Third candidate enters Saranac Lake mayoral race
SARANAC LAKE — A third candidate has entered the race for village mayor — Jimmy Williams, the owner of two downtown businesses, Bitters and Bones and T.F. Finnigan.
Williams, who publicly announced his candidacy Friday, said he’s running because he’s “dissatisfied with the performance of the current local government.”
He’s read in the Enterprise about public concerns about village leaders’ behavior, ethics complaints and possible conflicts of interest, but he doesn’t believe they’re being addressed. He also believes the village has passed up several opportunities because of poor relations or other reasons.
Current board member and deputy mayor Melinda Little and Franklin County Industrial Development Agency CEO Jeremy Evans are also both running for mayor.
“I never thought I would be running for office against two people I genuinely like and respect,” Evans said Friday.
“Jimmy, from what I know, is a great guy,” Little said.
She added that she’s sticking by her belief that her experience on the board is important for the mayoral role.
Caucuses after weekend
Williams is registered as an independent. He is seeking the endorsement of both major parties and said their upcoming caucuses are important for all registered voters to attend.
“This race, although not confirmed at the polls until March, will be all-but-decided this coming Monday and Tuesday night at those caucus meetings,” Williams said. “It (attending) does not take long, and is the greatest power you can exercise.”
The Republican caucus will be held on Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. at Say Real Estate, 87 River St. The Democratic caucus will be held on Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the North Country Community College Sparks Athletic Complex gym.
The deadline for independent candidates to submit petitions is Feb. 8.
The election is on March 15.
Desire to run
Williams has not been elected before. He said the other candidates who are running are part of the “current system” of government.
He was asked if he had the experience and skills necessary to lead the village if he’s never been on a government board before.
He said in a 15 year career with the U.S. Department of Defense, he navigated bureaucracy, led teams and managed projects. He graduated from UC Berkeley. And he said since he grew up here, he knows how the village works and has a network of lifelong companions.
He said he doesn’t personally desire to be mayor but he believes someone needs to speak up about public complaints of the board and its current mayor, Clyde Rabideau, and try to remedy them.
Transparency, ethics, public comment
Williams said he’s heard from people who are unhappy about how the village is run and Rabideau’s interaction with residents.
“This behavior may not be practiced or condoned by all, but I don’t see anyone publicly fighting against it,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, silence is consent in positions like these.”
Little has distanced herself from the mayor.
“I would say those areas of concerns are mostly with the mayor more than with the board,” she said. “I understand what he (Williams) is saying. … I plan to do many things differently.”
Evans views himself as an outsider to the current village system.
“I understand his frustration, and I probably share many of those frustrations, having been in different roles in government,” Evans said.
Williams believes honesty and transparency are the only ways to heal the public’s concerns.
“Conflicts of interests should not exist,” he said.
Williams’ brother, Johnny, was elected to the Harrietstown board in November and began his term this month. Jimmy was asked if having a sibling on one of the other major governmental boards in the village could pose a conflict of interest.
“The relationship between the village board and the Harrietstown board have been strained and less than cooperative for a number of years,” Williams said. “So if anything, I would call this an advantage.”
He believes if they can bring some brotherly love to the boards, it will lead to better communication and cooperation.
He wants to forge better relationships with the public, too.
“People should feel comfortable and welcomed to attend and contribute at village meetings over issues important to them,” he said. “Instead, some fear retribution for voicing their opinions.”
Williams was asked how he would deal with criticism of the board.
“Constructive criticism has to be welcomed, acknowledged and considered,” he said. “You have to create a culture of mutual respect. … If the people coming to the meetings truly believe you’re doing the best you can for them, I think those outbursts and discussions that detract from the meeting will lessen.”
He said that the village has fumbled projects, like the River Walk — where there is currently a section of trail blocked off as the village is in a legal dispute with property owners Bruce Darring and Katheryn Stiles — or the Dew Drop Inn rehabilitation.
He’s not sure if he can make progress on these projects. He said in the case of the Dew Drop Inn, relationships between the owner, Calli Shelton, and the village are so “damaged,” he believes the opportunity may be lost forever.
He said when these opportunities come along, the village needs to “compromise, cooperate” and do whatever it can to make it work.
Williams said the village has spent a lot of time, money, and energy over the years trying to attract tourists.
“I want to make a huge shift in that mentality,” he said. “An equal, if not greater, amount of resources needs to be dedicated to giving locals a reason to stay.”
Local leaders have often said that tourism is the key industry bringing money and development to Saranac Lake. Williams agrees that it’s important, but added that he believes the industry is self-sustaining now and doesn’t need as much of the village’s money and energy anymore.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where we still need to try for tourists to visit Saranac Lake,” he said. “I think we’re at a point where we have to protect what we have and make sure the locals are cared for.”
His bar and restaurant — Bitters and Bones — benefits from tourism. Williams was asked why he wants to lean away from the industry that’s benefited his business.
“No matter what business I’m ever in, my first priority is Saranac Lake,” he said. “I would rather lose revenue at my businesses than negatively affect any of the people here.”
He described this as a tonal shift, and said he wouldn’t reduce the funds the village gives to tourism marketing organizations like the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism or the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency yet. He says he’d need to see the finances first.
Little said long-term resiliency for the village is a common goal they share, but she added that she believes putting in the effort to maintain the current level of tourism is important.
Evans said he wants to make sure the rising tide of economic development raises all boats. This doesn’t always happen, but he believes he can “leverage” tourism to benefit residents.
“Tourism is one of the most resilient industries the Adirondacks has ever had. As other industries come and go, tourism remains,” Evans said. “But it’s not a perfect industry.”
Housing, as with the other candidates, is a big part of Williams’ platform.
Again, though, he said he sees places where the village missed opportunities to solve this problem.
“There were projects on the (Downtown Revitalization Initiative) application list that would have created more affordable housing,” Williams said. “They were not selected. I don’t know why.”
Evans was on the DRI committee which made recommendations to the state for what projects to fund. He said they recommended a nine-unit building on Broadway he really liked, but the state did not choose to fund it.
Williams said he’s interested in seeing how the village housing work group’s solutions work out. They were approved by the board last week. Still, he said the village needs to continue innovating.
One area exacerbating the housing crisis he doesn’t think gets enough attention is transportation.
Many affordable housing locations are far away from employment hubs, he said, and people don’t always own cars of their own. As a result, some people are sharing rides, walking, biking or hitchhiking.
Williams said the village needs to revamp its public transportation or possibly subsidize a rideshare program.
The village board is currently considering regulating vacation rentals after complaints about noise and concerns that they reduce the apartment stock.
The Williams brothers own several short-term rentals themselves, as well as several long-term rentals.
New technologies have brought opportunities and problems, he said, but he believes there are solutions to the vacation rental issues that “preserve the rights of both sides.”
Jimmy said he doesn’t want “absentee owners” — people from outside the community — profiting from vacation rentals without contributing back. He wants to support locals who maintain properties by using them as vacation rentals to cover their expenses.
He said walking down Main Street in Lake Placid feels different than in Saranac Lake. Here, he said people know who owns the buildings and often can go in and shake their hand. He wants to keep it that way.