If you want the type of finger-pointing and sabre-rattling that often comes with state and federal government, then look no further than the small Essex County town of Elizabethtown.
Over the past year-and-a-half, a constant battle between the current administration and members of the ousted old guard have exchanged a firestorm of accusations and inuendo at board meetings, through letters to the editor and other avenues.
In the most recent exchange, former town board member Ken Fenimore requested, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIL), the end-of-year financial records of the town from current supervisor Margaret Bartley. Bartley and the town complied with the request and sent Fenimore the documents.
One critical mistake was made, however. The financial information was handed over with account numbers to the town’s reserves listed for all to see.
The bank statements were then posted at the Elizabethtown Post Office along with remarks criticizing the town board. Fenimore later admitted to posting the information. A post office employee removed the documents, only to find them re-posted the next day.
This is the most recent example of a battle between the old regime and the new blood that has been taking place since the 2011 election, when Bartley edged Merrihew, 254-238, for the position of supervisor. Merrihew was gracious in defeat, but some supporters were not, including a handful of party faithful who went so far as to blame this newspaper for the loss.
Since that time, banter has gone back and forth over several topics with each side having a cadrer of supporters. Topics have included the legality of town meetings under the Open Meetings Law; the handling of the Otis Bridge removal; a land deal between the county and Bartley along with her husband, Harry Gough; the management of the town’s sewer project; the budget process and the handling of the town’s finances.
There should always be room to seek answers from political officials and bring “sunlight” to government proceedings. We, the people, have the right to know what our elected officials are doing with our tax dollars and how they are leading our towns, counties, states and country.
Disagreement can occur, as people have differing opinions, leadership styles, backgrounds and trains of thought. When disputes arise, leaders should then come together and solve the problems with debate and compromise, one not being effective without the other.
Look no further than the recently signed contract between the Essex County employees union, CSEA, and the county, where both sides openly admitted that they did not get everything they wanted, but came to a compromise with the best interest of all involved.
In this case, however, the battle lines that have been drawn have seldom been solely about only the issues. The tone of letters and statements from both camps has increasingly turned personal, sarcastic and even a little hateful toward one another. The monthly call-and-response that is playing out on local editorial pages has devolved into a “are too, are not,” name-calling, playground war of words. While some of the participants in this dance have maintained the high road, others exited that path and the time has come for this senseless squabble to end.
What is playing out is the type of politics that we find unacceptable in Washington and in Albany, with people unwilling to lose themselves in the greater good and instead placing more emphasis on the letter that follows their last names. People engaged in government need to be less concerned with party politics and more concerned with the politics of the people. That’s when work gets done, when people work together and set aside their personal agenda for the common good. That doesn’t happen under a Hatfield vs. McCoy clash for power.
Local politics is for many of our youth their first experience with public service and presents them with their first impression on how to conduct ones self in public. It’s important to learn how to express your views and how to cooperate with those of different views. Public servants must learn to work together for the good of the people they serve. Petty and vindictive battles like Elizabethtown is experiencing only serve to create further discord within the community rather than pride in the performance of the community uniting despite differences.
At the same time, there is one thing we will never do and that is stifle the debate by refusing to publish letters from Mrs. Bartley or Mr. Merrihew, as some have suggested.
Letters to the editor are one of the few places where people can have an open conversation on the issues of the day and not hide behind a screenname or anonymous post. Whether you agree or disagree with the opinion, people who write letters are more likely to do one thing than those who hide behind anonymity — think before pressing send.
We’d just like to see the time wasted on these personal vendettas spent instead on the greater good of the people of Elizabethtown.