Kenneth Mackey, Westerlo judge candidate

Kenneth Mackey

WESTERLO — Kenneth Mackey says he has learned a lot in his last four years on the bench.

“A lot of people don’t belong in jail,” he said. “I know now that some people really do.  You can tell the minute they walk in the courtroom.”

Mackey, who has worked as a welder at Hannay Reels for a quarter of a century, has an equally long commitment to the ambulance squad, which he captains.

He told The Enterprise years ago, “I was in a real serious accident when I was 18 years old, due to a drunk driver. I was seven months in the hospital…I’ve got a steel bar in one leg but I can go with the best of them…I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to need an ambulance.”

He was motivated to become a judge because of an incident that took place more than 15 years ago when he was fire chief.

“Big power lines were down, and I had fire police blocking the roads off so nobody got electrocuted,” he said when he ran for judge in 2009. “I was responsible for everybody and this person almost ran one my fire police over, and she asked me to do something about it,” Mackey said of the woman who was nearly run over.

He took it to town court. Mackey said of the judge, “He basically laughed me out of court.”

For his first run, Mackey, a lifelong Democrat, couldn’t get his party’s backing, so he ran on the Republican line. “I went ahead and beat them,” said Mackey, 58, who was raised in the Hilltowns.

Asked why no one is running against him this time, Mackey said, “I think there are qualified people out there but, in the world today, people don’t have the time to give.” He said it is the same with the ambulance squad.

After being elected, Mackey was trained at four state-required weekend-long sessions.

“It was pretty exhaustive, a lot more than I thought,” said Mackey who said he has a two-year degree in radio and television technology from Grahm Junior College in Boston.

He recalls getting to the hotel a day early for the first court training session. “There was a stack of books a foot-and-a-half high,” he said. “You go through that in a weekend and then come back and go over it again and again and again.”

At first he worked with another judge in Westerlo, Andrew Brick, which, Mackey said, “was very helpful.” Then Brick moved out of town. “I was left alone. I had to do it all,” said Mackey. “It made me a better judge because I had to do it; I forged through.”

Currently, he works with Robert Carl.

When Mackey ran for office four years ago, he was enthusiastic about community service. “Maybe some kid’s vandalizing the park,” he said. “If they helped mow the grass, it might give them some better insight on things than jail time.”

Now, his enthusiasm for alternative sentencing is more tempered. “For the most part, people don’t take it as a serious thing,” Mackey said of community service. “One now is failing to appear. And another, she wound up pregnant and the town wouldn’t accept her,” he said, worried about liability. “The jail has a program,” he went on of community service, “but people don’t like that.”

The town’s courtroom was moved from cramped quarters in the highway garage building to the town board’s old meeting room once the other town government offices moved to the new town hall in the old Westerlo School.

“We got a grant from the court system for furniture and carpeting,” said Mackey. “We needed more space; you pull 40 jurors to come in for a trial.”

In the last year, the Westerlo Court has held four trials, all for driving-while-intoxicated charges, he said. Mackey believes they are the first trials Westerlo has ever held.

The problem with the courtroom is that the roof leaks. For the last trial, Mackey said, “It rained real hard that day. We had to keep moving around. I’d have to stop and put a bucket beneath a leak.”

It can be difficult to dispense justice in a small town where many who come before the judge know him. “To be a judge, you have to be fair and impartial,” said Mackey. “It doesn’t matter if they’re friends or neighbors, you have to keep it straight across the board.”

He also said, “Every court session is open, except for juvenile offenders.” Mackey noted, though, that very few spectators come to court sessions, adding, “It’s a small town; people talk.”

When he started his term, court was held two nights a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. Starting last year, court has been held just on Wednesday nights, which Mackey said has worked out well. Both judges are in court for two nights — when an assistant district attorney comes, and when the town prosecutor handles Vehicle and Traffic Law cases — and then the judges alternate months for the other two Wednesdays.

Mackey has heard both praise and castigation for his work as judge. “I’ve been threatened to be killed,” he said. “You have to take it in stride.”

One of the best parts, he said, are the rare words of praise he’s heard. “after you serve justice and the people come back and thank you…It doesn’t happen often, but it’s great.”