POV: Small-town policy at work?

The author is a public service professor at Rockefeller College at the University at Albany and has over 25 years of experience in working on and teaching about law and economic policy issues in Albany and Washington, DC.

Earlier this year I was asked by the Bethlehem Town Board to co-chair a citizens’ advisory group on governance. At our first meeting in January, I was excited, but a little daunted by the task of bringing together a dozen town residents from across the political spectrum to put together a report for the board that would give a balanced look at governance issues and options for the town to consider. We agreed on three areas of exploration and organized ourselves into subcommittees on the topics.

The first subcommittee was to consider whether Bethlehem should consider changing its method of electing board members from the current “at-large” system to a representational system, where board members would represent a particular section of the town called a ward. The second subcommittee explored alternative ways that Bethlehem could select the town clerk, receiver of taxes and highway superintendent. Finally, the third subcommittee explored the length and limit for terms of office in Bethlehem (e.g., the supervisor serves a two-year term while the members of the board served staggered four year terms).

With an optimistic initial goal to finish the report by mid-June, we were on track to do so when the fun began. The subcommittees finished their reports by early June, and I wove them together into a draft for committee review. It had always been our intention to issue a full committee report for the board and the public that reflected, as much as possible, the views of the entire committee and not just individual subcommittees.

Over the next few weeks, I received comments from all committee members as well as Town Supervisor John Clarkson and Deputy Supervisor John Smolinsky, who had been supporting our efforts from the outset. Mr. Clarkson, who is widely acknowledged to be an expert on local government affairs, gave me many suggestions for clarifying language, some of which I incorporated into the report. After much editing, the report was finally ready to be submitted on July 5 with a fuller presentation to the board and public about the substance of the report later in July.

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