The new year brings changes to the leadership at Saratoga County, and as WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, the moves are highlighting divides within county government.
The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors held its organizational meeting for 2021 on Wednesday.
With a new year came the selection of a new county board chair, with a weighted majority of supervisors choosing Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz, a Republican.
“Quite frankly, I think the Board of Supervisors were looking for someone who would effectively lead the county and I think that’s why my name was put forward,” said Kusnierz.
The selection of Kusnierz, however, was a break from the long-standing tradition of the chair of the Law and Finance Committee of the previous year being put forward and voted into the board chair position.
Greenfield Supervisor Dan Pemrick, a Republican, had been in line to be nominated for board chair this year before the selection of Kusnierz.
And that break from tradition angered some on the board, including Waterford Supervisor Jack Lawler, also a Republican.
“You don’t see a lot of political infighting in Saratoga County because we have a very stable structure of government – at least we did – and now, apparently, that’s been tossed out the window,” said Lawler.
Reached by WAMC, Pemrick said he did not take personal offense to the decision, and said he looks forward to working with the board in the new year.
Lawler said the approach taken by the weighted majority of supervisors – officials from larger towns have more influence than those of smaller communities – perpetuates a feeling that the “larger towns know best.”
Others defend the move, including Democrat Tara Gaston of Saratoga Springs, who gaveled Wednesday’s meeting.
“This was the first time in a long time that there was actually open and honest discussion in this process. And we were truly able to elect a chair to drive us forward over the next year, not just based on longevity and political party,” said Gaston.
Gaston said that she had issues with the way county business was conducted over the last year, and used an example of when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the county last march. She said herself and other supervisors from larger communities had wanted to call a special meeting, which was denied.
“Despite the fact that we had, at that time, nearly 70 percent of the weighted vote of the county, the chairman refused to call a meeting, and we could not get a whole number, a majority of the board to meet, to have a special meeting,” said Gaston.
Last spring, a county committee's plan to pay county staff overtime in the early days of the pandemic – including administrators – was later scaled back. But the process drew criticism from the public and from within the county board itself.
Kusnierz was one of the supervisors alarmed at the overtime issue.
One of the first acts of the new year was to replace the County Administrator, Spencer Hellwig. The longtime Saratoga County employee will be replaced by Steve Bulger, a familiar face in local Republican politics who is wrapping up his tenure as Regional Administrator for the Small Business Administration.
Lawler criticized the removal of Hellwig.
“The man worked for Saratoga County, did a fantastic job for 33 years. And I think he was treated shabbily to be fired without anyone having the courage to their convictions to say why he was fired,” said Lawler.
Kusnierz praised Bulger’s “incredible” amount of experience in federal, state, and local government. He also offered some praise for Hellwig.
“I would like to thank him for his over three decades of service to the county and the county’s residents and I wish him well in all his future endeavors,” said Kusnierz.
As part of a four-item plan to deal with the COVID pandemic, Kusnierz plans to address one issue he was most critical of from both inside county government and with the public.
“The fourth item that I touched on was communication. Communication with the public and communication with our county employees,” said Kusnierz.
Kusnierz said he also plans to hold regular press conferences on the county's COVID response.
Along with the establishment of three new committees, another change was made to increase participation in government – eliminating a requirement that members of the public sign up 24-hours in advance to provide comment at county meetings.