Monday, November 1, 2021

Respect Owed Those in Local Government Service

Dr Michael KlemensI and the organizations I work for have been environmental advocates for the Adirondack Park’s wilderness and wildness for a long time, and that may appear to and sometimes does put me in opposition to some serving in Park local governments. I respect local government leaders for the very difficult jobs and responsibilities they bear for their residents. Therefore, I try not to act disrespectfully to any in local government when I advocate for park wildlands and related policies.

My respect for those serving in local government grew when Adirondack Wild became engaged with a conservation biologist named Dr. Michael Klemens and we learned that Michael also served as his town’s planning board chairperson. When Dr. Klemens advocates for applied science, ecological site analysis and conservation design of residential or commercial developments, he is also highly cognizant of the planning needs of his community, the state of its infrastructure and fiscal condition, and the steps that a developer needs to go through to gain permissions and local board approvals.

As a conservation biologist and planning leader he tries to consider entire communities, human and more than human. Without planning for both, he feels we are diminished as a society and our human communities become far less resilient.

Dr. Klemens, the planning board leader, has high standards for developers. By insisting on design and performance standards for human development towns like his can keep a healthy tax base and also avoid wholesale losses of environmental benefits, wildlife habitats and ecological services, like flood controls resulting from preserving floodplain open space.

Dr. Michael Klemens’ guidebook written for Adirondack Wild, Pathways to a Connected Adirondack Park – Practical Steps to Better Land Use Decisions can be downloaded at adirondackwild.org, or to receive a hard copy in the mail please write to me.

I have not served in elected office myself and cannot imagine all that local government officers have to deal with. In recent years, another friend chose to run and to serve in elected office. I live near the village of Ballston Spa, NY and I just dropped over to see the village mayor to thank him for his service. The mayor, Larry Woolbright, was known to me as a naturalist, conservation biologist, herpetologist, environmentalist and ecological teacher. I admired him for these shared interests and for his intrinsic nature and fine character. He also possessed talents and interests which must have motivated him to seek, run for and serve in elected office.

Larry just made a big decision to leave that office with two years remaining in his term as mayor because, in his own words, he felt unsupported, in fact undermined by some among his village board of trustees. Judging from his own words announcing his resignation at a village board meeting, his was a very difficult and awkward decision. He had planned to serve all four years in office and, while he had accomplished much, he had many more things to do.

This mayor had all the responsibility on his shoulders for delivering local government services to the people living within the village boundaries, yet others in elected office felt he shouldn’t have the authority to make key decisions about village priorities. Yet, he, alone, was elected mayor. This can wear down the most commited individual.

Environmental leaders are also not immune to the problem of being undermined from within, having responsibility for organizations but losing authority to implement when others, thinking they have a better handle on priorities, act impatiently based on separate, sometimes hidden agendas. I can relate to this in years past.

In the case of Mayor Woolbright, some trustees of the village were not only unsupportive of the mayor’s disciplined efforts to prioritize the village’s financial health, along with its water and sewer infrastructure, streets, equipment, buildings and essential staff, but worked to undermine those priorities. The mayor’s priorities were, the mayor said, “making sure drinking water is safe while preventing sewers from backing up into residents’ basements, to allow residents to get to the grocery store after a snowstorm, and that they have fire and police protection.”

Meanwhile some on his village board wanted to spend scarce resources on bike lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks, street trees and parks, which Woolbright said he wasn’t opposed to, but as lower priorities. “I’m a walker,” Mayor Woolbright told his board during his resignation announcement. “Sidewalks and crosswalks are important to me. My wife is a cyclist. Bike lanes are important to me. I have a Ph.D. in ecology. I certainly do not hate trees. And I’m a gardener who loves to spend time in parks. But what I’m saying is that these things are not the highest priorities for the village in its current circumstance.”

“In its current circumstance.” What bothers me is the thought that had I been serving on Ballston Spa’s village board of trustees that I, too, might have ignored current circumstances and prioritized village trees and parks over the far less sexy building safety, village infrastructure, and limits on what can be responsibly spent or borrowed. I hope that an observant and multidisciplined mayor like Woolbright would have enlightened me and led me to a take a different view about what was most needed under “current circumstance.”

Mayor Woolbright, the Ph.D. ecologist and environmentalist I so admired, must have acted on the knowledge that, regardless of his ecological interests and passions, his built community of residents and businesses and their essential services were in rough shape and must come first. When it came time to budget his finances and his time, costly village infrastructure and long deferred maintenance on it had to be attended to right away and paid for. His conviction was that if the built infrastructure and human services continued to be neglected, the entire environment of the village and beyond it, including its ecological services, would also deteriorate, as would public support and morale.

Mayor Woolbright’s convictions about the urgency of “current circumstances” are probably universal. For a time, I grew up in a riverfront village in Maine. Keeping its main street open and safe, maintaining its buildings, infrastructure and business investment when floods, time, entropy, lack of money and willpower, dissension about priorities and climate change are all working against that are constant worries not dissimilar to those that may be felt by elected leaders in Elizabethtown, Northville, Speculator, Tupper Lake, Keene, Johnsburg, Jay, or you name the Adirondack location.

 

Village of Northville. Photo by Ken Rimany.

 

Photo of Michael Klemens courtesy of https://www.michaelwklemens.com/about

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




6 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    Respect is earned, not owed to anyone regardless of their position. Yes, some in local government earn the respect of those they serve, while others do not. When those in government do their best to serve all of their constituents they earn respect, but too often favoritism, nepotism, and self-dealing characterize those in government. When multiple members of the same family for generations serve in local government it undermines that respect. When government members issue contracts or special dispensation to friends, relatives, and business partners it undermines respect. When everyone knows there are two sets of rules, the official laws and those for the well connected, it undermines respect. Unfortunately, I see all of these respect-robbing things in many local governments.

  2. Michelle says:

    TL/DR

    A huge problem we all face in communication is trying to get nuanced ideas across, or basic ideas simply. Most people don’t have the time nor patience of the author.

    Unfortunately, I could not understand what’s going on with this article.

    • JohnL says:

      IDRI and I don’t understand what’s going on with the article either. Help me out if I’m not interpreting this correctly. It seems the writer (Mr Gibson), an environmentalist, was in some kind of agreement that his mayor friend (also an environmentalist) made a non-environmentalist decision to fund infrastructure instead of green stuff but that he (Mr Gibson) might have been opposed to that decision if he (Mr Gibson) had actually been on that board. Beyond that, the 2 things I did get from this are:
      1. A reminder that allocating limited resources across different, and often conflicting, uses is no easy matter.
      B. That mayor wasn’t terribly committed to his city and gave up awfully easy. IMHO.

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    A comment above lays bare a serious issue: the inability to understand detailed and complex issue
    ( nuances). There are many causes. Reduced attention span, the “need” for immediate and simple “answers “, the erosion of dialogue between opposing interests, lack of good reading skills and uneven quality of education etc are some of reasons.
    We know what needs to be done to remedy things. It remains to be seen if we will meet these challenges.

  4. Todd Eastman says:

    Listen, read, consider, and then, and not until then…

    … support, dismiss, or rebut the topic. 🙄

  5. JB says:

    It is great to see words of celebration for our cooperative achievements on both the human and the “more than human” (great phrase) levels. In fact, we have successfully cooperated to such a degree that there is the risk of descent into a mirage of individualistic vaingloriousness that begets a society crafted around a vicious cycle of misguided virtue signaling.

    The Adirondack Park, if it can withstand the tests to come, has the potential to serve as a bellwether and bastion of inherent human and ecological integrity, by serving as a stable rock in a rising sea of unsustainable exurban sprawl, consumerism and whataboutism that ultimately effect just as much human suffering as they do ecological degradation. What is not good for the hive cannot be good for the bee…And not in the ephemeral “virtuous” sense of things, but as a reflection of reciprocity in the truest.

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