Waite: New Clifton Park council members must not be rubber stamps

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WEIGHING IN – Both new Clifton Park Town Board members admit they have a lot to learn.

Together, Agatha Reid, 34, and Christopher E. O’Hara, 66, have less than a year of political experience.

On a council like the one in Clifton Park, which represents a town of fewer than 40,000 residents and is supposed to deal primarily with concerns like plowing roads and assessing development, minimal political experience probably isn’t a huge detriment. In fact, fresh faces could represent a fresh start after politics recently turned more toxic than they ever should – especially for a place like Clifton Park.

But these new faces must be more than happy “Yes” votes in support of Town Supervisor Phil Barrett.

Not surprisingly, Barrett recoils at the suggestion that Reid and O’Hara, who were appointed Tuesday and will serve through the end of this year, could possibly be rubber stamps helping to greenlight his agenda.

Andrew Waite - Weighing InBarrett points to the new board members’ strong backgrounds. As Daily Gazette reporter Natasha Vaughn-Holdridge reported, Reid comes in with minimal political experience having served a few months on the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, which is a position appointed by the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors on which Barrett sits. Reid, daughter of renowned Capital Region chemist, researcher and entrepreneur Thomas D’Ambra, does have leadership experience running a family business, Trade Winds Farm in Rexford, where she oversees a staff of 10. She also has experience in professional horse riding on the national and international show jumping circuit.

Meanwhile, O’Hara has not touted any prior political experience. But he has a respectable pedigree, having served in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years. He retired as a colonel after being deployed to Iraq in 2010 for his last duty and worked for Leonard Bus Sales after retiring from the military. He became the corporate director of fixed operations and was responsible for approximately 75 employees and a number of other duties, Vaughn-Holdridge reported.

Political experience doesn’t have to be a prerequisite on a body like the Clifton Park Town Board.

However, a lack of political savvy could make the new members susceptible to influence.

And let’s be honest: no one is happier than Barrett to have these new board members, who are replacing his formal rivals. Barrett, who has headed the town for more than two decades, seems heavily invested in these new appointees. When Vaughn-Holdridge interviewed Reid and O’Hara at Town Hall, Barrett was in the room.

He told Vaughn-Holdridge: “I think it will be a short learning curve for both individuals and they will be part of us moving to a new and positive chapter on the Town Board.”

We’re all for a positive new chapter. No one wants the town to remain mired in controversy, with meetings bogged down by shouting matches and animosity.

Clifton Park meetings devolved into such disarray last year.

The two new board members are replacing Amy Standaert and Amy Flood, who resigned in November. Those resignations came after Daily Gazette reporting exposed Standaert’s alleged coordination with a now-former town employee. Together, Standaert and Information Specialist Matt Andrus exchanged emails and talked on the phone during business hours to develop narratives aimed at smearing Barrett. Those alleged actions amounted to an improper use of public resources.

One of the narratives advanced had to do with Barrett’s alleged behavior after testing positive for COVID-19 last January. The supervisor appeared at an outdoor test-kit distribution event after testing positive, though he said it was outside his quarantine window, and he remained at least 30 feet from all attendees. He also denies ever going into Town Hall after testing positive.

In another narrative, Barrett was accused of creating a toxic and abusive workplace inside Town Hall, but that claim was actually based, in part, on a police report filed by Andrus. No evidence has yet come to light linking Barrett to workplace hostility.

All of this made for a tumultuous year, and the scheming revealed just how ugly politics have become, even at the local level in a town run by one party. So everyone, especially Barrett, would welcome a much calmer 2023.

But residents shouldn’t confuse seamless meetings with perfectly functioning politics.

As new board members, Reid and O’Hara aren’t expected to come in with huge, sweeping agendas. But it’s critical they be active, thoughtful Town Board members who demonstrate the right amount of healthy skepticism.

On a town council, controversy can be crushing, but dissent is healthy.

With these two appointees, the board remains entirely Republican. That’s not necessarily a problem at the local level. Plus, as we’ve already seen, single-party rule offers no guarantee for any sort of unanimity. But going forward, residents – and reporters – must continue to watch the council closely to make sure members are embracing debate and thinking critically about all matters at hand.

Before resigning, Standaert fired a pretty strong shot at Barrett, claiming:

“Everyone is bamboozled by this man. Everyone thinks that he is fantastic, and they trust him because he has been around for so long. The man is evil,” Standaert said. “Phil Barrett is afraid of me. He is delusional, he is paranoid, and he thinks that I want to run against him in a primary. He knows that if anyone could beat him in an election, it would be me.”

While the words come off as a fairly desperate attempt by a local official losing her grip on her seat, we should keep these sentiments in the back of our minds.

If things become too frictionless in Clifton Park, half-baked ideas can slide through. And if fewer people pay close attention as meetings no longer offer fireworks, a united council that isn’t carefully monitored can wield tremendous power.

It’s unfair to say Clifton Park’s board is headed in this direction, and the new body deserves the benefit of the doubt. But let’s face it, after what we’ve already witnessed in Clifton Park, we know how low leaders can stoop in the town and how easily politics can become corrupt.

It’s a lesson we’ve already learned.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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