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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 9, 2006

The road to good government is paved with facts and fairness

The right to petition government for a redress of grievances is guaranteed by our First Amendment and we commend knowledgeable citizens for using that right. Petitioning can be an effective means of bringing about needed change.

But for the tool to be effective, citizens, as we said, must be knowledgeable.

Recently, 244 residents of Rensselaerville signed a petition. That’s a large number of petitioners for a small town.

At the heart of the petition is this statement: "Our supervisor has an issue with all of our present town employees and especially the highway department. His proposed budget includes the elimination of some town employees’ positions. The supervisor also is trying to replace our deputy’s position, who has been a dedicated employee of our town for 20 years, with someone outside of our town."

It’s important, first of all, to understand that these are two separate and distinct topics. One topic is a $38,000 savings inherent in the supervisor’s budget if two retiring highway workers are not replaced. The other, unrelated topic is that of the deputy highway superintendent, Earl "David" Potter.

With both topics, it’s essential to focus on the facts and have civil debate. Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, a Republican, says he agrees at this point with a motion made last month by the Democrats not to lay off any workers, as the petition requests.

With that in mind, we hope the town and its leaders will look rationally at highway spending. Communication is key.

Over the past year, we’ve written about many residents’ complaints on the poor state of town roads, about Nickelsberg’s proposals for more efficiency and better engineering, and about the Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase’s views on how he does his job well in the midst of obstacles ranging from bad weather to increasing costs of materials.

Rensselaerville has more roads per capita then any town in Albany County. Nickelsberg has said other Hilltowns spend less per mile on their roads and the roads stay in better shape.

Nickelsberg has proposed saving by not replacing the retiring highway workers. Chase told us that if two of his 10 workers aren’t replaced, roads would not get plowed and fire calls and buses would be delayed.

Chase, an elected official, runs his own department but he must communicate with the town board and its supervisor and is ultimately accountable to the public.

At last month’s town board meeting, some residents along with the highway superintendent blamed Nickelsberg for trying to replace Potter.

The facts say otherwise.

The Albany County Department of Civil Service oversees and enforces the New York State Civil Service Law, under which the position of the deputy superintendent is currently classified as competitive. In February, the month after Nickelsberg took office, the county announced an open competitive exam to fill the post. Potter did not take the exam. After the exam, only two people were listed as qualified for the job, short of the three required for an eligible list of candidates, so no new appointment was made.

Albany County will be ordering another exam, and Potter must take and pass the test if he wants to keep his post.

So, the petition falsely blames Nickelsberg for trying to replace Potter, a long-time dedicated employee.

Citizens, of course, have a right to be disgruntled or upset. But, to be effective, they must check their facts and aim at the right target.

We wrote earlier this year about problems workers in other towns were facing as the county was systematically enforcing Civil Service requirements for the first time in years.

A civil-service system, most of us would agree, was a good and necessary reform. Government jobs should not be awarded based on who you know, but rather on what you know. Merit should matter, not patronage.

After the Civil War, as our cities became industrialized and mushroomed in size, political machines took hold. They offered services, particularly for the growing working class and burgeoning immigrant population, that the government did not. Political bosses could maintain loyalty as their machines put a turkey on the table for Christmas, filled a coal bin in winter, or found a job for someone who needed it.

After Rutherford B. Hayes became President in 1877, he enacted federal civil service reform. The movement for reform had grown as social services increased; government began providing what the old political machines had offered.

The civil-service system in New York State relies heavily on testing to determine who is qualified for a particular post. The state’s Department of Civil Service reports nearly 400,000 local-government employees and over 160,000 state employees are part of the system.

Its mission, says the state’s Department of Civil Service, is "to promote a partnership with our customers that encompasses best practice personnel systems by providing innovative, cost-effective, and efficient solutions for change and diversity based on fitness, merit, and equality of opportunity."

That sounds good, but as we pointed out earlier this year — after a Guilderland Town Hall worker lost her job and workers at the Guilderland and Voorheesville public libraries were losing their jobs, too — it is time to question how cost-effective and efficient the system is.

Required tests were not administered when they should have been — back when workers were first applying for their jobs. And many of the tests do not reflect what the jobs entail. Further, the limited types of guides the county offers are mainly just for entry-level positions.

If the civil-service system is to work as it was meant to, exams must fit the job, workers must be provided with guides, and governments must be sure workers are tested from the start — not years after the fact.

These are all worthwhile changes that citizens could push to implement. Blaming a supervisor when he’s not at fault won’t solve the problem; it won’t protect a long-time valued employee.

The Rensselaerville petitioners write, "Remember, what makes this community special are the people who live here, and the way they support and help each other."

To preserve that valuable sense of community, residents should not vilify a leader who was, after all, elected by a majority of the people, but, rather, they should ground themselves with knowledge as they continue to speak out for their beliefs.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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