I watch village board meetings. Being a political junkie, I can’t help myself. Local politics is intrigue rich, even if one has to wade through a swamp of banalities to find the richness.
I’ve been watching since 2004, the year after Jason West, Rebecca Rotzler, and Julia Walsh took over as the majority. They were joined later by Michael Zierler in an election for a vacated seat (Zierler won a full term in 2005 along with Terry Dungan).
Early on I noted that West was “as cool as a cucumber,” and that he knew, as mayor, how to blow through a board meeting with rushed but muted rhetoric, a speedy style that I’d first noted in the ’92 Clinton campaign, with all of its high-speed flapjaws.
Before Dungan joined the board in 2005, Bob Hebel held that seat and said almost nothing. But that was also true of Rotzler and Walsh, neither of whom seemed to have much to say. Only Zierler was capable of consistently getting a word in during these West-dominated meetings, but he certainly was not immune to being rushed and boxed by the mayor.
Dungan’s tenure has seen him pick his spots, but he was never quite ready to counter West’s domineering hold on every discussion.
West was often having a conversation with himself, using a systematic variation of sophistic reasoning at nearly every juncture in nearly every discussion. He would pose the issue, frame it to his liking, briefly hear comments from the others, and then back-up, reformulate, re-state, rush the issue forward, and then move on.
If he wasn’t able to dominate a question, he would shift gears, and take it out of play. He is amazingly deft at this, and leaves the impression that he thinks this is leadership, or perhaps a personally crafted version of leadership that he learned at some leadership training workshop.
I have heard West be clear, but clarity is always a second choice for him after control, and the control is very much of the “hurry up and wait” variety, where seemingly impressive (but never really impressive) schemes are concocted for a positive effect on his image and then lost in the order of business, or referred to an outside consultant.
West, it is now clear, has essentially been running for re-election for probably his entire term. He routinely enjoys sunny coverage in the local and regional newspapers and never stops talking about his “accomplishments,” and how proud he is of them.
One of the more amusing claims of “accomplishment” is that he has been busy “finishing up” projects begun in the previous administration, which ended in 2003. One of these is the Moriello Pool bathhouse, a modular building that should have been completed in a few months but has taken years. There was even a ribbon-cutting ceremony staged last year and attended by West and town supervisor Toni Hokanson, but the bathhouse never opened. It’s been nothing short of a disgrace, but West presents it as an “accomplishment.” The new Elting Library, begun after the bathhouse and huge by comparison, was built and opened a year ago by the private library trust.
But back to the village board meetings. It was just a few months ago when I noted something so repulsive that I really wished I’d been in the room to object instead of watching on public access. Rebecca Rotzler, for whom I hold no particular favor, was trying to make a point during a discussion. West was so rude to her and bum-rushed her along with his up-tempo fidgeting and interruptions that I simply could not grasp how she could sit there and take it.
What I began to realize was that she and the other board members had become inured to this sort of treatment from West, had been conditioned to accept it, and that West had managed to raise the threshhold of confrontation over it to such a high pitch that it would take a verbal assault from any one of the board members to even challenge it, let alone overcome it. West would then get to play the aggrieved party and portray himself as the one who had been insulted.
Remember that three of the board members — Rotzler, Walsh and Zierler — had been allies of West, and Dungan had certainly not been an antagonist, though he was not a member of the West cadre.
Some months before I watched the repulsive treatment of Rotzler, she and the others had voted against giving West the raise in salary he had demanded. So it wasn’t surprising to me that when West announced that he was running for re-election he showed up with two new running mates. It did surprise me that Rotzler and Walsh stepped aside without a fight, not that I cared much at all for their politics. It suggests to me that West’s style of intimidation worked on his former running mates, making it not worth their time and effort to render public service and face his obnoxious methods for the small stipend that trustees receive. Neither Rotzler or Walsh have made their reasons for not running public, to the best of my knowledge.
When Zierler announced in a letter to the New Paltz Times that he was supporting Dungan for mayor instead of his old comrade West, he described a behind-the-scenes situation where West screamed and cursed at board members. Zierler also expressed his frustration at West’s attempt in the new village budget to give himself the raise (plus another ten percent above his previous request) the board had denied him last year.
I don’t think that screaming and cursing are strangers to backroom political machinations, but I think that Zierler is trying to get at something more fundamental, a character flaw in West that is intolerable to him. Zierler has been lied to, to his face, by a close colleague, and he has watched West lie to the public, repeatedly. I can understand why that’s just too much to bear.
Former board member Bob Hebel told me the same thing about West two years ago, when he was made a local pariah by West and his supporters for suing West to stop him from performing more same-sex marriages. (Hebel won that suit, by the way, and won all appeals by West, including the final appeal to the NY Court of Appeals last July, a final rejection that West has never publicly acknowledged and which the New Paltz Times has never reported on.)
West has not only lost the confidence of the village board and some of his closest allies, he has also alienated the planning board and the zoning board of appeals. The latter two boards are made up of people who volunteer their time and they are typical of the citizen volunteers on whom the village depends. One such volunteer told me off the record that he felt West had written him off after their very first meeting, and has barely communicated with him since then. He had apparently failed West’s litmus test, he said.
There is really not enough for West in this small village. The mayor’s job is far too small for him, and he wants to compensate for that by enlarging the concept of New Paltz from a small village to a small city. He calls it “urbanization.” He wants to redraw streetscapes with taller buildings pushed up to the sidewalks and run heavy traffic up residential streets. He imagines that villagers who already walk when they can will walk more if he can just force his will upon them and crush them closer together. It’s all quite ludicrous, a fantasy version of a school of thinking called “the new urbanism” mashed in with “Green” fetishism that is not so much extreme as it is precious.
We are all environmentalists in New Paltz, but West wants us to gargle with his fantasies every morning and not spit it out until noon.
On election day West is going to march students down from campus who will vote for him without a clue about who West really is and who have been immunized against rational arguments. They will not even be open to the idea that Terry Dungan is more concerned with their interests than West, who is really only interested in himself, could ever be. Together with those villagers who give only passing attention to village government, but who will vote out of a sense of civic duty and recognize West as a brand name relentlessly promoted by the New Paltz Times, the students will probably provide West with the margin of victory.
That’s going to lead to the most unpleasant four years in village government and politics that anyone could have ever imagined.