SARATOGA COUNTY — The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors broke with decades of tradition on Wednesday, with a group of supervisors representing the largest-population towns using their voting power to elect one of their own as board chairman over the heir-apparent.
Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz was elected over Greenfield Supervisor Dan Pemrick by the faction. Pemrick was board vice chairman in 2020 and by tradition would have been elected the chairman for 2021.
As one of his first acts, Kusnierz proposed, and the same faction of supervisors then approved, the replacement of County Administrator Spencer Hellwig, a 33-year county employee, with Steven Bulger of Clifton Park, effective Jan. 11.
The resolutions both generally had 10 supervisors voting in favor of Kusnierz and Bulger, and 13 supervisors either opposed or abstaining. But the county’s population-weighted voting system means the supervisors from Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Malta, Saratoga Springs, Wilton and Moreau have the power to outvote the others. On Wednesday, those supervisors were joined by Ballston Supervisor Eric Connolly and new Charlton Supervisor Joe Grasso.
The supervisors who supported Pemrick and Hellwig generally represent smaller-population towns, though they include Milton Supervisor Benny Zlotnick, whose town has more than 18,000 residents, and therefore that many weighted votes.
The hard feelings between the large towns and others has been growing over the last nine months, as the large towns began voting together on a series of issues related to Hellwig’s status and economic development planning.
“The selection of Supervisor Kusnierz as board chairman would be a travesty for the residents and taxpayers of the the county, the abandoning of 50 years of tradition on how we have selected our chairman,” Waterford Supervisor John Lawler said before the vote. “What we have here is an unabashed power play.”
Bulger has been involved in Republican politics for decades, and is a former chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee and was district director to then-U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson when Gibson, now president of Siena College, was serving in Congress. Bulger is currently the regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, a job he would potentially lose with the end of the Trump administration.
Kusnierz has been among the harshest critics of Hellwig, the county administrator since 2011. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, the county briefly promised to pay county employees physically reporting to work time-and-a-half wages. Kusnierz and some other supervisors accused Hellwig of overstepping his authority during that decision-making, though Hellwig denied any wrongdoing.
The supervisors last summer commissioned an outside law firm to conduct an investigation that found Hellwig didn’t do anything illegal. A board committee has been considering whether any disciplinary action would be appropriate, and hadn’t yet completed its work.
During the meeting, held in Ballston Spa with some supervisors participating by telephone, Lawler pushed for answers on how Bulger was selected as the new county administrator, without getting any answers.
“Has no one here have the courage to stand up and say you are firing a 33-year county employee?” Lawler asked. “Who did the interviews for a replacement? Were there any other candidates? I’m guessing not?”
“You said you’re open and transparent, but you’re getting off on the wrong foot, Todd,” said Providence Supervisor Sandra Whinney. “I think the small towns are going to get hurt in this whole thing.”
The county administrator is the most important position in county management, overseeing day-to-day operations of the county. Bulger will be paid $156,089.
While Lawler said he had nothing against Bulger, he continued: “The fact Mr. Bulger is the former chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee is terrible optics for this board.”
Hellwig has retained a law firm to represent him in any disciplinary action, but it isn’t clear whether he has any recourse for being replaced, since the county administrator serves “at the pleasure of the board.”
During the debate before Kusnierz was selected as board chairman, Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett spoke in favor of Kusnierz’ appointment. “There isn’t anyone on this Board of Supervisors more ready to be chairman based on experience, knowledge and skill set,” he said.
Kusnierz was elected Moreau town supervisor three years ago, having previously served on the Town Board. He has also worked in staff positions for the New York State Senate, including time with Sen. Joe Bruno, the legendary Republican Senate majority leader who left office in 2006 and died last October.
In a 10-minute opening address to the board, Kusnierz said he wants to make improving the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic his top priority.
“All department heads and staff will be directed to make responding to COVID their top priority,” he said. “Our highest priority will be on vaccine distribution throughout the county.”
He said he also wants to see the county increase its testing and contact-tracing efforts, provide aid to residents like waiving of late fees on tax bills, increase funding for mental health services to help mental health needs during the pandemic, and increase communication with the public.
“At a minimum, we will hold weekly press conferences using the latest technology to update our residents,” Kusnierz said.
While officials in some counties, including Albany and Rensselaer, have held frequent press conferences or offered almost daily updates, Saratoga County has held very few such events, and they generally haven’t involved top county leadership.