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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 16, 2008

Competition in Westerlo: Long-dormant Republicans take aim as Milner challenges Walter

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — For many years, town positions have been held by Democrats with little-to-no opposition from the almost non-existent Republican Party, in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 3 to 1.

Councilman Clifton Richardson, who died in office three years ago, was the town’s first Republican board member in 70 years.

Now, board member Susan Walter’s seat is being challenged as Clinton “Jack” Milner looks to spend the next four years as the lone Republican board member.

It’s an off-year for town elections, but Walter was appointed to the board in April; now, by law, she has to be elected to keep her seat.

Kristen Slaver, who held the position before Walter, was forced to step down, because, according to the Hatch Act, her job conflicted with her being on the town board.

But when residents hit the voting booths on Nov. 4, they will be voting under an uncommon set of circumstances.

Milner, currently enrolled as a Democrat, is running as a Republican; he had planned to run as an independent, but his petition was shot down by the board of elections [see related front-page story and past coverage online at www.altamontenterprise.com, under archives for Sept. 4, 2008].

Milner said that his family, like most farmers in town, had been Republicans until the Great Depression in the 1930s, when allegiances switched to the Democrats, who offered social programs.

Walter, who is enrolled as a Republican, is in the process of switching over to the Democratic Party, although her attempt to run on the Democratic line may fall short since she failed to file a certificate of acceptance for her nomination by the town’s Democratic Party [see related article].

Their new party affiliations will not go into effect until after the Nov. 4 elections. Walter’s name will appear on the ballot on the Conservative line, whether or not she succeeds in getting the Democratic line.

There are 2,250 registered voters in Westerlo, according to the Albany County Board of Elections. The party enrollment breaks down as follows:

— Democrats, 1,141;

— No Party, 527;

— Republicans, 405;

— Independent, 111;

— Conservative, 53;

— Working Families, 6;

— Green, 6; and

— Libertarian, 1.

This week, the two candidates told The Enterprise about their backgrounds, and weighed in on three issues:

The comprehensive plan: After the town’s planning board was dissolved 16 years ago, and then re-constituted two years ago by the town board, the new planning board was given the mission of drawing up the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan. The planning board was originally dissolved in part because developers complained the process was arduous and time-consuming. Candidates were asked what they hope to see in this comprehensive plan, and whether or not developers should have power over the town’s planning board;

The two-party system: The Republicans had lain dormant for years in Westerlo, where Democrats outnumber them almost 3 to 1. The Republican Party was re-constituted this year after Jack Milner’s run for office as an independent was denied, and he decided to join the GOP. While Milner is technically a Democrat running as a Republican, Walter is a Republican trying to run as a Conservative Democrat. In a system where all this is possible, the candidates were asked, do parties mean anything?

Wind power: Shell WindEnergy, a subsidiary of Shell Oil, has been approaching residents of Berne, Rensselaerville, and New Scotland about leasing their land in hopes of building commercial wind farms on both private and state lands, residents say. Being a nearby Hilltown with a great deal of open space, Westerlo’s landowners may soon be approached by a commercial wind venture. Candidates were asked how they feel about commercial, rather than locally-owned wind farms coming to the Hilltowns, and whether or not they plan on working towards the creation of zoning that regulates windmills in town.

Susan Walter

A member of the town board since April, Susan Walter is looking to hold on to her position as councilwoman this November.

Originally from Delmar, Walter, 51, graduated from Bethlehem High School in 1975.

She recalls the exact day she moved to Westerlo: Aug. 27, 1999.

“Buying this house up here was one of the best things I ever did,” said Walter. “Westerlo is such a great town, and I’m kind of a country gal — where I lived in Delmar, it was country.”

She loves the open space, the wildlife, and the clear sky at night, she said. “And I couldn’t have better neighbors.”

Walter was never into politics before, she said, but when Kristen Slaver stepped down from her position on the town board, Walter sent in her application.

“I started going to the meetings a few months before, but it makes me feel good to be part of the town, and to know what’s going on,” she said. “When I can offer a suggestion, it’s really a great feeling. Since I got on the town board, I’ve met a lot of people that I hadn’t had an opportunity to meet before, and I’m learning a lot too.”

In the meantime, she continues her work at Pratt and Associates, an accounting firm in Delmar.

“I’ve been there for 22 years, and I’m the office manager,” said Walter. “I really love my job — I’m very lucky that way. Even though tax season is our busiest time of year, I love it. I work on the computer, answer the phone, do the payroll. If people call up with a question that I know the answer to, I’ll offer the information. But, most of the time, I leave the accounting work to the accountants,” she laughed.

Walter says that she has been out campaigning every weekend for about four weeks now. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who have been here for years, and they don’t want to see everything change and be turned upside down,” she said.

“I know a lot of people from New York City come up here for the summer, and a lot of people retire up here because it’s the country and because it’s slower,” said Walter. “But then, when they come up here from the city, they want to change things to how they are in the city.”

Staying true to the Conservative line, Walter doesn’t plan on pushing for big changes. “To me, most things run very smoothly and well when people are comfortable,” she said.

She does have two specific goals in mind, though: “A lot of people in town want a website where they can go for miscellaneous information, like who the town officials are, who to contact for what, and different forms, like a voter registration form,” she said.

Former planning board chairman Leonard Laub said he had pushed for the creation of a website, and even purchased a domain name but his efforts were refused.

“The other thing is for people who hate litter,” she went on. “I want to start a program up here similar to the New York State Adopt-A-Highway program for people to pick up litter a mile down the road from them, in each direction. And at the same time, you can make a couple dimes here and there,” she said, referring to bottles and cans that net a deposit when returned.

On the subject of the town’s ongoing work with its comprehensive plan, however, Walter doesn’t have very specific goals as of yet.

“I’m not real familiar with that because they started with that before I was on the town board,” Walter said, “although, in the past couple months, they’ve really gotten together and gotten a lot going, and they have a couple of goals to meet by the end of the year,” she said.

“As far as the planning board, that was before my time, before I was up here,” she said.

Walter attributes her switching parties to two things: her recent appointment to the mostly-Democratic town board, and this year’s presidential election.

“When I was living in Delmar, I had always been a Republican,” Walter said. The suburban town, after more than a century of GOP dominance, elected its first Democratic supervisor in 2003.

She planned to switch parties in hope that Hillary Clinton was going to be on the Democratic ticket this year. “And then, also being new on the town board, I knew that most people were Democrats,” she went on. “So, I thought, ‘If I’m going be on the town board, and I’m going vote for Hillary, why not change parties?’”

She feels, though, that party lines tend to fade when citizens go into the voting booth.

“You’re going to vote for whoever you want to vote for anyway,” said Walter. “It just depends on what the issues are, what you feel, and who you agree with. Parties are important to some people, but, when it comes down to it, you’re going to vote for whoever you agree with,” she said.

She got the idea of running as both a Conservative and Democrat from Westerlo’s supervisor, Richard Rapp. “Being that he knows more about this process than I do, I said ‘OK.’ He’s been a great help to me,” Walter said.

Major-party candidates in the Hilltowns frequently vie for small-party lines, like the Conservative line, as a way to entice added voters.

Walter understands the desire for windmills as a source of clean power, but isn’t particularly enthusiastic about having them in her backyard.

“I think that, as far as having those windmills up here, I would not want one in my yard because they’re huge,” she said. “It’s beautiful up here, and to have those things dotted up here, I think would be very ugly. And I know there’s a sign-on bonus, and some annual rent that might draw people into it. But I guess if you’re approached, you should think long and hard about it, because it’s going to be in your yard for a very long time.”

Walter also thinks that steps should be taken to put zoning in place to regulate windmills before a company like Shell comes to Westerlo.

“I think something should be done ahead of time,” she said, “so, if and when it does come, you have a good plan of what you want and what you don’t want, as far as where you’re going to put them, and how high they’re going to be.”

Clinton “Jack” Milner

Jack Milner is looking to become the sole Republican on the town board, one of the few in recent history.

Now 68 years old, Milner was born and raised in Westerlo, and runs Milner Farm, which his father ran while he was growing up.

“I’ve had businesses for 39 years in the community,” Milner said. These include Paddock Pools, from 1961 to 1969; Helderberg Gunite Pool Builders, which he closed in 1995; and his family’s beef farm, which he has owned and operated since 1982.

He was a member of the American Legion for 10 years, and founded the Whitetail Deer Association in 1994, a hunting club of which he is still the president.

“And, I joined the Marine Corps three months after I turned 17,” he said. He served three years in active duty, and three in the reserves.

“What I did was I finished my junior year at Berne-Knox Central High School, and then I enlisted in the Marine Corps. My neighbor went in, and one of my friends went in, and so I finished out my senior year in the Marine Corps,” Milner said.

“I was never into politics until last year,” he said. Then, in April of 2007, he secured a position on the town’s planning board, which he held for a year.

“I resigned because they fired Leonard Laub,” he said. It was the ousting of Laub as planning board chairman that inspired Milner to run for Walter’s seat on the town board, looking to challenge the town’s single-party rule.

Laub had refused to fill out Civil Service forms, saying he wanted no money or benefits for his service, and Milner said Laub was the most qualified to lead the planning board as it developed a comprehensive plan.

Along the campaign trail, Milner has been passing out pictures of himself standing in front of his farm. The backside of the picture outlines his goals as town a board member, including: open and transparent government, equal treatment of all town residents, no matter what party they belong to, protection of senior citizens, sustainable agriculture, outreach to school districts to bring taxes down, and constructive activities for Westerlo’s youth.

In regards to the town’s comprehensive plan, Milner said, “They should extend the town [lot] size because, in ’89, they could extend it by three quarter-acre parcels if the water and septic could fit on the land. I would think the town should expand by having more houses added to the town itself,” he said, “in whichever direction is most feasible. It’s better to do that than ruin all the agricultural fields.”

Either way, he thinks that it should be the planning board that determines the direction of development, not the developers that once pressed for the disbanding of the town’s planning board.

“The planning board members should be the ones deciding what happens, because, after all, they’re the ones who are looking out for the town,” said Milner. “These developers are only in it for one thing, and that’s to make money.”

Through the process of going from Democrat, to an independent, and finally to Republican, Milner has maintained that all parties should work together for the good of the town. “This bickering between parties just causes hardships and financial problems, instead of having the people work together — that’s in the town, city, and the country,” he said.

“There’s got to be at least two people running for town jobs,” he added. “I’m looking out for the people — let them have a choice. Last year’s election was just straight Democrats and that’s it. What kind of choice is that?”

He was thinking about leaving the Democratic Party anyway, he said, because of the way President Bill Clinton was running the country.

“When he got in, the economy was good under George Bush senior,” he said. “All our problems started under Clinton,” he said.

Milner supports the development of wind energy in the area, as long as it means cheaper and cleaner electricity for residents. “It’s bound to make for cleaner air to not burn fossil fuels,” he said.

“I would think they should only be putting the windmills in certain areas where they wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb,” Milner added. “I just hope the landowners are going to be getting a good deal out of it,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot of friends here, and I know a lot of people,” Milner concluded, “and I think they can see from my past hard work that I won’t back down.”

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