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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011


2011 in review: Knox
New districts and an anti-tax message oust two county incumbents,
Dems win Knox board seats, and impoverished mother gets a beautiful new home

KNOX — Two incumbent Democrats on the county legislature were unseated by a pair of native Knox Republicans on Election Day. Both districts had been reconfigured. One of the winners, Knox Councilman Travis Stevens, will be vacating his seat on the town board, and a replacement will be appointed in the new year.

In the race for town board, the Democrats won both seats. The town clerk race was initially too close to call, but the incumbent Republican came out on top.

In other news, a single, impoverished mother thought she would be spending last Christmas on the streets after being evicted from her trailer in Knox. This April, Easter decorations covered her new home on Bozenkill Road, which she got with help from a Hilltown neighbor.

The Dudley Observatory of Schenectady has acquired a piece of land on the property of Russell and Amy Pokorny in Knox, to take advantage of the dark skies in the Hilltowns and the view of outer space, uninhibited by nearby light sources. Dudley’s executive director, Janie Schwab, said then that the observatory is also looking to purchase property along Washington Park in Albany to site its historic telescope for use by the public, along with its library, and exhibit space.

In the hope of preserving those dark skies, the Knox Town Board this year passed an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance, requiring all new construction to use only full-cutoff lighting fixtures.

County elections

In an upset on Election Day, Legislators Alexander “Sandy” Gordon and William Aylward were edged out of their seats on the county legislature, making way for Republicans Deborah Busch and Travis Stevens to represent the Hilltowns and Altamont in the coming year.

Every 10 years, after the federal census is published, Albany County redraws the lines for its 39 legislative districts. This year, the new map was challenged in court over minority representation in the city of Albany. There was also controversy over the reshaping of the 39th District, which Gordon represented, and which included Berne, Knox, and Westerlo. Dozens of Hilltown residents had asked the legislature to maintain the 39th District, arguing that they share a community.

In the new map, much of Knox is grouped with a large part of suburban Guilderland, including the village of Altamont, Aylward’s home base.

Gordon ran for re-election, and lost, in a district that included the towns of Berne, Rensselaerville, and Westerlo, which had been in the 38th District with the town of New Scotland.

The legislature was split on the new map, voting 22 to 14 to accept it in May. In June, the outgoing county executive who did not seek re-election, Michael Breslin, signed the plan.

Gordon, 56, a former Knox Town Board member who has a grass-fed beef farm at his home in town, has served Albany County’s 39th Legislative District for 16 years.

According to the unofficial results from the Albany County Board of Elections, Gordon garnered 1,170 votes, or 47 percent, while Busch received 1,321 votes, or 53 percent, winning in her third attempt at political office. Busch had run for county coroner in 2009, and state assembly last year, but lost in both races.

“I don’t think it’s as much a political issue; it’s taxes,” Busch, 48, a nurse, told The Enterprise of her victory. “People are strapped to the limit. They can’t afford it anymore, working harder than ever, and getting less return on our dollar, and the quality of life is affected. It’s no longer voting for parties, but whom you can afford to vote for. That’s what it’s coming down to. And, if someone can guarantee to you that they’re not going to raise taxes, but they’re not going to take away essential services that should be provided by the county, then we’ve struck a deal.”

Aylward, 76, who has been involved in local politics for decades as a former supervisor of Guilderland and mayor of Altamont, lives in the village, and is member of its board of trustees. He has represented the 31st Legislative District for 12 years.

On Election Day, Aylward got 978 votes, or 48 percent, while Stevens got 1,059 votes, or 52 percent.

“They showed with their votes that our community cares about history, and tradition, and votes with a small-town feel,” said Stevens, 37, who works for the state in energy conservation. Of voters in Altamont and the Hilltowns, Stevens said, “I think they’d really like to see a legislator who will fight, in Albany, the ever-increasing taxes that are brought on by the city politicians.”

Stevens, who was elected to his first term on the Knox Town Board two years ago, has stepped down from that post in order to represent District 31.

“We found out you can’t hold a town board seat and a county [position],” Stevens said. “And I want to be able to do the job the best that I can, so, I think [resigning] would be the best thing to do no matter what.”

Christopher Valens, a spokesman for New York’s Department of State, said one could not be on a town board and the county legislature, but that one could serve on a village board and be on the county legislature, as Stevens’s opponent, William Aylward, has done in Altamont for years, because State County Law is silent on village board members serving.

Valens also cited the recent case of Spencer v. Cristo, which held that three town board members from East Greenbush were not eligible to simultaneously serve on the Rensselaer County Legislature to which they were elected. However, the Appellate Court noted that: “The prohibition is not absolute, and ‘two-hat’ representation is permitted so long as proper procedures are followed. For example, a county operating under a charter form of government may, by county charter or charter law, supersede certain state laws, including County Law § 411.”

“It is possible that the Albany County Charter has a clause that would allow a member of a town board to also serve as a county legislator,” Valens said. The section of the Albany County Charter that covers the legislature does not address one’s ability to serve on more than one board.

“I’ve lost my first race and my last race,” said Gordon, who told The Enterprise after the election that he does not plan to run for political office again.

“I took the high road in this campaign, and it appears to be the road less traveled,” Gordon went on. “I didn’t go into negative campaigning, and I never have, and I’m pleased to have the dignity of never being a negative campaigner.”

Campaign literature mailed in weeks before the November election cast both Gordon and Aylward in a negative light, with one claiming that Gordon often voted in the legislature to impress his political bosses.

Said Aylward, “I think the literature was at least misleading, if not untrue. It portrayed me as having a budget with a 19.2-percent increase, which wasn’t my budget; it was the county executive’s budget.” Aylward had said during his campaign that he looked forward to upcoming meetings with the different legislative committees on how to reduce the levy, as he and his colleagues did last year when the county executive proposed a 15-percent increase.

Aylward, a retired schoolteacher, said after the election that he will likely retire from politics as well; while he currently serves on the Altamont Village Board, he does not plan to run again once his term expires.

“We had a good campaign, and I thought we would do better but the most votes wins, and that’s what he has,” said Aylward of Stevens, “so I wish him luck.”

Gordon, on the other hand, did not speak so highly of his opponent.

“As much as she railed that I was part of the political party bosses, it’s not true,” Gordon said of Busch. “If it was, they certainly would not have redistricted me out of three-quarters of my hometown, and I don’t understand why there were changes in polling places in towns that were not changed in their district. In the town of Rensselaerville, there were people who were told, when they walked to their firehouse to vote, that they had to vote somewhere that was six miles away, and they just didn’t vote.”

Anticipating a string of Republican victories, Edward Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Committee, issued a statement during campaign season, saying, “Republican victories in local elections will demonstrate that our momentum, which started with local victories in 2009, and carried us through historic wins in 2010, and Bob Turner’s upset victory in the 9th Congressional District, has not ceased.”

But Gordon sees Cox, a lawyer at a Manhattan law firm and son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, as a mouthpiece for the views of corporate America.

“This is the effect of big money and outside interests, and corporate America has invaded our government, and it’s percolated to the local level,” Gordon said. “It’s not what the constitution set up for this country, and corporations do not have the rights of citizens, and yet, the Supreme Court has given them unbridled opportunity to make corporate contributions for their own good. The people in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Albany, they’re sick and tired of corporate America. And Mr. Cox articulates corporate America’s view.”

Come January, Aylward said, he would be keeping busy with his other interests.

“I will be turning 77,” he said, “and I’m going to enjoy my family, and do the things I enjoy doing: gardening and other things, and watching the news.”

Gordon, too, will focus on appreciating life outside of the political arena.

“I woke up this morning, I looked over at a beautiful farm, and that’s a great place for me,” Gordon concluded. “If this is the level politics is sinking to, I’m glad to have served when there was some dignity in the discourse.”

Town elections

The Republicans and the Democrats both did extensive door-to-door campaigning, but the Democrats won the two open town board seats with Dennis Barber garnering 28 percent of the vote and Dennis Decker right behind with 27 percent of the vote.

Republican challenger Michael Swain was a close third with 24 percent of the vote and his running mate, John Hunsicker, got 20 percent.

Turnout was heavy this year with well over 900 Knox residents voting.

The race for town clerk was initially too close to call. Incumbent Republican Kim Swain, who has served three two-year terms, was challenged by Democrat Renée Quay.

Quay, a newcomer to politics, works as the chef at the Township Tavern. She was largely inspired to run for office by her family heritage, she said, as her mother is a former town clerk and judge, and her grandfather had been a judge as well.

After the unofficial vote count on Election Day, Swain was only one vote ahead of Quay, getting 468 votes, compared to Quay’s 467; after the absentee ballots were counted, Swain came out 8 votes ahead.

The incumbent Democratic judge, James Corigliano, and the Democratic candidate for tax collector, Diane Champion, both won handily.

“We felt we made a valiant effort in trying to reach all of the citizens,” said Supervisor Michael Hammond, who headed the Democratic ticket, as he waited in Town Hall on Election Day for the results from the three election districts to be tallied.

Hammond was unopposed as was the Republican highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury, who won his fourth two-year term.

Hammond won his 20th consecutive two-year term and is the longest serving supervisor in the county.

Knox’s bipartisan town board currently has three Democrats and two Republicans.  That mix will change on Jan. 1 as Gage, the town’s Republican Party chairwoman, did not seek re-election, and Stevens has resigned from the board to take his place on the county legislature.

At 51, Decker has spent 12 years on the town board. First elected in 1995, he served for two terms, and then lost an election. He was elected two years later and then, after another four-year term, he lost in 2009.

“Even losing, you can tolerate,” he said on Election Night. “You just have to move on and try it again.”

Decker works for National Grid as a civil construction supervisor for underground electrical systems.

Gesturing to the renovated and expanded town hall, which was in the planning stages for years, Decker said, “We’ve got some results here, a beautiful town hall…It’s come a long way.”

Barber, on perusing the tallies on Election Night that put him in the lead, said simply, “I’m happy.”

Barber has lived in Knox for all of his 56 years. He’s retired from his job at the state’s Department of Transportation. His first run for public office was unsuccessful when he challenged Highway Superintendent Salisbury two years ago.

Asked on Election Night to what he attributed his victory, Barber said, “The involvement I’ve had in the community over the last 30 years. They realize, this person cares about the town.” Barber has served on the Knox’s youth committee, worked with the Little League, volunteered in the fire company, and is now on the zoning board.

After eviction, a new home

Last December, Rebecca Michael was evicted from her trailer in Knox, after years of conflict with the tenants’ association that owned and ran the trailer park. Michael’s husband left in 2003, she said, and paying the rent became an even greater challenge than it had previously been. The association had, at one point, told her that it was evicting her due to her failure to pay her rent. But, when she presented a check from the Albany County Department of Social Services in March of 2010, the association denied the payment.

Four months later, she and her children were decorating their new home on Bozenkill Road for Easter.

The new home — a modest, narrow, three-story frame house — may one day belong to her if all goes according to plan. For now, she’ll be paying rent with federal funding while she builds her credit rating.

“I like decorating for every holiday,” Michael told The Enterprise, seated on the stairs leading down to her new living room, which was covered with Easter ornaments; two pastel colored candy dispensers sat below the nearly wall-sized window. Her 11-year-old daughter, Christina, shared her fervor.

“Christina is already planning on making this a haunted house for Halloween,” said Michael. “I have witches, I have goblins. She can’t wait for garage sales to find more holiday stuff.”

Michael, struggling with an IQ of 69, is raising two children with disabilities. She is grateful, she said, that a fellow Hilltowner, Vasilios Lefkaditis, learned of her eviction in December from an Enterprise story, and was driven to help.

“Truthfully, I did it because we’re either a community or we’re not,” Lefkaditis said, seated in the living room across from Michael. “When it comes to expertise, I’m steep in real estate, lawyers, and courtrooms. This fell right into my wheelhouse.”

In addition to buying the property for Michael through Shaw Funding, the company that he manages and built with his business partner, Lefkaditis also helped renovate the inside of the house.

Michael’s 9-year-old son, Dartanyen, has a class with Lefkaditis’s daughter, Kiki, and Christina is in 4-H with Kiki. Anna Lefkaditis, Vasilios’s wife, often sees Rebecca at Parent-Teacher Association meetings.

“But, whether we knew them or not,” Lefkaditis said, “something had to be done.”

— Zach Simeone

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