blinking light wouldn’t have saved a life.
No doubt neighbors of other blinking lights – at Susquehanna and Beaver, at Delaware and Walnut, at Glen Avenue, Lake Street and the village’s south end – have similar complaints.
Why would the village trustees start putting up these signs without any notice or public discussion?
Because they can.
After almost a decade of uncontested village elections, can you blame the trustees for concluding they can do pretty much what they want?
Bernie Viek’s dilemma – responding to his concern, the blinking light was removed – is just one of many indications the Village Board no longer believes it needs to build a consensus before it acts.
Outpourings of public angst in the past year underscore this.
The blinkers, for sure. Plans for an apartment house backing up to Pine Boulevard, one of the village’s finest streets. A provision in the proposed zoning code, removed after public outcry, to allow conversion of single-family homes into dormitories. The proposed Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskins Robbins store, now withdrawn, at a problematic site overlooked in the zoning redo.
The unanimous vote to fly the Pride Flag next June on the community flagpole has remained under the radar – speaking out is too easily misunderstood in today’s climate. But the Vets’ Club unwillingness to be used as a foil – it rejected Trustee Richard Sternberg’s proposal to fly the POW/MIA flag on the flagpole this month – suggests an unease.
Also, by rejecting Village Attorney Martin Tillapaugh’s recommendation to go easy – the trustees can approve any flag they want, he said, the problem comes when the KKK submits an application – the village trustees put all taxpayers in jeopardy.
Why? Because they could. Since there hasn’t been a check at the ballot box for local Democratic Party dominance for almost a decade now, they can get away with it.
Maybe that’s coming to an end.
The county Republican chairman, Vince Casale, said he is already lining up a slate for the mid-March village elections. This is good; the village Republican Party collapsed in 2012 after GOP Mayor Joe Booan opened discussions to merge village police into the county Sheriff’s Department.
Now, that was accountability.
Because of national divisiveness manifest locally, many Democrats might be unwilling to vote Republican. But there are other ways to provide choice: Individual citizens need only collect 50 signatures (shoot for 100; you’ll be challenged) to get on the ballot. Call Village Administrator Teri Barown, who oversees village elections,
at 547-2411 for instructions.
The Democratic caucus at the end of January routinely rubber-stamps pre-selected candidates, but that doesn’t have to be: Any registered party member can have a couple friends propose and second his or her nomination, and force a contest.
Further, former trustee Lou Allstadt sought both Republican and Democratic endorsements at the party caucuses, signaling both his independence, and an interest in serving all of us, R, D or small “I”.
Contested elections are not a radical idea. They’re a good thing, the basis of the world’s greatest Democracy. Jousting between parties – Judge Cooper’s Federalists and Jedediah Peck’s Jeffersonians – dates back to the very founding of the village in 1807.
Plus, Democrats who have controlled the Village Board since 2020 have blind spots that call out for attention, foremost the decline of the business district. Mid-afternoons from January through March, downtown is a ghost town. It wasn’t that way even a half-decade ago, much less a decade ago.
While the City of Oneonta has been a successful partner in the redevelopment of Bresee’s Department Store and Stevens’ Hardware into first-rate apartments, and now the recruitment of Kearney & Son Development to construct the exciting Lofts on Dietz project, the Village Board here has actively resisted such initiatives.
The Village Board needs, one, to join the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce at the highest membership level, and, two, collaborate with merchants and chamber members to ensure vigorous and constant downtown promotion programs.
Further, instead of breaking up stately homes into apartments and more modest homes into dorms – a formula for neighborhood deterioration – the Village Board needs to partner with Bassett Hospital and developers to build affordable housing hospital employees say they want.
That could be outside the village – word is circulating about a Phoenix Mills Road project, next to Centers – or at convenient but appropriate sites in or around downtown. (For heavens’ sake, protect and enhance the neighborhoods!)
This is no criticism of Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch, who is an exceptional representative for the village. She is focused, as she should be – there’s a lot out there – on finishing up the ambitious public works projects now underway, including the 100th anniversary renovations of historic Doubleday Field. In the end, though, she’s the leader.
Trustee Joe Membrino, who with wife Martha moved here from Washington D.C. in 2013 on his retirement as a BIA attorney, is a trustee in the Lou Allstadt mold – experienced in high councils, widely knowledgeable, level-headed, and no push-over. He was appointed to fill out Tillapaugh’s trustee term when she was elected mayor.
The third Village Board member up for reelection, Macguire Benton, is a work in progress. His declaration during the Pride Flag debate that, if people disagree with him, they should run for Village Board, dramatized the arrogance that requires remedy at the ballot box.
Nominated by the Democrats when Allstadt retired, he ran unopposed last March and gained a seat with only 114 votes, the bottom of the ticket.
This week, he took to Facebook to encourage people not to contribute to the Salvation Army Kettle Drive, sure to alienate other constituents unnecessarily.
As a freshman, he should be trying to figure out who his constituents are and what they want – and don’t want – from Village Hall. A strong challenge would be a great education for him, as well as a tonic for the Village Board in general.
Friends, all that’s required is for citizens to be citizens. If you care about preserving Cooperstown, playing to its strengths and increasing its liveability, run. Not angrily, not to settle scores or push parochial issues, but to participate in guiding “America’s Most Perfect Village” into the future.
Remember, it’s “most perfect,” not perfect. There’s work to be done.