Democratic challengers only show up at forum

Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, Jordana Mallach, Tracey Schrader and Bryan “Liam” Kennelly listen to North Elba superintendent candidate Brian Barrett at a Voters for Change forum on Monday night at Harrietstown Town Hall. 
(Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, Jordana Mallach, Tracey Schrader and Bryan “Liam” Kennelly listen to North Elba superintendent candidate Brian Barrett at a Voters for Change forum on Monday night at Harrietstown Town Hall. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SARANAC LAKE — A forum held Monday night by the Adirondack Voters for Change group gave six candidates challenging incumbents in local electoral races a chance to talk about their positions on issues.

Adirondack VFC advertised the event as open to all candidates and sent questionnaires to 41 candidates in seven local municipalities whose seats are open in the Nov. 7 election. Only those who were present had answered the questions, although all were given the option to email responses.

All six who attended are running as Democrats in the towns of Harrietstown, North Elba and Franklin. Those who did not attend from those towns are running as Republicans or on independent party lines. No candidates showed up from the towns of Tupper Lake, Brighton and St. Armand or the village of Tupper Lake. Adirondack VFC is a political action group that identifies as progressive and often backs Democratic candidates.

“We make no judgments on those who did not come,” said organizer Susan Abbott-Jones. “We’re grateful to those who did show up.”

Abbott-Jones said running for office is expensive and time consuming, and “these forums are a way to address that problem.

“It’s important that incumbents are challenged to ensure that people have options.”

Candidates for Harrietstown council and highway superintendent, North Elba council and supervisor, and Franklin council took seats at the table and answered nine questions. Although Abbott-Jones encouraged respondents to pass on questions that were not relevant to the position they were seeking, none did.

Choices for voters

Jordanna Mallach, running for a seat on Harrietstown council, said, “Our governments should be accessible to all people, not just ones that pay a lot of taxes or own land.” Mallach is a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan with the National Guard.

Tracey Schrader, also running for Harrietstown council, said she felt she needed to get more involved in politics after the last general election. A former school board member, she runs Schrader General Contracting with her husband.

Councilmen Ed Goetz and Ron Keough, whose seats on Harrietstown council are up for election this fall, were not present.

Jacob Vennie-Volrath, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and is the regional advocacy coordinator for the Adirondack North Country Association, as well as a football and basketball coach at Saranac Lake High School, is making a bid for Harrietstown highway superintendent. That position is currently held by Craig Donaldson, who was elected in 1987 and hasn’t faced a challenger since.

“I’m not necessarily against my opponent,” said Vennie-Volrath, “but over and over I see people running unopposed. It says something about our democracy that we allow that. I’m running to bring out new ideas.”

Brian Barrett, a lawyer from Lake Placid who is running against incumbent North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, said Lake Placid “has had the same problems for 100 years,” and that “sports, sports, sports” is not the answer.

Bryan “Liam” Kennelly, running for a seat on the North Elba town council, said that with young people leaving town and young families not moving in, “We are facing an existential threat.” Kennelly, a lawyer, graduated from Lake Placid High School and has lived in the village with his wife since 2011. Derek Doty and John Favro are also running for North Elba council. Voters will chose two of the three.

Nancy Bernstein, the only candidate from the town of Franklin to appear, is running for a seat on the town council against incumbents Donald Hamm and Thomas Bartiss, and Oak Tree Party challenger Amy McCormick.

—-

Shared services

Candidates were asked about shared services, a means for local governments to reduce costs by cooperation with each other.

Vennie-Volrath said he thinks the Harrietstown highway department is already doing a good job.

Mallach said she doesn’t support “blanket consolidation,” although she hopes to encourage a spirit of collaboration.

Schrader said she’s done a lot of research on it: “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not.”

Kennelly supports it “if it’s organic and not dictated by Albany.”

“It would save us about $1.5 million to dissolve the village of Lake Placid,” Barrett said. “I would support that.”

“A lot of our towns and villages are already sharing services,” Bernstein said. “On the county level, there are ways the towns can creatively share services.” For example, she said, MEGA, the Municipal Electric and Gas Association, is a buying cooperative for municipalities that can cut their energy costs.

Energy and the environment

Question No. 2 asked how they would lower energy costs and protect the environment.

Schrader supported recent efforts by the village of Saranac Lake to upgrade its hydropower plant.

Kennelly said he wants to see North Elba get a biodigester to compost organic waste and produce methane gas for power.

“I don’t know why it’s stalled, but I’d make it a priority to push it through,” he said.

Barrett advocated for heated sidewalks in Lake Placid, which would reduce the need for road salt. He also would like to see a new parking garage include geothermal heat, a mode of energy transfer from wells underground.

Bernstein is an “energy circuit rider” and worked with Solarize Tri-Lakes to facilitate 80 home solar installations in this area.

“We can do work with streetlights,” she said. “Changing the bulbs to LEDs would protect the environment and save taxpayers money. It’s a win-win situation.”

Vennie-Volrath said he is very passionate about road salt and would like to find ways to mitigate its use. On energy efficiency, he said, “I’d like to think there are opportunities to produce energy here instead of getting it from some country in the Middle East.”

Mallach said she believes there are “smaller, incremental ways to protect the environment” and would like to see projects for youth that protect public access to the parks.

Multiculturalism

How would the candidates support multicultural people and attract them to the area?

Kennelly said that providing affordable housing is key to attracting people of all cultures.

Barrett said he would do it by supporting arts and entertainment, not just sports.

Vennie-Volrath said he saw it as something more properly addressed on a regional level, as, for example, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative is meant to do.

Mallach said, “If you’re attracting families to this area, you’re attracting multicultural families. And it’s important that once we attract these people, we support them.”

“This is an issue near and dear to my heart,” said Schrader. “When I was on the school board we had a racial incident, and we handled it poorly. We were sued. … I would like to see more diversity training at a local level.” She recounted that the school board did a two-day intensive training that provoked discussion about race in America.

Affordable housing

On the question of how to provide affordable housing for local residents, Mallach proposed establishing a housing co-op for Saranac Lake.

“It’s been utilized in urban areas, but I’ve been reading a lot about it and I believe there’s a way to adapt it to rural communities.”

Mallach said there are zombie properties in every neighborhood, and a housing co-op could allow others in the neighborhood to pool resources and take over those properties.

Schrader said the town and village need to work on this together, and the code enforcement officer needs to hold landlords accountable.

“It’s a tough job,” she said, adding, “Some of the fires we’ve had … people have lost their lives for simple things like not having smoke detectors.”

In 2015, said Kennelly, his apartment building in Lake Placid burned to the ground.

“There was no replacement, no place else to go,” he said. “I’m an attorney; I have resources, but I ended up living above my office.”

Having mentioned the municipal golf course before, Kennelly said, “I see Craig Wood as a juicy place to put some more housing.”

Kennelly and Barrett both said North Elba should sell Craig Wood Golf Course. Barrett went on to say local real estate agents encourage wealthy out-of-towners to buy residential properties and use them as short-term rentals, which disrupts neighborhoods and prices locals out of the housing market. These candidates would like to see a moratorium on such sales until the town can create a policy making it more fair for local renters and homebuyers.

Bernstein said, “I really feel strongly that enforcing our local building codes is a way to make housing more safe.”

Vennie-Vollrath said revolving loan funds could help contractors get some of the older housing stock back on the market.

Opioid epidemic

Abbott-Jones asked all candidates what activities they would promote for local people at risk.

Schrader said, “I’m out of my element here,” but added she is a strong supporter of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center.

Kennelly called it “probably the single most important issue” and said he feels like he loses somebody he knows to this epidemic every few months.

“We can’t control our borders, but we can support our first responders and strengthen their services,” he said.

Barrett said that he recently lost his brother, who overdosed on fentanyl and died on Jan. 13.

“I’m a criminal defense attorney; I deal with opiate addicts every day,” he said. “We will not remedy this until we change the culture of our police officers. We need more female police officers. There’s too much of a macho, bravado culture that turns people away from the police.” Although for the most part candidates timed themselves to stay within the two-minute limit, on this occasion Abbott-Jones had to cut Barrett off because he was running over.

Bernstein said youth programs that “keep youth engaged and hopeful” are important to keep them from getting involved in drugs in the first place.

Vennie-Volrath said he didn’t see much a highway superintendent could do about it, but in his personal life, he and his wife are committed to supporting local youth affected by the opiate crisis.

“It’s a public health crisis,” said Mallach. She related how, after a serious car accident, she was amazed by how freely opioids were prescribed to her. At the same time, she said alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage and chiropractic could have helped her with the pain, but her insurance didn’t cover them.

Conclusions

The ninth question was merged into the candidates’ opportunity to make a concluding statement, as time was running short. Although some in the audience asked that the office holders who hadn’t showed up for the event be named, Abbott-Jones resisted and said they are listed on the ballots.

“I promised to keep this positive,” she said.

Kennelly said he would put the residents of North Elba “first, second and third” and would “listen to all sides.”

Barrett returned to the subject of the golf course as a waste of taxpayers’ money and questioned whether the town gets a return on investment from the $750,000 it spends on the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.

Franklin is beginning a four-year project of building a community center. Bernstein said using it to promote a greater sense of community and creating a “thriving healthy environment” is her hope.

Vennie-Volrath said that if elected, he’d implement a long-term strategic plan, including budgeting for highway equipment replacement and planning for extreme weather events.

Mallach said her focus would be transparency, inclusion and investing in local youth and their families.

“This is going to sound like a typical politician thing to say,” said Schrader, “but I love this town. Saranac Lake has my heart.

“One thing,” she added, “the town and village meetings are very hard to find.” She said it seems like, when a citizen finally discovers their meeting places deep in the bowels of the town hall, town officials are surprised and discomfited. “It’s about democracy, openness and being transparent. Two of us getting elected would make change in a positive direction.”

COMMENTS