ENFIELD, N.Y. –– Term limits for some government officials in Enfield may be extended come 2022 as the Enfield Town Board moves forward with a referendum doubling office tenures for several local positions.
In a July meeting, officials approved a ballot question extending term limits for Town Supervisor, Highway Superintendent and Town Clerk from two to four years, for the upcoming November general election. The decision to include the measure came during a meeting that sparked heated debate about voter participation and local government accountability in Enfield at the end of July. The Enfield town government has faced much scrutiny in recent months, especially after an independent report called out personal rivalries, gridlock and pettiness amongst officials.
Proposals for each of the three term extensions, known as the first through third local laws of 2021, were voted on separately and all present Town Board members voted to pass them. The public will vote on them in Enfield’s general election, which will take place on Tuesday, November 2, and if the laws are passed, they will take effect for the following election.
Two board members were absent from the July 28 meeting –– Victoria Bruant and James Ricks. A quorum was obtained which included Supervisor Stephanie Redmond, Councilperson Robert Lynch and Councilperson Jude Lemke, as well as Town Clerk Mary Cornell.
Lynch said he wished Ricks and Bryant had been present to vote on the laws, but Redmond and Lemke said Bryant had told them she would like to see the local laws on the ballot.
Marcus Gingerich, a member of the public, spoke to the Town Board via Zoom, and was the only member of the public to speak at the meeting. Gingerich said that he could understand both sides of the issue, with four-year terms allowing supervisors to more easily become accustomed to their jobs, and two-year terms making it easier to vote an incompetent supervisor out of office, since he did not know of any way to remove a supervisor from office short of their being found guilty of illegal activity.
“The safe bet is remaining with the two-year term, but there’s definitely something attractive about a four-year term for quite frankly, all these positions,” Gingerich said. “I’m not sure I really come down on one side of the fence or the other, I guess I would tend to lean more toward the two-year just for you might say safety’s sake.”
While two-year terms would require the incumbents to run twice as often, Gingerich said that getting re-elected would not require as much effort for the incumbent as getting elected in the first place.
Lynch echoed Gingerich’s concerns, making an analogy that just as most people working in the private sector get annual performance reviews at their jobs, elected officials should similarly be held accountable by the voters.
“If you get a bad supervisor, then you’re stuck with that person for four long years,” Lynch said, echoing Gingerich’s concerns about increasing term durations.
Lynch read the Board a letter he received from Ellen Woods, former Town Clerk, who was unable to attend the meeting, and was the only other person outside the Town Board to express her views on the proposed local laws. The letter, addressed to the Town Board, objected to the proposed local laws and listed several arguments against them.
“If state law did not demand that the Board give voters a choice,” Woods wrote, “these laws would clearly be passed tonight by some Board members without hesitation or fanfare.”
In response, Lemke interjected to clarify that the meeting was not to vote the term extensions into law, but to decide whether to put them before the voters, who would make the final decision, something Lynch said that Woods likely already knew. Nevertheless, Woods’ letter argued that the resolutions’ language implying that the Town Board has already heard from the public shows that public feedback meant nothing to Enfield’s town government.
“Even though we, the engaged citizens in our town, know deep down that public hearings are a farce,” Woods wrote, “it feels cruel for that to be transparent.”
After hearing Woods’ letter, Redmond mentioned the controversy regarding proposed laws to make the town clerk and highway superintendent appointed positions, and pointed out that the Town Board does not have the power to vote those changes into law by themselves. She mentioned that the public ultimately voted to reject that law.
Lynch proposed modifications to the laws’s language and correcting the date for the public hearings, which had been July 14 in the original version. The Board unanimously voted to accept his changes to each local law before voting on them.
In the end, Lynch voted in favor of the local laws, along with Redmond and Lemke, in deference to Bryant’s wishes. He said it was important to run local government civilly, reminding those present of the independent report that criticized Enfield’s Town Council for infighting.
With the Town Board’s approval, the voters have the final say in determining whether the terms of office stay at two years or double. Redmond contended that residents had many opportunities to make their voices heard regarding these proposed local laws, with town halls and other meetings in addition to the public hearing, and that she believed residents will express their support or opposition when they vote on it in November.
“We’re not deciding whether these are two years or four years tonight,” Redmond said. “We’re saying there are pros and cons to each of them. What we’re deciding is to put it on the ballot and let the voters decide.”
Lynch added that even if the proposed local laws’ fates lie in the voters’ hands, he would rather not see them pass if not many people are demanding increased term limits. He expressed his concerns that with only two people commenting on the local laws and poor voter turnout, the final result may not accurately reflect what Enfield residents truly want.
“Democracy only works when you show up,” he said.
Copies of the local laws are available on the Enfield town website. Updated versions with the modified language Lynch requested will soon be available.