By David Doonan, Mayor of the Village of Greenwich, New York
Being a public elected official was never a recurring dream that haunted my sleep. While interested in politics and current affairs, in recent years the interest was more an intellectual exercise than an active pursuit. That began to change after listening to a talk in Glens Falls, New York by Ralph Nader in May 2007.
I sat in the audience as. Nader spoke at length about the need for citizen involvement at the local level. He talked about the example his parents set and told us to attend local government meetings to ensure our elected officials were acting responsibly. But when he said, “I’m going to tell you a Chinese proverb that youíll never forget,” I rolled my eyes and silently said, “yeah, right.” Instead that proverb: “Those who know, and don’t do, don’t know,” struck home and continued to haunt me for weeks, until I finally decided to accept the challenge and run for office.
The Village of Greenwich in Washington County is where I’ve lived for the past 17 years. Located about 50 miles north of the state capital Albany, it has a population of 1,900 and is located within the boundaries of two different towns; the more developed portion lies within the Town of Greenwich (population 5,000) and the less developed lies within the Town of Easton (population 2260) on the other side of the Battenkill River. Washington County has no four-lane roads, no enclosed shopping malls, no big box stores, no movie theatres and no television or radio stations, or even a daily newspaper. It wasn’t until the 1980 census that the human population surpassed the bovine population. In other words, the Village of Greenwich, NY has nothing in common with Greenwich Village in New York City.
There were four positions I could have run for, Town Supervisor, Town Councilor, Village Mayor or Village Trustee. Ultimately my decision was made for me when the Village Mayor was quoted as saying that decisions are easier to make when the public isn’t present.
Village elections in Greenwich have been officially non-partisan for the past 20 years. But in New York State Village elections, non-partisan can be a misleading term. In essence, it means that one has the choice of running for office under the party to which you’re registered or one can run under the name of a non-existing party, pretending that the actual state recognized party system doesn’t exist. For instance, in the nearby town of White Creek, a local Democrat has been twice elected to office on the Woodpecker Party. When choosing a non-partisan party name, candidates must be careful that they don’t pick the same name as their opponents. That happened in this election when three candidates choose to run on the Greenwich Party; the public saw them as a slate, which they weren’t. Finally, to make matters even more confusing, if a candidate chooses to run non-partisan but does not write a party name on the petitions, then by State law, the village clerk has to assign a party name.
I could have run as a Green. But instead I decided to run a non-partisan campaign. Most residents were upset at how the local government has been run and I knew they were looking for someone who would provide answers and a direction. For most voters, partisan politics was purely a secondary concern at best. My original intention was to run on a slate with one Democrat and one Republican, but I ended up with two Democrats. Why did I choose to run on a slate? Quite simply, I was hoping to influence who would end up serving on the board with me.
We chose the name “Open Government” for our slate. However I did not hide my affiliation with the Green Party. At the initial volunteers meeting I made it very clear how committed to the Green Party I was (and still am). Every time I went door-to-door, my Green Party button was worn prominently and the local press repeatedly mentioned my membership in both the Green Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. Many lifelong Republicans who had probably never voted for a Democrat, told me that they were not only going to be voting for me, but that their entire families would be as well.
This was a very winnable race – one neighbor described the general attitude as ‘throw the bums out.’ However, I decided not to run against the then current administration, but to put forward a positive message and attempt to provide realistic solutions for improving the community.
Real estate was among the issues facing the community. Six years ago the Village Board secretly voted to purchase the largest piece of commercial property in the Village, the site of a former IGA food store. Today it still sits empty. Also our Village Hall is on the National Register of His toric Places by the United States Department of the Interior, but has been allowed to deteriorate since its purchase 40 years ago. The building lacks handicapped access and bricks are literally falling out of the buildings exterior walls. The Fire Department is housed in the Village Hall, and is only allowed to operate because of very sympathetic inspectors.
James “Kim” Gannon, who wrote the words to the 1943 American classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” left a bequest together with his wife of $750,000 to be used for the youth of the Village. A commission of community members spent countless hours conducting surveys and interviews to determine the best way to go forward. A report was submitted to the Village Board, which said “thank you” and promptly put it in a drawer. It was only during this past March 2008 that the community finally saw something tangible happen, half a decade since the Village received the bequest.
The costs for a new firehouse, rehabilitating Village Hall, and repairing or replacing the Village Water Tower, are expensive propositions, which is why none of the previous administrations dealt with them. Before beginning to actively campaign, I met with a local administrator of the Rural Communities Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get a handle on what types of grants and low interest loans might be available. I also attended a monthly meeting of the fire department, not just to put myself forward, but also to listen to them.
In the 17 years we’ve lived in Greenwich, there have only been two contested elections for Trustee positions; the Mayor was never challenged. This year there were two of us running for Mayor and six candidates running for two open Trustee positions.
While two weeklies and a bi-weekly serve our community, the daily papers in nearby Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls ignored the election. Because of the lack of daily coverage and the absence of a League of Women Voters willing to organize a debate, I decided to get the ball rolling on a candidate’s forum. I proposed a format to the high school principal and the rest of the candidates, which they all agreed to.
In essence, meeting with the USDA, an aide to our local congresswoman, the fire department and organizing a candidate’s forum, I was acting as if I were already in office.
For my campaign I held an open house to kick off the ballot petitioning and three supporters hosted meet the candidate events. Greenwich requires 50 signatures to be listed on the ballot for village elections. The final weekend was spent going door-to-door. Money was donated by the state and national Green Party, as well as by the Greenwich Democrat Committee (my wife is vice president of the committee) and used to purchase advertisements in the local weeklies, lawn signs and palm & post cards. I also created a campaign web site from which I linked videos of the campaign forum.
Throughout the course of the month-long campaign, I tried to focus on three main issues: 1) Resolving the IGA property, determining the site of a new Fire House and repair of the Village Hall. 2) Seeking additional revenue streams to finance the above without burdening the taxpayers. 3) Opening up the government, allowing citizens a voice in shaping our communityís future.
On Election Day, March 18th, it was pretty strange walking into the voting booth and seeing my name on the ballot. When the votes were counted, our slate swept the results, with myself receiving 74 percent of the votes for Mayor.
To their credit, the outgoing administration received offers from two real estate brokers in January interested in purchasing the former IGA property, but decided to put off the matter until after the election. Unlike the secret decision to purchase the property six years ago, at the first Board Meeting I presided over, both brokers made presentations in public session. Rather than acting upon either offer, the Board decided to seek an independent appraisal of the property at my urging before proceeding.
Three other items of note also happened at our first meeting. The meeting was videotaped for the first time, as will be all future board meetings, in anticipation of being uploaded to a future Village web site. Second, I submitted a written Mayor’s report of my activities. The Mayor is a public servant. Since the heads of the police, fire and public works departments are required to issue written reports, then so should the Mayor. It was a simple and effective way of demonstrating my desire to be held accountable for my actions. Thirdly, when the Trustees were given their committee assignments, I assigned them a list of tasks to accomplish. I wanted it clear to everyone that the new administration was not going to be a one-person show; that everyone had a voice.
Since the election, the number of people who have stepped forward to volunteer their time or offer constructive suggestions has been remarkable. While I have ultimate responsibility for the Village, I see my primary role as being that of a facilitator, finding a way to harness the energy of our citizens to improve the community.
What I am attempting to do in this little corner of the world is to build an environment in which grassroots democracy can take root and flourish.