Tough questions for Saranac Lake candidates
In late August, the Enterprise asked the candidates for the Saranac Lake Village Board of Trustees a series of questions about local issues — the same questions for all four hopefuls. This week, with the election looming this coming Tuesday, the Enterprise asked a separate question of each candidate.
These were intended to be tough, sometimes personal questions, ones that might make the candidates uncomfortable. But their responses might also help voters know these candidates better and understand how they respond to difficult situations that may arise.
The four candidates seeking two four-year terms are Trevor Sussey, a Democrat running as a write-in candidate (his name won’t appear on the ballot); Rich Shapiro, a Democrat seeking a second term on the board; Tom Catillaz, a Democrat who was appointed to the board in December 2019 but has served on it many years in the past as trustee and mayor; and Fred Balzac, a Green Party member. Balzac and Sussey are running with the endorsement and support of the High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The election was delayed from March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls are open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday in the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St. People may also vote by absentee ballot; these must be received by the village clerk by Election Day in order to be counted.
I chose the tough questions for the candidates. Balzac chose not to answer, but the other three did.
The question to Sussey generated the lengthiest reply. It was based on a letter to the editor from a former tenant of Sussey’s who did not like the way Sussey treated his family while he was their landlord. That letter is published on today’s Opinion page.
Enterprise: You and the High Peaks DSA have called for a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, and you have written about how evictions damage not just tenants but society as a whole. Yet Roger Sherman of Saranac Lake wrote a letter to the editor about how you made him and his family, including his pregnant wife, move out last year, and he said you tried to hasten their move-out by pressure-washing around their windows, sending water and lead paint chips into their house. Shortly afterward, he wrote, their 2-year-old showed elevated lead levels in his blood. How do you explain that?
Sussey: For a number of years, I was literally living in a tent, here in my hometown. By way of some stubborn Adirondack wherewithal, I worked two low-paying jobs, paid my way through graduate school, and even saved some money to make a small down-payment on a house here in the village. The Shermans had lived there some time before I purchased the house.
The home inspection done prior to closing revealed numerous concerns, some urgent, and so I asked Mr. Sherman if he could find a new home within three months’ time. He said “OK.” It was my intent to live in the home while rehabilitating it.
At some point, I became aware that Mr. Sherman’s wife was pregnant. During the three months in which the Shermans searched for a new home for their growing family, I performed long-neglected work on the exterior to bring it up to the standard of the neighborhood. This included scraping paint from the windowsills and repainting them and a few hours of pressure-washing years of mildew from the siding. As many homeowners know, it’s regular maintenance.
Regarding the one particular incident Mr. Sherman is claiming wrongdoing about, I did pressure-wash, and evidently some water entered the enclosed fire escape, damaging a stack of paper towels Mr. Sherman had stored there. I was only made aware of water entering the fire escape when Mr. Sherman came out of his apartment to inform me by shouting at me, threatening me and telling me to leave. I left at his request. Mr. Sherman called then-Officer Joyce (of the Saranac Lake Police Department), and so I followed up with Officer Joyce, asking how much I owed in damages. Officer Joyce described the damaged stack of paper towels and told me not to worry about it.
By this time, the entirety of the house was washed and Mr. Sherman had never raised any concerns of water and paint chips leaking into the actual living space, which was sealed far better than the enclosed fire escape. On numerous occasions I gave Mr. Sherman the space for airing any concerns related to noise, or disturbance as I was cognizant that he had a young child at home. I informed him of when I was coming, what work I was performing, and always asked if there was a window of time convenient for me to perform the work needed. Mr. Sherman never raised any concerns until the incident noted, nor did Mr. Sherman raise any concerns with being asked to search for a new home. Those who know me can attest to my reason and understanding, which I certainly would have employed had Mr. Sherman expressed any grievance in finding a new home. Let me also note: I never initiated any eviction proceedings against the Shermans.
At the time I asked Mr. Sherman to move out, I was not aware his wife was pregnant, and this inquiry by the Enterprise, based on Mr. Sherman’s unsubstantiated letter, is the first I’m hearing of water and lead paint chips spilling into Mr. Sherman’s living space, now two years later.
It’s horrifying to me that the Sherman’s child could have suffered any harm as a result of spending its first years in what became my home. The implication that I am somehow responsible for that is unfair and unfounded — especially considering that the Shermans had lived there more than a year before I bought the house and then only for three months thereafter. To me, Mr. Sherman has to take responsibility for the living conditions, prior to my purchase of the house.
Enterprise: You were recently asked to no longer volunteer at the farmers market for putting up one of your campaign signs at the market entrance while you were volunteering there. How do you explain that?
Shapiro: Yes, I put up a small lawn sign outside of the farmers market boundaries during the time I was there. It was done somewhat defensively, as while I have spent seven Saturdays this summer volunteering at milk giveaways and at the farmers market, my opponents were out campaigning. Apparently, at least one person was offended by the small sign, and for that I apologize.
To me the bigger issue is that, as a society, we seem to have stopped communicating. If someone, anyone, from the farmers market had walked up to me and said it was inappropriate, I would have immediately taken it down. Not a word was said. And, by the way, no one ever contacted me about being asked to not volunteer.
Why have we stopped discourse? Why is the first reaction to fight and attack, rather than talk to one another? This is apparent in the national political scene as well as with issues facing us in the village. We must talk and listen to one another if we are to solve our problems.
Enterprise: In your many years as trustee and mayor, you have been known as someone who didn’t do or say a whole lot. Why don’t you take more initiative?
Catillaz: To answer your comment that I am quiet is easy — I am a good listener. I try my best to represent the people in the village, and you have to listen to their concerns to do that. If someone has a question or a complaint, they may not be wrong but just need to be heard and pointed in the right direction. Not a week goes by that someone in our community asks me about something, and if I don’t have the answer, I point them to the appropriate person to talk to. We have a great staff, and they are always will to help. We also have a public comment time in our meetings where people can speak with no fear of rebuttal. We listen to all of these comments and try to correct any problems.
Enterprise: You have run for office six times in the past, and you’ve never been elected. What is it that makes people not want to vote for you?
Balzac declined to answer.