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Foss: What does it mean to reside somewhere?

Foss: What does it mean to reside somewhere?

Foss: What does it mean to reside somewhere?
Assembly candidate Robert Smullen stands in the kitchen of his Johnstown home.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette photographer

When I met Robert J. Smullen, he gladly pointed out his ties to Fulton County. 

He was born at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville and graduated from Gloversville High School in 1986. His father still lives in Smullen's childhood home. 

"I want to tell people about me," Smullen, 49, said, while standing in the kitchen of his Johnstown home. "I have a great story about my family." 

It is a good story, about a native son returning home after a long and distinguished military career and running for state office in the district where he grew up.

There's only one problem with this story. 

In recent months, Smullen, a retired Marine Corps colonel who recently served as executive director of the Hudson River Black River Regulating District, has been dogged by accusations that he doesn't live in the 118th state Assembly District, where he is one of three candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination this fall. 

It's a strange turn of events for a candidate frequently described as a lifelong resident of Fulton County, and it seemed to catch Smullen and his team flat-footed. 

For me, it raised interesting questions about what it really means to reside somewhere. Smullen's ties to Fulton County are undeniable. But does he really live there?  

"Home is where your heart is," Smullen told me, when I asked him what, in his mind, it means to reside somewhere. "Without a doubt, my heart is here, in Fulton County." 

At issue is the fact that Smullen owns a home in Niskayuna, and that his children attend Niskayuna schools. His new member biography in the exclusive Fort Orange Club's January newsletter states that he and his wife have "four children and reside in Niskayuna." 

Another complicating fact: Until very recently, he received a primary-residence-only combat veteran property tax exemption for two properties -- his house at 2169 Appletree Lane in Niskayuna and his house at 265 State Highway 309 in Johnstown. 

After The Daily Gazette reported that Smullen had the combat veteran property tax exemption applied to two properties, he removed the exemption on the home in Niskayuna and paid the town, county and school district back about $4,437. 

Smullen has maintained that he made an innocent mistake, that he did not realize applying the combat veteran property tax exemption to more than one home is illegal, and that he simply answered in the affirmative when asked whether he qualified for the exemption, but the damage was done. 

"An ex-Marine of good standing would not have even considered deceiving the government that he swore to protect," an Esperance resident wrote to The Gazette, in a letter about Smullen's fitness for office. "This isn't a man of moral character who should be allowed to represent people in the 118th Assembly." 

After several conversations with the New York State Board of Elections, I came to the conclusion that Smullen likely meets the BOE's criteria for running for office, which include residing in the district on election day and the 12 months prior. 

There aren't a lot of hard-and-fast rules on what it means for a candidate to live in a district, other than that there be a "continuous element," according to John Conklin, a spokesman for the state BOE. 

He added, "There's no minimum number of days you're required to be there." Nor is a candidate's family required to live in a district, or his children required to attend school there.

Of course, there's a difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. 

Voters might well question where Smullen's heart is, given his ties to Schenectady County. 

Smullen, for his part, readily admits that his family lives in Niskayuna during the week. The explanation: One of his children has a learning disability, and the Niskayuna schools provide better educational services than the Johnstown school district.

Asked about the Fort Orange Club newsletter, Smullen said he did not provide the information printed in his biography, as I had assumed. "That did not come from me," he said, adding that whoever wrote it probably knew that his children went to school in Niskayuna. I reached out to the Fort Orange Club manager for comment, but received no response. 

Smullen retired from the military in 2015, after 24 years of service that included three combat deployments and a stint in Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He purchased the property where the Johnstown home is located in 2008, and built the Colonial-style house between 2016-2017. He estimates that he did about 30 percent of the work himself, using skills honed years ago,while working at a family masonry/construction business. 

"When there's no school, when there's holidays, my family is here," said Smullen, who serves on the Johnstown Board of Assessment. 

He said that the Johnstown home is his "dream home" -- the place where he currently lives and where he and his wife intend to retire. 

I don't doubt it. 

The house is beautiful, and clearly a labor of love. In addition to its design, which recalls a farmhouse circa 1750, the home is notable for its energy efficient features, such as solar panels on the roof and a Russian fireplace. 

Smullen is not a carpetbagger, and it would be unfair to characterize him as such. 

His military service took him all over the country and overseas, but he has always voted at the Meco fire house in Gloversville, where, he notes, his grandfather was a "founding chief." His ties to Fulton County run deep, and when he says that his heart is in Fulton County, I believe him. 

I also believe that the questions raised about his home in Niskayuna and the primary-residence-only combat veteran property tax exemption are worth taking into consideration before casting a ballot. 

As a candidate, Smullen's credentials are strong. 

But those strong credentials might not matter if he can't put questions about his residency to rest. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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