Matters of the police and town growth were some of the concerns at a recent candidate forum held last week.
Four candidates vying for two open seats on the Bethlehem Town Board worked to distinguish themselves from one another at the event. An hour later, the supervisor candidates sparred on their visions for the town’s future.
Candidates were given the chance to answer questions from the audience Thursday, Oct. 22, at Town Hall. The event was sponsored by the Albany County League of Women Voters, Spotlight News the Capital Area Council of Churches and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates for supervisor are Democratic incumbent John Clarkson verses Republican newcomer Jim Foster. The Town Board candidates are Democrats David Van Luven and Joyce Becker, and Republicans Bridget Zigrosser and David Harrington. All are running for office for the first time. Incumbent Joanne Dawson did not participate in the forum, but is continuing her bid on the Conservative line after losing in the Democratic primary race.
One of the main topics for discussion throughout the night was the issue concerning the town’s police department. All candidates were asked how they would promote diversity within the department following notice of a potential lawsuit from a former female police officer.
Both Becker and Van Luven said they would like to better understand why there aren’t more applicants to the police force and why it has the make-up it does now. Zigrosser suggested partnering with the State Police or City of Albany to find more recruits.
“We’ve become a stopping-ground, where people stop along the way until they find something better,” said Harrington, who is a retired police officer. “I don’t want that to happen anymore. I’m more than willing to hire more females and racially diverse applicants, but we need to be able to attract them. They aren’t coming to our door and there’s a reason for that.”
Both Becker and Harrington said the police are their main priority if they were to get elected. Harrington said it was a safety, while Becker felt more police were needed to patrol the roads.
Later in the forum, similar questions were asked of the supervisor candidates. When asked how they each would deal with the ongoing discourse between the police and Town Hall, Clarkson said the issue was difficult, but important. The main problem is the amount of overtime, and the way to work through the issue was by behaving in a “civil, dignified manner.”
“When we took up this issue, we knew it was going to be difficult, but the board and I thought after so many years of dealing with this issue it was time to do something about it,” said Clarkson. “We looked at every metric we could and found it was exceedingly high. We looked at the causes and found that it was not a lack of officers, indeed overtime was higher when there were more officers, but we found it was scheduling that didn’t meet peak needs and we addressed that.” He said the town also looked at time-off requests, which were “unsustainable.”
Foster countered the current administration has had over a year to reach a resolution, and there still isn’t one.
“There’s a huge over-simplification of the issue,” said Foster, citing the nearly two-dozen grievances that have been filed against the town. “It’s more complex than that, and the voters deserve to know that. The issue is the police want less overtime, not more. There are many officers who have families and young children that they want to go home to, but under current policies, can’t. In an effort to curtail overtime, officers are not able to take time off.”
Foster also said the police department can’t attract more officers because it’s not a good place to work. Clarkson said he believes a diverse police force is important and they will be doing more to work toward that goal.
Although from different parties, Town Board candidates Van Luven and Zigrosser found themselves agreeing on the topics of preserving open space and over development in the town. Becker and Harrington agreed on police issues.
Zigrosser said she felt it may be time to re-visit the town’s Comprehensive Plan to see what goals have been met and if the town has enough of certain types of development.
Van Luven felt more economic development events should be held to bring more people to the town. Nearly all the candidates felt more needed to be done to attract more tech businesses to Vista, and more traffic studies and planning was needed before approval was given to Phase II and III of The Hamlet development in New Scotland Road to move forward.
In the supervisor’s race, a major point of contention was how the Normans Kill landslide was handled.
Clarkson said the problem occurred because Normanside Country Club was dumping fill without a permit, and the town should be able to be reimbursed the costs on their part. He said a consent order was already placed and work was being done for initial repairs to prepare for a 50-year flood. The supervisor said the town has helped the club throughout the entire process.
“I do not see this as a great campaign plank, to say ‘look the town’s responsible,’” said Clarkson. “Nobody else believes so, including the Mayor of Albany and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The law is clear, the landowner is liable. We want to help, we want to make sure it gets fixed, but I think scaring the public is not a responsible act.”
Foster claimed the town knew dumping was happening last fall, months before they made the club owner seek a permit and prior to when the landslide occurred. He also said the town could still incur costs from a possible lawsuit, which would negatively impact the budget and taxpayers.
“This is a serious issue of mismanagement,” said Foster. “Town resident concerns were addressed and brought to the Town Hall’s attention in the fall of last year and nothing was done.” He went on to say a permit was then issued in March, which he felt should not have been since a few weeks later the landslide occurred, and he never received a number of documents he requested from the town under a Freedom of Information request.
Clarkson said he gave no instructions to the town clerk regarding the request, and Foster was “clutching at straws” over the issue.
This year’s election falls on Tuesday, Nov. 3.