On Point with Tina Traster

Clarkstown’s 2018 election referendums

The November 6 election will be a midterm nail-biter like one not witnessed in eons. But Clarkstown voters should pay equally close attention to the election because the town wants to know if you think the Supervisor’s and Council Members’ terms should be extended from two years to four years.

There will be two separate referendum questions on the ballot: One to extend the term from two years to four for the town’s four council members, and a second to extend the term by the same length for the Supervisor, town clerk and Superintendent of Highways (which will be lumped together).

Voters should say no to both referendum propositions.

Let’s consider why this issue is in play at this time before arguing against the merits of change. In 2016, Clarkstown voters approved a ward system that took effect in 2017. The town did not independently opt to change the length of council terms to two years; it was required to do so by a New York State law that’s been in effect since 1932. (The Supervisor’s term has been two years for decades.) The law allows towns with wards to vote on reverting back to four-year terms.

Additionally, in 2015 Clarkstown approved term limits of eight consecutive years.The ward system is new and in an experimental phase. We have done a lot to change our voting system. We need time to test it.

Short-term, extending council member terms to four years creates a conflict with term limits for Donald Franchino, Patrick Carroll and Peter Bradley. All three began their two-year terms in 2017. If term extensions are adopted for 2019, and each incumbent runs and wins next November, they will serve six years. So what happens if they want to run again 2023? Is it okay for them to serve for 10 years with 8-year term limits? Town Attorney Tom Mascola says there’s no case law on this. The town’s answer to this question is that they don’t have an answer.

Voters in Clarkstown fought hard to pass term limits. We could resolve this short-term debacle by pushing the referendum out another two years, when the three aforementioned councilmen will have served four years, and would have one more term to run for.

However, I believe two-year terms are serving us well. Our newly elected council members want the change, as does Frank Borelli and Supervisor George Hoehmann. They say two years is too brief to fulfill their agendas, and they will soon be distracted by the need to run again, if they are to seek re-election.
Seems to me our council members are more responsive and accountable now than they’ve ever been. (I’ve lived in the town for 14 years). Human nature dictates that we are more alert and attentive when we feel pressure. Keeping politicians on their toes serves us. They know that if they are less assertive or effective or communicative in the early days of their elective service, they can compensate down the road, closer to election time. Think about your experience with elected officials: don’t they seem far more available when election time rolls around?

Now that we have ward representation, our council members have an even greater opportunity to tune into our issues, and show us what they’re made of. A presumption of ward government is that constituents are more dependent on their council member than those who serve at large. Voters should retain the lever power to vote a council member out of office if that official is not focused on their hyper-local issues.

We should feel even stronger about keeping the Supervisor’s term to two years so that he or she can be held accountable, particularly with our taxes, and management of our treasure. For example, if a Supervisor votes himself an increase, and voters view this to be exploitative at a time of belt-tightening, we need to show that disapproval at the polls. Waiting two, three, four years is frustrating, and it can depress voter enthusiasm and memory.
Also, Supervisors’ races tend to bring out voters, which ensures a greater turnout every two rather than four years.

Clarkstown is in a period of adjustment. We became the 15th town in the state of New York to switch from an at-large system to a ward system (Towns with wards include three in Long Island, the rest upstate). There are none in Rockland (Ramapo’s ward vote was defeated, as was New Castles’ in Westchester). Only 164 of New York’s 932 towns are eligible for the ward system. Eligibility is based on population exceeding 10,000.

Of the 15 towns with wards, only three have reverted back to four-year terms for their council members – all the rest have maintained two-year council terms, as the 1932 legislation, which has never been amended, mandated. Only one town changed the Supervisor’s term back to four years.

We should live with the changes we’ve enacted. We need more time to ask ourselves “How’s this working?” No matter how you feel about this issue, cast your vote on November 6.