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Mateja Hopes To Succeed Mahan As Colonie Town Supervisor

Kelly Mateja is running for Colonie Town Supervisor
Kelly Mateja

The Colonie Democratic Committee has endorsed a candidate in the race to replace retiring Town Supervisor Paula Mahan. Kelly Mateja, a political newcomer, is hoping to keep the supervisor’s office in Democratic hands. Mahan has served as supervisor of the Albany County town since 2008.

She won re-election by about 100 votes in 2019. The Republican Party has not yet endorsed a candidate in the race. Mateja spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus.

For the last 20 years, I've been serving the town of Colonie, first working in the Planning and Development Department before transitioning to senior services, and the whole time leading every PTA from elementary to high school. So I'm running for supervisor because while I really love this town, we're facing a lot of tough issues, the right way to develop and redevelop lack of affordable housing and aging infrastructure. And I have the skill set and experience that's needed to address those issues and bring our town into the future.

Now, this is an elected position. So it's political, and you've got a campaign, you haven't held elective office before, what makes you think you can win the race?

I have a long body of history working in the community. I have spent 20 years listening. Listening to the people of Colonie when I was at the Planning Department. I've driven every road in the town inspecting subdivisions, and talking to business owners and leading listening sessions to do long range planning. At Colonie Seniors I worked with not just older people, you know, they tell you lots of things when you're driving them to their doctor's appointments or serving them their lunch. And also talking to caregivers about the issues that they're facing. PTA, I've been advocating for families. And so when I listen to what the people of Colonie care about, and what they're concerned about, I think what I'm offering is really going to resonate with them. Because at my heart, I'm a community builder. And that's I think what people really want is to feel like they are a part of the community and that they are able to get involved in the government that represents them.

You're running as a Democrat, but it is a local race. For people listening, how would you characterize your political views? And what are the most important issues to you?

So, absolutely, I am a Democrat. And the political issues that are important to me, I think are pretty universal, right? People want to feel included, they want to feel engaged. A foundation of my administration will be open government that my entire administration will be about. Efficiency and transparency and being an excellent steward of community resources. It's not even really my administration, I am a steward holding space and enacting policies that are aligned with what my constituents want to see. I know I'm a political newcomer, and that I don't have a ton of experience with campaign massive machinations. I am a policy and programs person, and I really just care about delivering the government that people need and the government that people deserve.

I'll get back to some more specific policy questions in a minute. But tell us a little bit about you. Where are you from? What have you been doing the last few years? Why do you live in Colonie?

I grew up in rural Central New York in a community that has more cows than people. My parents were public school educators. My dad's a Vietnam veteran, my mom was president of every PTA in my school, and they were excellent models for public service. I went to an amazing public university for college. I graduated with my bachelor's in geography from SUNY Geneseo, and you know, there are a ton of jobs out there for geographers, so I fell in love with urban planning and got my masters from another great public university, Clemson University, and their City and Regional Planning program and met my husband down there and he was from Colonie. We realized after falling in love and getting ready to get married and start a family that we were just too far away from our family because family is really important to us. So we moved back to New York, we moved actually to the neighborhood that he grew up in, and it's a great town. If you ask people from Colonie why they live in Colonie, they're going to tell you it has a great quality of life. That the taxes are low, the schools are good, excellent public amenities. But I think also people have concerns about the future and questions about not just the pace, but the character of the development that's in the community. Our infrastructure is aging and we have a lot of challenges coming down the road towards us.

Well, the pace of development is always the top conversation in Colonie. What's your vision for that issue? You've talked about it a couple of times so far, what would you like to see in the next couple of years?

I think the first thing to recognize about the town of Colonie is that it’s not a monolith, right? It's a really big community, and that if you ask the people who live out in the western end of town near the Pine Bush, their feeling about development is going to be totally different than the people who live in Loudonville, or the people that live in Bogt Corners, or the people that live in West Albany. And so I think the critical thing you need to do in a town like Colonie is get down to that neighborhood level. A lot of people ask; are we overdeveloped? Are we underdeveloped? And I think the bigger question that we need to answer is; is the way we're developing our community in line with our community vision and values? Because that's when you can align your land use planning, and your development standards and your zoning laws with your neighborhood’s vision and values for what you want to see in the community that you've made your life. That's the magic sauce. And when you can manage everybody's expectations by having a thorough process, community building process and a listening process, and you get all the stakeholders together, the business owners and the residents and everybody who's got a stake in what's happening in that community. And you can say, what do you want here? What is your goal, and you can go through and it's a painful process. It's not an easy process. But you go through a process, and at the end of it, you say, Okay, here is the negotiated vision for what's going to happen in this neighborhood. And once you have that, it's so much easier to actually embark on a development process because everybody knows what to expect. Everybody understands what that community's goal around preservation is, what that community has decided are the appropriate development standards for their community. And it needs to be done at a neighborhood level. And it needs to be a really in depth process so that people truly understand.

Is that something that's not happening right now?

I wouldn't say it's not happening right now, I would say, we are very blessed. We have a very gifted director of our Planning Department right now. I think that, especially with the pandemic, it may be difficult for the administration to engage in some of that process. But I look forward to as things open up, as we're recovering from this experience, that my hope is that we will be able to move more into that space. Because honestly, I have a lot of worries and concerns for my community, my business community. We have a completely reshaped landscape on retail and office space right now.

Because of Covid, you mean?

Yes, because of the pandemic. How many people are going to be going back into an office when this is all done now that we've discovered that lots of people can work perfectly fine from home? So, what does that mean for some of our large office parks? And when you look at our small mom and pop retail and businesses and restaurants? Are they going to make it through the pandemic? How can we support them? And these are all questions that you need someone who has experience in planning, has experience in economic development and is keyed in with the community on how best to support those sectors.

Well, you're trying to replace the retiring Paula Mahan who has been town supervisor for over a decade, a fellow Democrat. How would you characterize her tenure? Do you see yourself, if you were able to win this race, continuing a lot of Mahan’s policies? Are there things that you think she hasn't done well?

I think Paula has done a really admirable job. She walked into a very difficult situation. And I think she really is going to leave a legacy of fiscal conservatism that has put the ground on really great financial ground, she has made investments in infrastructure. I think if you look especially at many of our parks, they've been making sure that those are updated. So, I think she's done a great job and I look forward to continuing that legacy of low taxes, high services, but still make my own mark on the town.

Is Colonie about the right size? Or would you like to see the population increase there?

Colonie is about 83,000 to 85,000 people depending on what this census is going to tell us. And we've been growing at a two to 3% clip for the last 30 years. Like every 10 years, it's another two to 3%. So, I think when you look at the breakdown and demographics, the next 10 years we're going to see a pretty rapid aging of our population, we're going to have double digit growth in our older population, people over the age of 60. So I think when we talk about growth, I think it's important to talk about exactly what kind of growth we're looking for, and I think it's not necessarily up to me to have a vision for who we want coming to Colonie and how many we want coming to Colonie. I think what we really strive to be is a diverse community, where people of all economic backgrounds and races and creeds are welcome here as neighbors. And that's really where my focus is, trying to create a community where everybody feels welcome and at home.

That brings me to my next question, we've been covering the police collaborative and reform efforts in municipalities across New York State. And that's obviously ongoing in the town of Colonie as well. What's your vision for police reform, if any?

In Colonie, we are incredibly lucky. We have one of the best trained emergency services in the Capital District, they go so far above and beyond to make sure that not just our police, but our other emergency personnel, our dispatchers have training in de-escalation and I'm really proud of the work and that's a hard, hard job that they have. So I'm looking forward to the final results being finalized from the report on the task force that the town has convened. And I also look forward to hearing from emergency services as well as from the community about where we should be going next.

Are there any specific reforms that you yourself favor though, I mean, when you look around Colonie, you've lived there for 20 years, is there anything you think that needs to change?

In the public safety realm specifically, we have an award winning youth court program, and I think the research has shown that diversion courts and diversion programs are successful. It would be great to explore whether there are other programs that we could bring in, you know, domestic violence or of the sort. But those are definitely as we get further into the campaign. I look forward to learning more about those programs, and if they're right for Colonie and what needs to happen to make that happen. But at the end of the day, we do have an amazing Emergency Services Department, and my goal is to make sure that the people of Colonie feel safe in their homes and in their neighborhoods.

Just one last political question. We'll talk a lot more as the campaign unfolds, of course, but the last time around, the Democrats and Paula Mahan, only won the race by 100 votes or so. It was very close. Are you worried that Republicans could take back control? After all, they did hold this office for many, many decades before Paula Mahan flipped it.

So, the things that I worry about? Well, I'll tell you what I tell my kids, you have to worry about yourself. Don't worry about what they're doing, worry about yourself. And I am very clear on who I am and what I have to offer the voters of Colonie and my hope is that that will resonate with them and that we will be building a grassroots movement that, people are not just getting on board with my campaign, but they're getting engaged in government in maybe a way that they've never felt invited to engage in before. So, again, when it comes to political machinations, that's not my forte. My forte is providing efficient, effective transparent government services. And that's what I'm putting on the table to the people of Colonie, and that's what I'm hoping they'll choose.

It just occurs to me too, it's got to be a very strange time to be launching a campaign. I mean, all the traditional things that someone would do at this stage of a campaign, I guess they're moving to Zoom.

Yeah, and you know, Ian, it’s funny that you mention that because I also run an event called the Morning of Kindness. And it's one of those community building, started with 10 families 10 years ago, where we took our kids around the Capitol District on Christmas Eve morning to distract them by doing kind things for other people, and it's grown into thousands and thousands of people on Christmas Eve morning that donate money and time and resources and goods and services to more than two dozen nonprofits in the Capital District. And this was the worst year, this was such a hard year to try, because you can't bring people together at the same time. You want to make sure that the nonprofit's that you're working with are kept safe when, you know, outsiders are coming in to drop off trays of lasagna to the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, or Christmas presents to the children who live in Hope House with their mothers who are receiving addiction treatment services. So yes, it is definitely a challenge. How do you bring people together? And how do you engage a community when you can't actually be together in person? But I am so hopeful that as the vaccines roll out, and as the numbers keep trending down that that it won't be too much longer before we can be together again, but right now I'm in a deep listening mode, where I'm scheduling meetings with neighborhoods and communities to listen and, you know, hopefully soon I'll be able to listen face to face.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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