DANBY, N.Y. — Legislator Dan Klein is seeking a second term to Tompkins County Legislature.
District 7 includes the towns of Caroline, Danby and a small portion of the Town of Ithaca.
Klein, a Democrat, is the chair of the Government Operations Committee and vice chair of the Legislature. He also serves on the Facilities and Infrastructure and Budget, Capital and Personnel Committees.
Ithaca Voice Intern Anna Lamb spoke with Klein about why he is seeking a second term on Legislature. Interviews have been edited for brevity.
Why do you like being a legislator over any other elected role?
Well I think Tompkins County is a very dynamic, progressive place. It’s place with a lot of smart people. I truly am very impressed with the people working on County government. So that’s about 700 employees doing all sorts of good things for the county. It’s a nice size government. Like many people I’m highly critical of New York State government; it’s very dysfunctional. It’s really hard to get things to make sense. It’s hard to get someone on the phone to explain some plain simple thing to you, so that’s too big, and I was on the Danby Town Board for six years and I really enjoyed that. I learned a lot, but the towns in the county don’t really have staff, they have a skeleton crew. So in the county we have people that can help us if we have ideas that we want to develop, they can help us work on those things. So one thing I’d say is that it’s the right size government.
So you said you were on Danby Town Board, what other political positions have you had, or ran for?
In Danby I was on the planning board, the zoning board, the community council, the conservation advisory council and probably more that I’m not thinking of. And then I was on the parks advisory committee for the City of Ithaca, the shade tree advisory committee for the City of Ithaca — lots of committees and boards and task forces and that kind of stuff.
What do you think the biggest issues facing Tompkins County are?
Well housing is something that a lot of us are focused on. I’m not sure Tompkins County government is in a great position to solve the housing issues, but there’s things we can do to help. So that’s one big one. The jail is another really big one that’s upon us right now and in a very short nutshell, New York State has told us that we either need to build a bigger jail or reduce the number of inmates. Those are our choices. And so we just commissioned a big study which just came back, we commissioned the study and we just got the results, said we think if you do this this and this you can lower your inmate numbers and not have to build a bigger jail. So now we are now in the process of digesting that report and seeing what we can implement, how much it’s going to cost, how much realistically that’s going to bring the numbers down and that’s where we’re at at this particular moment.
What can you as a legislator or the Legislature specifically do to keep the numbers down?
Well there’s a bunch of stuff in the report. It talks about improving drug treatment options and improving mental health options. So I can pick a side, I can tell you that I also I work in a New York State prison during the summers. Right now I am, I teach horticulture, so it’s not like I’m an expert on prison or prisoners by any stretch, but I have some insight into who these people are and I can tell you that without a citing a statistic, the majority of them have mental health and drug abuse issues. So getting back to the results of this report, they’re saying if you can address mental health needs and drug addiction issues, you can reduce the population and that makes intuitive sense to me but also there’s experts telling us that. So we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like yet. I can tell you that we are probably going to basically triple the number of mental health employees we have in the Jail. Some of them are going to be working in the jail, some of them are going to be working on the outside when the inmates get out to help them continue to work on their mental health issues. We are going to try to up the drug treatment options. Not sure exactly how it’s going to work yet, there’s different variations on it. A detox center. A detox center in the jail, or out of the jail they both have their sort of advantages and flavors to them.
We’re working on the LEAD program, basically what it is (say someone) is trespassing. So you get arrested. And the cop talks to you, saying I can put you in jail, but I’m not sure that’s going to make a big difference for you, I’m not sure what’s best for you. I look up your record and see that you’ve been arrested for public drunkenness before, for marijuana possession, none of these are extremely serious but there’s a pattern, so here’s what I am going to do for you to keep you out of jail. But you need to call this guy tomorrow, he’s a social worker and he’s going to meet with you with some of these issues that might be affecting your behavior and might be causing you to do this stuff. And if you meet with that guy and you follow the program it’ll keep you out of jail. So that’s another program we’re working on to keep people right from the start of entering the system at all.
There is a whole bunch of things that have to do with bail and what happens when someone is sentenced and whether they’re allowed to walk away that night after they’ve met the judge, or whether they have to go to jail and a bunch of recommendations like that. We can assist in encouraging those policies but we’re not the judicial system we’re not the judges, the judge is the one that gets to decide that kind of stuff. So that’s part of it that we don’t have a direct role in, but maybe some influence.
So how did you get into working at prisons?
After I graduated at Cornell, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, I saw job listings for some stuff in the field environmental education which is not something I knew existed. But it turned out it exists all over the place. There’s all these places where mostly school groups come and they spend a day or two, or three and they learn about environmental issues and animals and plants, and the weather, and lots of things. So I got a job doing that because I kind of minored in that, you don’t really minor at Cornell, but mine was natural resources administration. So I did this environmental education and I spent three years traveling around doing that and then I really wanted to come back to Ithaca, so I came back to Ithaca and I wanted to continue working with youth and the first job I saw was at the William George Agency which is a juvenile detention center and so I got the job there and I started working with youth at risk. I went on to work at the Finger Lakes Residential Center which is another youth detention facility and then a bunch of years went by in between and then I heard about this opening in the prison in the summer, just a summer job, so I did it last summer and I’m doing it this summer.
Do you think there are any voices underrepresented in Tompkins, even just on the legislature itself? Are any voices not being heard by local government?
I happen to think that our government is populated by very open, engaged legislators who are there for the right reasons and I see every single one without exception being good at listening to whatever voice is coming forward in whatever form it comes forward. I know that there may be underrepresented that feel like their voice isn’t being heard, and since I don’t belong to those populations I can’t really judge that, but from my point of view we listen to everyone and we are extremely accessible. So I don’t really feel like you don’t hear the voices.
What are your general thoughts on housing gaps and what the legislature can do to address those problems?
I think that the Legislature does have a role and one thing that we’re good at doing is raising awareness of the issue and keeping the issue alive. We had a housing summit this fall with a couple hundred people, it was a sold out event, that’s just one example of how we keep the issue alive. We have a planning department that is highly regarded and housing is one of the main topics that they work on. We are directly involved in funding a number of initiatives that address affordable housing.
OAR which is Opportunities Alternative Resources is a not-for-profit organization which helps people that have been in jail and then gotten out of jail, so one example is that they buy a house, renovate it, and use it as transitional housing coming out of jail. We help with the funding of that. There’s a similar bigger housing project happening not for jail but for marginal families, that projects being facilitated by Tompkins community action. We had a role in the funding of that. We partner with Ithaca neighborhood housing services to help them do the work they do which is almost completely about affordable housing. We think outside the box sometimes in terms of land we own and see if we can facilitate a way to get affordable housing built on that land.
Another issue that the public has been concerned with is Cargill, and them drilling under the lake. Do you think concerns about environmental impacts are well founded? Would you want to see an environmental study? Or have general thoughts?
Yes, I would like to see environmental impact statement, and I voted for that a couple months ago when this came up for us. However, it upsets me how much people are bad-mouthing Cargill because as far as I can tell they’ve been good neighbors and good environmental stewards, they’re good to their employees as far as I can tell, they have a good safety record and they’ve been mining here for about a hundred years with no major problems that I am aware of. Yes it’s good to ask questions, but I’m not sure when they became the bad guys. So they provide high-quality jobs, well paid jobs, blue collar jobs that we’re a little bit short on here. They have a really good record, so we could ask questions, but I have no major concerns.
Do you support a living wage in the county?
Before I will decide my position on that I feel it’s absolutely necessary to have some research done, and I’ve requested that a number of times but it has not happened. But until that happens I can’t imagine supporting it. By research I mean that would be a major tinkering with the local economy and it’s guaranteed to have effects on employment, housing, who commutes into the county, where business is located, where housing is built, and probably a bunch of other things that I don’t know about. Actually I can tell you about some things I know about. There’s the issue if you raise everyone to a living wage, if you raise everyone to $14.80 or whatever it is approximately now because it’s about to change, then what about the people already making $14.80? They’d have to have their salaries raised too so we did a study on the effects of that. There’s some other factors as well. There are state and federal positions where people work in this county, and they’re paid by the state government or the federal government and we can’t change that salary, so what’s going to happen to that person who, or maybe we can change their salary I don’t know–what’s going to happen that person who spends 10 hours a week working in Tompkins County and and gets paid $14.80 and spends 20 hours a week doing the same exact same job in Cortland county and they only make $12.50? There’s an issue there.
What qualities do you think you have as someone pursuing a local government job, that make you qualified, make you good at what you do?
I think I’m a good communicator. It goes both ways, good listener, and I’m good at sharing information and summarizing information in kind of clear, precise ways and spreading that information around. I write a monthly column for the community newsletters that are part of my towns, part of my district. I try not to put a lot of ego into it. For anyone that goes to or watches the Legislature meetings, you’ll see that a number of legislators make speeches a lot and have a lot to say about everything. I am not one of those people. I speak up when I need to and try to keep it short, and concise and clear, but I don’t really feel like that’s my role to make my imprint on the Legislature. I’m helping to move things along.
I view my role as a caretaker of that legislative seat, not the owner of that seat so I don’t get to decide what’s the legislature, or what Tompkins County government is. I get to be a little part of the process of deciding what’s going to happen, and how things proceed. Another quality I think I have, that was your question right? Maybe in a similar vein I’m willing to weigh in on the big things, I pay attention to the big things, but what’s more important to me, what I feel like I’m particularly good at that some others aren’t, is the little things. Because the little things matter a lot. You get up there and give a speech and it doesn’t actually do anything, but if you are actually the one that formulate policy of how we’re going to operate the detox center, just as an example. Or…whatever to get into the details matters, and on even smaller levels, things that aren’t flashy at all, the county currently does not accept credit cards for payment. There’s some reasons for that, it’s not just pure stupidity or whatever. However, there’s also a lot of ways to solve the issues that are stopping us from doing that. I’m working on that. It’s not going to make the headlines, but it matters to people’s quality of life, especially someone in your generation. You probably don’t carry cash and a lot of people don’t have a checking account, so you go to pay your taxes and you’re like what do you mean you don’t accept credit cards that’s a foreign concept for a lot of people and a lot of the legislators are of a different generation and don’t even get that. So I’m trying to move that forward as one example of a small thing that interests me, or that I feel is important and we got to work on it.