Barb Rice of Saranac Lake becomes Franklin County board’s first female chair, first south-end chair in 20 years
MALONE — Barbara Rice of Saranac Lake made history Thursday when she was elected to lead the Franklin County Legislature.
Rice, a Democrat, is the first woman to serve as chairwoman of the county board. Coupled with the November election of Republican legislator Andrea Dumas of Malone, who took her seat Thursday, it also marks the first time two women have served on the Legislature at the same time.
“That’s not a small thing,” Rice said. “We should be very proud of that. It sets us apart from our neighboring counties, and really it sets us apart from most counties in New York state. I think that’s important to recognize. It doesn’t just mean we’re progressive or we’re setting a new standard. It really means we’re more representative of the people we serve, and that’s incredibly important.”
The election of Rice in a unanimous vote by her fellow legislators also marks the first time in 20 years that a legislator from the southern end of the county has held the chair’s seat. The last was Gerald Gillmett of Lake Clear in 1997.
Rice, a former village of Saranac Lake trustee, won election to the county board in 2013. She ran-unopposed in November and was re-elected to another three-year term. Rice also serves as a state Adirondack Park Agency commissioner and holds a seat on the state Fire Safety and Building Code Council.
She succeeds fellow Democrat Billy Jones as chair of the Legislature. Jones was elected in November to the state Assembly seat formerly held by Republican Janet Duprey.
Jones, in a statement, said Rice has been an advocate for Saranac Lake, Franklin County and the North Country.
“As the first female chair of the Franklin County Legislature, she will continue to move our community forward while protecting our values,” Jones said. “I look forward to continuing working together to build a stronger North Country as we both step into our new roles.”
Rice was vice chair of the county board last year, a seat that’s been a stepping stone to the chair’s position in the past.
Democrat Don Dabiew of Malone was elected vice chairman Thursday. He also was named majority leader of the board, which has five Democrats and two Republicans. Republican Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake was elected minority leader.
Maroun said Rice is “energetic, aggressive and wears many hats.”
“This is the first time anyone has addressed the chair as madam chairwoman,” Maroun noted as he rose to speak. “It’s an honor to do that. And as a colleague from the southern end, I know that Chairwoman Rice will do an exceptional job.”
With her husband Chad McCarthy at her side holding the Bible, Rice was sworn in as chairwoman by Franklin County Clerk Kip Cassavaw. In remarks to her fellow legislators and a large group of assembled county department heads, she said she’s looking forward to a productive and positive 2017.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” she said. “Keeping up with state mandates, doing everything in a fiscally responsible way, including delivering constituent services, moving forward with economic development — it’s not an easy task, especially in this day and age.”
Rice laid out what she called a “very ambitious agenda” for 2017. Expanding and enhancing broadband Internet access, promoting tourism and developing “responsible, realistic” budgets are her top three goals. On the latter, Rice said the county wants to boost its fund balance and improve its bond rating so it can get off the state comptroller’s list of fiscally stressed counties.
Reaching a settlement in Native American land claim negotiations in the northern end of the county and recruiting new businesses to boost economic development were also named as priorities this year.
What does Rice’s new position mean for the residents of the county’s southern towns and villages? While she said the board’s goal is to work on behalf of everyone in the county, she said she has an “intrinsic understanding of southern-end issues.”
“I’d like to explore ways, even if it’s from a technological standpoint, to expand the county’s presence in the southern end so people can be more involved in county politics and know what’s going on,” she said.
Rice also said she’s been working with the county Civil Service Department to do more outreach here to let people know what county jobs are available and how to apply for them. Most county jobs are held by people who live in the northern end of the county because that’s where the county seat and most county offices are located.
Beyond the wider implications of Rice’s election as chairwoman, Thursday was also another political milestone for the Rice family. Her father, the late Bob Rice, was a longtime chairman of the Saranac Lake and Harrietstown Democratic committees, a member of the village Board of Trustees and supervisor of the town of Harrietstown. Her mother, Gail Rogers Rice, was the first female president of North Country Community College as well as a village trustee and town board member.
“She’s the trailblazer, really,” Rice said of her mother.
Asked what her father would think of her being named to the county’s top post, Rice said he’d be happy.
“He’d be laughing at me right now,” she said. “He’d get the biggest kick out of this.”