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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 15, 2009
By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND In one of the most contentious elections in recent years, the two major parties are battling for control of the town board.
About a third of Guilderland are Democrats, a third Republican, and a third registered in other parties.
Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion is seeking a sixth two-year term, running against Peter Golden, who is making his first run, on the Republican ticket.
Four candidates two Democratic incumbents, a Republican, and a Conservative running on the GOP line are vying for two seats on the town board. The two with the most votes on Nov. 3 win.
Democrats currently hold the majority on the town board, with Runion, and the incumbents, Patricia Slavick and Paul Pastore. That majority hangs in the balance, and will be upset if either Matthew Nelligan or David Fraterrigo are elected in November. This is the ninth year that the town has been dominated by Democrats, after Republicans controlled the government since the party’s founding.
The supervisor’s position carries a two-year term, and pays $103,975 annually, and board members are up for election every four years, and are paid $21,703 annually.
The Enterprise interviewed the candidates about their views on four issues:
The budget process: Town board members raised concerns this year about the transparency of the budget process, and the lack of shared information between the supervisor and members of the board. Accusations were made that the supervisor did not follow Guilderland’s town code, or state law.
Assessment: Residents crowded Town Hall on Grievance Day, after the last town-wide property revaluation, and some were forced to take their challenges to court. Some have complained that the assessment process is unfair, and that the grievance process is too complicated, while the assessor has maintained that all state requirements are followed.
Zoning: Supervisor Runion announced the formation of a Zoning Review Committee in July. The purpose of the committee is the review of the 20-year-old zoning code document, and to recommend appropriate updates to put the town’s zoning in line with the Guilderland’s comprehensive land-use plan, adopted in 2001. Zoning issues that residents and board members would like to see addressed include permit processes, and the zoning of land parcels.
Public Safety: Concerns were raised about emergency medical service and police department coverage in February, when the supervisor announced that contracts were being re-negotiated, and overtime was being reduced.
Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion, a lawyer, is running for a sixth, two-year term; in addition to the Democratic line, Runion is running on the Conservative and Independence lines. A lawyer, Runion has served as town supervisor for a decade.
Runion, a graduated of the State University of New York at Potsdam and Albany Law School, had a private law practice in Delmar for many years. As a Republican, he served as the town attorney from 1984 to 1992, and the zoning board attorney from 1992 to 1997. He was the mayor of Altamont from 1993 until the time he became supervisor.
Runion has a wife, Helene, and two sons, Kevin and David. He has lived in Guilderland since 1974.
Despite the recent controversy over the town's budget process, during which the Republican councilmen accused the supervisor of withholding information and not following town code or state law, and Runion said he feels the procedure was followed properly and all deadlines were met.
According to Chapter 13 of the town code, which was drafted in 1997 when Democrat William Aylward was supervisor, the town board should have been provided with copies of department-head budget requests, and a report of revenues and indebtedness from the town comptroller's office, in August. Republican Councilmen Warren Redlich and Mark Grimm said Runion had not provided these documents in a timely manner.
“My feeling is that all of the deadlines were met,” said Runion. “There was nothing in the town code saying it should override state law.” The intent of the town code was to supplement state law, he said.
The two important deadlines, according to Runion, are the Sept. 30 deadline to file the tentative budget with the town clerk, and the Nov. 5 deadline for scheduling a public hearing.
“The town board has 30 days to review the budget and vote. I think everybody is losing sight of the 30-day review period,” he said. As far as the town code goes, Runion said if he were to change anything, he would make it more specific.
“It would be a more valid ordinance if it was more specific. It is vague, and leaves room for interpretation,” he said.
As examples, Runion said he would like to see sample forms provides for budget requests and comptroller reports, and specific dates for holding workshops.
The supervisor, this week, scheduled two special workshops at the end of October, which will be open to the public, and will feature department heads’ providing details about their individual budget requests. Runion said the board has always held a series of workshops to allow board members to discuss various items, with the exception of last year, when he said he did not schedule a workshop due to a conflict of interest on the part of Redlich.
“That created an issue as far as voting on the police budget, the court budget, and the emergency medical services budget,” said Runion. But, he said, the workshops this year will create a very open process. He is requiring all department heads to appear, although the law stipulates the department heads should have the option to appear.
“I get the feeling that Mr. Grimm and Mr. Redlich want to be the ones to create the tentative budget. They feel they should be doing the supervisor's job. They told me when I first took office that I should step aside so they could do these things on their own,” Runion said.
After the last town-wide property revaluation in 2005, when real-estate prices were high, residents crowded Town Hall to challenge their property assessments on Grievance day. Republican town board members, and campaign opponents, have called for a change in the assessment process to avoid a similar event after the next revaluation, but Runion said the assessment process is a “creature” of state statute.
“The law dictates when grievance forms must be filed, requires the formation of a grievance review panel, and requires that all municipalities hold the grievance process on the same day,” said Runion. The law prevents the town board from interfering with the assessment process, he said.
The supervisor announced the creation of a Zoning Review Committee in July, and the bi-partisan committee met for the first time in September. The committee, charged with examining the 20-year old zoning code document, will make recommendations for changes in order to put the code in line with the comprehensive land-use plan adopted by the town in 2001.
Runion, who helped write the original document in 1987, said he thinks there has been a lot of new planning discussion, including talks for mixed-use type developments, and the zoning code did not account for those techniques.
“We have to modify the zoning code to allow for mixed-use development in a less cumbersome manner,” he said. There have also been discussions about modifying parking regulations, and Runion said he thinks the topic of commercial signs should be re-examined.
As for bringing in businesses to help expand the tax base, Runion said commercial intrusion into residential zones must be avoided, because it can be detrimental to quality of life.
“We’ve always had good economic growth in the town, and we’ve always looked at controlled growth in the town. Uncontrolled growth, in addition to affecting quality of life, could bring uncontrolled traffic, and burden town services,” said Runion. Uncontrolled growth could outstrip water sources, require a modification of sewer plans, and affect emergency services, he said.
The best way to handle business growth will be to hold public hearings so the public can come out and talk about their issues, and openly discuss anything that might impact their neighborhood.
Many Guilderland residents have been pushing for the installation of sidewalks, in order to increase pedestrian safety on busy streets, and to provide pedestrian connections in town. Runion said Guilderland has advocated with the county for a number of sidewalks, but the problem lies with funding.
“For grant funding, sidewalks are very high on our priority list. We’ve been very successful in getting grant funding for sidewalks, and we’re always looking for bike path or sidewalk projects,” he said. He cited the federal funding obtained for the sidewalks in Guilderland Center, but said the problem there lies in waiting for the funding to be released.
Runion said he has had discussions with Congressman Paul Tonko about funding to fill the gaps in some existing sidewalks, and he'd like to see sidewalks installed all the way up Carman Road and down Lydius Street.
There is a significant problem with traffic congestion on Western Avenue but, Runion said, Route 20 falls under the jurisdiction of the state, and the state’s Department of Transportation would have to be the motivating force behind a project.
“The town could never afford to do anything with Western Avenue, and the state’s DOT would not allow us to do anything on our own,” he said. Route 20 is currently being re-paved through federal stimulus funding.
In an effort to ease traffic congestion, Runion suggested and the town board approved a traffic-calming feasibility study for Dr. Shaw Road, one of the roads used as a “cut-through,” to avoid traveling on Western Avenue. He said it will be necessary to look at traffic calming in other neighborhoods, and it may be possible to use techniques from the Dr. Shaw Road study when it’s finished.
For Runion, the highest priority for the town is maintaining public safety. Concerns about coverage and staffing for emergency medical services were raised in February, when the town re-negotiated paramedic contracts, and again at the Oct. 5 meeting when Runion presented the tentative budget.
The concern originated when a paramedic was on disability for a short time in January, Runion said; the town negotiated with the union at that time to move a paramedic to cover the open shift.
“There has been no reduction in emergency medical service at all. We have three paramedics on in the evening, and that shift has the lowest call volume,” said Runion. He explained that there are three zones, with a paramedic on every shift to cover each of the zones, and, during the highest call volume shift, a fourth paramedic is scheduled to cover any overlap.
In regard to the police department, Runion said he would be proposing the hire of another officer at the Oct. 20 town board meeting.
Peter Golden, an author and entrepreneur, is making a run for town supervisor on the Republican ticket. Golden, an author and entrepreneur, served one term on the Guilderland School Board, and is now Democratic incumbent Kenneth Runion's first campaign opponent since 2003.
Golden has lived in the Capital Region for over 36 years, nine of them on Brandon Terrace, in Guilderland, with his wife, Annis, and son, Ben. He is the author of six books, former managing editor of a magazine, and the designer and product manager of entertainment software packages, he said.
Golden’s by-word in this election has been, “It is time for a change.” He believes 10 years is too long for an individual to occupy a public-service position.
Although not a current member of the town board, Golden said he was well aware of the town’s problems with the budget process, and he felt that the whole thing needed to be opened up.
“The hidden budget process has been going on for over a decade, and you have got to open up the process and educate people on the budget. The town should have been better prepared to provide information,” said Golden. He said the town codes were adopted for a reason, and should be followed.
Golden said he deeply opposed the idea that specific projects the town board had already approved, such as the McKownville Reservoir project, were not listed as specific line items in the $30 million draft budget. He said the omission was misleading to people, and he worried promises had been made that would not be kept.
“When you are a supervisor, and you tax people, you walk out of your house, and look to your left, and look to your right, and those are the people you are taxing. The supervisor spends his neighbors’ money,” said Golden.
The assessment process and its pitfalls are subjects Golden said he was all too familiar with, because he challenged his own assessment in 2005, eventually ending up in small-claims court when he couldn't come to an agreement with the town.
While he does not think the town meant to be “evil” during its most recent revaluation, Golden said he believed the whole process was handled poorly. He said he felt the supervisor should have anticipated what would happen, since the revaluation was done at the height of the market; he said the employees at Town Hall were overwhelmed with complaints that they were poorly equipped to handle at the time.
The assessment process may be mandated by state law, but Golden said there are steps that can be taken to prepare residents for a town-wide property revaluation. He said, if elected, he would send out a mailer explaining how property tax works, and would explain the difference between a bank appraisal and a professional appraisal.
Golden said he thought the town could have spent months preparing the residents for the 2005 revaluation, and should have set up a day where people would be able to go to Town Hall and meet with the assessor and professional appraisers to have questions answered.
“The grievance process was simply another step that was ignored,” according to Golden, who added that pushing private citizens to court did not make sense. “There is a kind of nurturing that needs to take place during this whole process,” he said, noting that there should be no attitude of “us versus them,” in the town.
“The supervisor is the elected embodiment of the entire community the people who agree with him, and the people who don't agree with him. He is everybody. Not only is he the taxing entity, he is the representation of the person being taxed,” said Golden.
In order to help expand the tax base in Guilderland, Golden said, he would bring in new, small, tech-based businesses, while restoring some of the vacant buildings along Western Avenue. He said residents of the town are proud of their homes, and of where they live, but that buildings such as the Bumblebee Diner and Denny’s detract from that.
“It’s almost like, while everyone is busy tending their own gardens, the town government hasn’t been tending it’s gardens, which are these buildings,” he said. “I find that disturbing and disconcerting. That would be a priority for me, to make the buildings new again.”
In order to rekindle the local economy, Golden said, it is imperative to reach out and bring people in to look at the area. There are many draws to the town, including good schools, vacant offices and buildings, proximity to the Albany airport, and the ability to choose a lifestyle from a variety of different neighborhoods, he said. Golden had the experience of watching Silicon Valley develop, and, he said, while he wouldn't wish that type of development on anyone, he was able to see the benefits that small, tech-based businesses could have on a community.
Tech-based businesses have flourished even in a bad economy, said Golden, and a bad economy also encourages people to take chances. Along with available office space, there are plenty of investors in the area, he said.
“We are less than a day’s ride from over 200 colleges and universities. We have not contacted any of these universities to look for start-ups. We are within three hours of the largest venture capital areas in the country. Why aren’t we talking to these people?” Golden asked. He said he believed the supervisor should be the biggest cheerleader for attracting new business.
“In my view, my plan is not a Democratic or Republican solution, but simply common sense,” he said.
In regard to zoning issues and the new Zoning Review Committee, Golden said he thought the formation of the committee was an election ploy on the part of Runion. People have been complaining about zoning for years, and Golden said he wondered why the committee was formed just months before the election.
“There are lots of zoning issues, but I think they need to make it easier for people to start businesses,” he said, adding that the town had to be careful to develop only in commercial areas, so that development would not impact residential neighborhoods.
“We know where the commercial heart of Guilderland is,” said Golden. He calls Western Avenue and Carman Road the “commercial L.”
Golden has put a heavy emphasis on the necessity of traffic solutions for the town, and said he did not believe individual feasibility studies would be of much help. He believes the town needs to complete a comprehensive corrective study.
“Unfortunately I don't think there is money to do that study, but I don’t know. It would be nice to know the real fiscal situation of the town,” he said. “It’s a funding issue. It’s easy to promise things, but you have to set priorities.”
The number-one priority for the supervisor, according to Golden, should be to protect the community. Not in the same hands-on sense as the police department, he explained, but in the way of oversight. Guilderland is a town filled with elderly people and children, and it makes no sense to cut back on emergency medical services, Golden said.
“If elected supervisor, I would absolutely restore coverage,” said Golden. “We have a lot of people in this community, and, given the size of the budget, it seems a fairly small thing to do. That's where Mr. Runion and I really see the world quite differently.
“I think we're getting a lesson in why open government is important, and a lesson in the downside of having the same person in office for over 10 years. I don't see this as personal. I don't know Mr. Runion at all, I just disagree with him.
Republican Matthew Nelligan, a former Guilderland High School teacher, currently works as coordinator for the New York State Senate, in the office of member services. He is making his first run for town board, on the Republican ticket.
Nelligan has lived in Guilderland for the last several years, with his wife, Jen. He is the father of two daughters, Molly, 6, and Emily, 1. In addition to his work, Nelligan is the founder of the Irish 2000 Festival, was elected as the youngest state president in the history of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, is an active member of Christ the King Church, and a member of the Guilderland Knights of Columbus.
“Anything we do in government should be done to empower the citizens,” said Nelligan.
Along that line of thought, Nelligan said the budget process needs reform. He said the town board should certainly follow the rules that were in place. Nelligan would suggest adopting a budget advisory committee that could advise the town on the issues important to the citizens.
“All parties would probably like to see something like that happen. I can’t think of any downside to it,” said Nelligan.
The assessment process is established by state law, but, Nelligan, said he thought it could be made more open, and the grievance process could be more user-friendly.
“It seems to me there should be more information provided to residents about how their assessment is reached, and why it is correct. I think we could be kinder and gentler in dealing with people who are challenging their assessments,” he said.
Nelligan said he is happy that a Zoning Review Committee has been established, and that it is good for the committee to be bi-partisan. However, he does not like some of the parameters placed on the board.
“I think there are bigger zoning issues than lining up with the comprehensive plan. Hopefully, we’re not handcuffing the committee by asking them to focus on the plan,” he said. He called the current zoning code arcane, and said that the government’s job should not be to hassle taxpayers, who are working hard to make a living, over such things as getting a permit in order to run a business from home.
“When you’ve got projects like Glass Works that take over six years to come to fruition because of red tape, that’s a problem,” Nelligan said. Glass Works village is a $100 million proposal for Route 20 that the developer says would combine businesses with residential living.
As far as providing sidewalks and bike paths, Nelligan said the town should not make promises that would not produce results.
“I would not go out and make all kinds of promises I couldn’t follow through on 10 years later,” he said. “I’m most interested in what the voters think.” Nelligan said he thought the town needed to do more outreach and get feedback from different cross-sections of the community.
“I really think the number-one job of government is to keep people safe,” said Nelligan. He said he opposes any cut in services.
“Cuts put people in danger. I think the cuts need to be reversed. We should never cut vital services when we could put people in danger,” Nelligan said. The police do a great job, he said, but he would like to be able to give them more resources.
“I’m all about voter empowerment,” Nelligan concluded. “Voters should have a more direct say.”
David Fraterrigo, an enrolled Conservative and lifelong resident of Guilderland, is making his first run for town board, on the Republican ticket.
Fraterrigo, who is married with no children, although he hopes to start a family soon, attended Canisius College in Buffalo. He spent six months in Bremen, Germany as a player and coach for a football team, and traveled extensively through Europe. He is currently in the medical and property management field, where he has 15 years of experience.
“I’m an underdog in this election, but I think I could really do some good for the town if I were to win,” Fraterrigo said.
He said he felt it was important for the town-board members to have ample time to review the budget.
“I know there is some animosity between the supervisor and some of the town board members, but that’s no reason to limit anybody’s access to information,” said Fraterrigo. In his view, he said, it would be nice to have the department heads come before the board.
“Some town board members say that residents can come to Town Hall and talk to any department head if they have questions, but that’s not realistic,” he said. “Regular citizens are working five days a week, then going home to pay the bills, and raise a family.”
For convenience sake, Fraterrigo said, the department heads could come before the town board, and residents could even watch those board meetings from the comfort of their own homes.
To better understand the assessment process, Fraterrigo, said he went to Town Hall and met with the assessor, John Macejka, whom he said was readily accessible to him. Macejka told him that, from January until May, residents were welcome to come to his office and discuss assessment problems with him. After that point, the official grievance process takes place, which, Fraterrigo said, does not seem that complicated on the face of things.
“There are many steps, though, and I certainly think we can design a better program where it makes it easy to share information with residents, so people don’t come in not knowing how an assessment decision was made. Rather than just providing a number, the process should be made clear,” said Fraterrigo.
For zoning, Fraterrigo said, he would like to see the process for obtaining business permits move more quickly.
“People shouldn’t have to wait six months, or a year, or even longer to establish a business after they have appeared before the board,” he said. “It would be nice to be able to tell people what is feasible and what is not before they invest their time and money into a project.”
Fraterrigo said that, when he was growing up in town, Western Avenue was only a two-lane road, and has since turned into a five-lane highway that comes close to encroaching on business properties.
“I understand that it’s frustrating sitting in traffic, and I don’t want people zipping through residential neighborhoods. It makes sense to have a traffic study for a problem this big. There needs to be a long-term solution for this, and I don’t think that’s on the table right now, but it needs to be addressed soon because it is not going to get any better,” he said.
Advocating a healthy lifestyle, Fraterrigo said, he is a big supporter of sidewalks and bike paths. Financially speaking, he said, it may not be realistic to say that all neighborhoods will get sidewalks installed.
“In places where there are pedestrian-safety issues, it would need to be the priority,” he said.
The top priorities in any community are the police department and emergency services, according to Fraterrigo. When economic times are not so good, the priority should still be protecting the residents, he said.
“You should never sacrifice the safety of the community. These are areas where you should not make adjustments in the budget,” said Fraterrigo.
While Fraterrigo said he thought he could do a lot of good in town, he said his life doesn’t rely upon getting a position in Town Hall.
“I hope I win, but, if I don’t, I can still contribute to the town in other ways, and I certainly plan to do so,” said Fraterrigo.
Democratic incumbent Patricia Slavick has been on the board since 2000. Slavick, who quit her job as an account for the state’s Department of Mental Health during the last election cycle in 2005, now works in the state comptroller’s office as a business analysis supervisor. She is working toward the implementation of a central accounting system for the comptroller’s office and state agencies, and has obtained business analysis certification, she said. Slavick was defeated in a primary run for county comptroller two years ago.
Slavick said this week that, as a board member, she did not see anything wrong with the way the budget process was handled this year.
“As we walk around campaigning, I always ask residents if they have any concerns, and I have not gotten any complaints about the budget process,” she said. The budget gets posted online, on the town website, and residents can look at it there, Slavick said. Even when the town board holds a public hearing, hardly anyone turns out, she said.
Slavick said that, every month, the town board members receive an expenditures and revenues report, and that, ever since she has been on the board, she has personally requested reserve reports from the town comptroller.
“We do get what the departments are requesting, and the debt report,” she said, adding that the workshops scheduled this week for the next two weeks will provide an opportunity for residents to give their input on the budget.
The assessment process, said Slavick, is administered by the state’s Department of Real Property Management.
“We have to comply with that,” she said. “We have to follow the laws of the state.” There is a process in place for people who don’t agree with their assessments; the first step is coming into town hall on Grievance Day, and the next step is going to court if no agreement can be reached, said Slavick. She said more people have been assigned to the grievance review panel, which should make the process faster and easier after the next revaluation.
The Zoning Review Committee is expected to make some zoning recommendations that the town can either approve or disagree with, according to Slavick.
“Zoning changes are necessary because the zoning code and laws are over 20 years old. Now is a good time to look at the zoning codes and see how they line up with where we are today,” she said. “Anything that’s 20 years or older needs a fresh look.” The most important thing is to make sure the permit processes go smoothly, and that parcels are zoned properly, she said.
Slavick said she thinks most residents are happy the services the town provides, and that the town is doing a good job, when funds are available, to put sidewalks in.
“People like to walk, and the more grants we can get, the better. If we had excess money, my first vote would go for more sidewalks,” said Slavick. She said she was happy to see sidewalks on Carman Road, Johnston Road, and on Route 155. She referenced a development going in on East Lydius Street, in which the developer installed sidewalks as part of the project. Slavick said incorporating sidewalks as part of any new development would be a good amendment.
On public safety, Slavick said it was not coverage that had been reduced, but overtime.
“We made sure that there would be adequate coverage on all shifts. Public safety has to be our primary concern, and I don’t believe it’s being compromised,” she said. If, for some reason, emergency medical service was burdened on any one shift, the town has inter-municipal agreements with other towns, such as Colonie, so that other emergency responders can come to the town’s aid, and vice versa.
“My main goal, given the economic climate, is to maintain a balanced budget, hold the line on taxes, and continue to provide our essential services,” Slavick concluded.
Democratic incumbent Paul Pastore, a lawyer, has served one four-year term on the town board, and, before he was elected, he was a counsel to the planning board for six years.
A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Albany Law School, Pastore has been a resident of Guilderland for 19 years, is a parishioner of Christ the King Church, and serves on the fund-raising committee for St. Margaret’s Children’s Hospital.
Pastore refers Guilderland as a “unique community with a healthy balanced mix of residential, commercial, agricultural, and light industrial land uses.”
The current administration in town is very transparent, according to Pastore, and he said he was surprised at any suggestion that the budget process was not fair and open.
“We are very much a transparent government. In respect to the particular aspect of the budget process, it’s no exception to the general rule that it is open, deliberate, and thorough,” he said. According to Pastore, the exhaustive eight-hour budget meeting that took place in 2008 was not helpful; it seemed like an effort to prolong the process, he said.
“We typically have one meeting, and budget workshops, and we are continuing in that tradition this year, and will probably continue it far into the future,” said Pastore. “The supervisor has taken painstaking efforts to make sure we review this budget.”
According to Pastore, the assessment process has been a “lynch-pin” of opposition to the current administration. He said board members are not in a position to interfere with the state-mandated process.
“If homeowners have an issue with the revaluation, they can certainly grieve, and they are entitled to do so,” he said. The percentage of people who reported to Town Hall on Grievance Day was not that high in comparison to the number of single-family homes in the town, said Pastore.
“That doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement. It’s important to keep residents as educated and informed as possible. We could use the town website to provide residents with information on assessments, and could provide a link to the state law,” he said.
Since the zoning code was written 20 years ago, Pastore said, projects have come before the town board that are rather innovative, and therefore the code needs adjustment.
“The Zoning Review Committee has been charged with looking at the comprehensive plan and coming up with recommendations on changes that can be made to improve the overall composition and makeup of the town,” he said. The town board will defer to the committee for the recommendations, and take them under advisement.
“Being welcome to changes is a compliment to the current administration,” said Pastore.
In terms of traffic safety, Pastore said it was the current administration that established the traffic safety committee, in order to recognize the concerns of the residents. He said the town board has always actively sought grants to install sidewalks.
“We are in great part limited to available funding, and that is something that will always be a check and balance,” said Pastore. There is a necessity for sidewalks in certain well-traveled areas, and that is something the planning board always looks at, he said.
The town’s public safety services are second to none, Pastore said. The current administration has expanded and enhanced the police department, the paramedics, and emergency medical services, he said.
“We have diligent and hard-working members. I haven’t heard of a lack of public safety in my tenure on the board. Quite the contrary, I’ve heard many compliments rendered by the residents of our town,” he said. The town was proud to see the police department obtain accreditation in the past months, said Pastore.
“It’s been a true privilege for me to serve the residents of the town. I’m proud to be a resident, honored to be a public servant, and take my oath of office seriously,” concluded Pastore. “I appreciate the residents trust in me and ask for their support on election day this year.”