Montgomery County

Former DPW chief tapped as Montgomery County Legislature chairman

Montgomery County District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek was elected to serve as county Legislature cha
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Montgomery County District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek was elected to serve as county Legislature chairman for 2016 at a reorganizational meeting Jan. 1.

The Democrat and former county Department of Public Works supervisor was elected to the post by a vote of 7-2, with legislators Ryan Weitz and Barbara Wheeler voting against. He replaces District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly.

Weitz had nominated Wheeler, who has served as deputy supervisor for the past two years, to serve as chairwoman. Wheeler is one of two Republican legislators on the nine-member board. Weitz is a Libertarian.

Bieniek said Monday he was “pleased” and “humbled” to be chosen as chairman, and looked forward to a year of solidifying the county’s transition from a board of supervisors to a Legislature and county executive, which was begun two years ago.

“What I would like to do is kind of look back at the last two years and finish up on everything during this year, and tidy everything up,” he said.

The annual salary of the chairman is $15,000.

District 6 Legislator John M. Duchessi was elected deputy chairman.

Bieniek, now retired, formerly served as a town of Amsterdam councilman for about seven years and served 28 years as the county’s DPW head.

Weitz said during the meeting, and reiterated Monday, that he was concerned with Bieniek’s hands-on approach to managing county departments.

“We’ve had two chairmen that understood that this new form of government was an opportunity to set a tone of collaboration to set a tone of more efficient, transparent government at the county level,” he said. “We really had two good years that we were moving forward. I can’t tell you for sure if that’s going to continue for a third year because what I’ve observed over the last two years is Legislator Bieniek has consistently butted heads with the county executive over, I’m going to say, petty things.”

He also said Bieniek has overstepped his bounds as a legislator by intervening in administration, which should be the job of the executive.

On the other hand, he said Wheeler has been a “selfless” and hardworking legislator who deserved the post. Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Bieniek defended his forays into departmental administration, saying it’s the Legislature’s job to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent appropriately.

“I understand that we have a county executive that does day-to-day operations, but we are the financiers for the county and we’re there for the taxpayers of Montgomery County to make sure the money is being spent officially and wisely,” he said. “And if it isn’t, then we’ll be questioning those things.”

Bieniek met Monday morning with County Executive Matt Ossenfort in a meeting Ossenfort said he hopes will set the tone for the coming year.

“With Chairman Bieniek, we’ve had some disagreements, certainly, in the last couple years, but after our discussion this morning, I’m optimistic and hopeful that we’re going to have a positive working relationship this year just like I’ve had with the previous two chairmen,” he said.

Both he and Bieniek said county charter revisions are likely to come up this year as the Legislature continues to iron out the wrinkles from the transition.

Bieniek also said he expects the Legislature to support the town of Mohawk in its bid for lead agency in an environmental review for an annexation petition that would pave the way for a Fulton-Montgomery counties regional business park.

He also hopes to be able to get Mohawk and the city of Johnstown back to the table to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal for the annexation after negotiations broke down in November.

Ossenfort said the county will be moving into the third phase of its county offices consolidation plan, which involves rehabilitating the county office building on Broadway in the village of Fonda in order to discontinue use of the county annex building, which he called “the definition of a money pit.”

“My message to the Legislature has been, ‘Let’s do something about these buildings in a planned, proactive way rather than just putting out fires as they come, because that’s no way to run an organization,’ ” he said. “And for the first two years, they’ve been very supportive of that. I’m hopeful that’s going to continue.”

Just last week, he said, a boiler failure in the county’s old courthouse in Fonda forced about 20 employees into temporary workspaces in other buildings. That should be remedied by Wednesday, he said.

He also named projects like the regional business park and foreclosing on the former Beech-Nut plant in Canajoharie as priorities for economic development in 2016, as well as crafting a budget that lessens the county’s reliance on reserve funds.

Despite their disagreements at the reorganizational meeting, both Bieniek and Weitz were confident that their differences would be set aside when it comes time to work.

“There’s always some people who feel somebody else should’ve gotten it,” Bieniek said. “But I think we’re a good board. I highly respect everybody on the board and I think we’ll just move on and start doing county business.”

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