Musical chairs

To courthouse denizens, the precipitate flight of assistant district attorneys during Ulster DA Dave Clegg’s first 18 months in office was hardly news. Plans were underway for a revolving door at 1818 on Wall Street. Now, it’s gone public and people have to be worried.

How bad is it? Well, there are about 20 assistant DA’s, one roughly for each town and the city, with a few for administration. As of this date, eleven have quit (or been eased out), including most notably Katheryn Van Loan, a 22-year prosecutor and chief assistant under former district attorney Holley Carnright and Clegg. This is like Eisenhower losing Patton, only Clegg ain’t Ike.  

Van Loan, quietly departing with the obligatory thanks and regrets, was quickly replaced by former chief assistant Emanuel Nidjii. For the rest of this depleted roster, the line forms at the right.

The buck stops with the boss, but can we blame Clegg? Some do.

Clegg, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 by a mere 78 votes (out of 52,596 cast) over then first assistant DA Mike Kavanagh, a Republican. The race came down to Kavanagh’s experience as a career prosecutor over Clegg’s background as a civil litigator.  Heavily outspent, suffering a near 2-1 enrollment disadvantage and bucking a blue wave, the miracle is that Kavanagh got even within hailing distance.

But that was then and now we seem to have a criminal justice system in crisis, even as bad moons rise.

For sure, Clegg was handed some crummy cards. But Clegg inherited an experienced, talented staff led by the highly regarded Van Loan. Understandably, a transition between one political administration and another is never smooth, especially with the contrasts in philosophy demonstrated by the candidates. COVID is blamed for many a lapse; in this case, it’s valid but hardly sufficient.

Clegg is a sharp lawyer and a true humanitarian with empathy for victims and the accused seldom demonstrated by generations of “law and order” Republican administrations. Unlike some district attorneys around the country backed by progressives, Clegg has not veered sharp left to appease his base.

Nonetheless, the district attorney remains the chief law enforcement officer in this county. Quite literally, his office represents “the people.”

Clegg has had more than enough time to retain and recruit staff. He needs to get his act together. Fast.

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Time to downsize? – Ulster legislature leaders have been talking about reducing the size of its 23-member legislature for years, deferring, they said, until the 2020 census is out. In fact, you can’t do one without the other.

But now, the Dutchess legislature is doing something about it. Dutchess is expected to send to the voters in November a proposal to downsize its governing body from 25 to 21. It’s a start: 18 would have been better.

Dutchess has been all over the map on this one. Under a charter that established a county executive form of government in 1968, the legislature was limited to just 15 under the logic that with a full-time executive, the county didn’t need as many legislators. Four years later, voters approved a 37-member legislature, reduced to the current 25 in 1997.

Ulster took a somewhat different path. Fully constituted in 1879 with the creation of the town of Ulster, the county board consisted of 33 supervisors, 20 from the towns and 13 from the city. A 1967 reapportionment created a body of 33 legislators running at-large within districts. The “county executive” charter, approved by voters in 2006, reduced that number at 23.

Downsizing the legislature requires a public vote for which deadlines for submission to the board of elections for November ballot inclusion are rapidly approaching. Dutchess is on pace; “Not much” has been heard on Ulster.

The time would seem ripe. Seven incumbent legislators will not seek reelection this year, while six others face no opposition. Not to put too fine a point on this, but a district that can’t produce two viable candidates for the legislature probably shouldn’t have any at all. Better few legislators with a larger pool of potential candidates than what we have now.

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Inside the numbers – A while back the county executive happily announced a new multi-year contract with the 900-member CSEA, the county’s largest union. Announced terms averaged about 3.5 percent a year, retroactive to January.

Inquiries as to the actual financial impact of this contract, sure to be approved by the legislature when it meets in regular session next week, were ignored.

There’s something else they’re not talking about, according to sources in the county supervisors and mayor’s association: Some members of the highway department, chronically underpaid, were granted “catch-up raises” of upwards of 20 percent. When challenged, county negotiators allegedly spoke to a shortage of manpower – the department was decimated by staffing cuts and retirements over the last decade. Good help, they say, is hard to find these days.

The problem, say supervisors, is negotiations do not take place in a vacuum and if one government body offers what are seen as overly generous terms, others will clamor for more.

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