Local officials largely absent when U.S. senators visit Orleans

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 October 2014 at 12:00 am


Photo by Tom Rivers – U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand addresses the media on Monday during a stop at the Iroquois Job Corps Center in Medina.

Kirsten Gillibrand was in Orleans County on Monday morning, visiting the Iroquois Job Corps Center, a program that she said teaches at-risk youth valuable skills and prepares them for the workforce.

Gillibrand is one of 100 U.S. senators. She is a powerful government official. Often when the Congressman comes to town, or even the local assemblyman or state senator for an event, you’ll see other local officials – a mayor, town supervisor or county legislator.

These events give the local officials a chance to speak, even if only for a minute, about a pressing local issue. When Gillibrand came to the Job Corps, there wasn’t a local elected official there to greet her or to press a cause except for Skip Draper, the Shelby town supervisor. He happens to work at the Job Corps.

Gabrielle Barone, vice president of business development for the Orleans Economic Development Agency, is on the Job Corps advisory board. She heard about Gillibrand’s visit and stopped by. She spoke with a Gillibrand aide about some local development projects in the county.

I wondered where the local officials were. I don’t recall seeing any when Gillibrand came to town last Nov. 25 to visit the community kitchen at the Eastern Orleans Community Center in Holley.

I asked County Legislature Chairman David Callard about the lack of local presence at the Gillibrand visits. He said he didn’t know about it until after the fact.

“There was no notice,” he said. “Much of what they do is last minute.”

Callard said most of seven legislators have other jobs and commitments that make it difficult to juggle their schedule at the last second.

He has attended many of Sen. Charles Schumer’s events. Schumer tries to visit each of the 62 counties in the state at least once a year since he took office in January 1999. In one visit to Albion, he met with county officials in the Legislature Chambers. Callard said that may have been unprecedented. It was definitely appreciated.

“In my book he’s extraordinary,” Callard said about Schumer.

Photo by Tom Rivers – Sen. Charles Schumer speaks in front of the former Diaz Chemical on Aug. 14. He is joined by from left: Holley Mayor John Kenney, Village Trustee Kevin Lynch, Village Trustee Skip Carpenter, and county legislators John DeFillipps and Ken DeRoller.

Schumer’s office tries to give the local communities a few days advance notice of when he will be in town. He was at Holley on Aug. 14 and village officials and two legislators were there when he visited to talk about Diaz Chemical and the need for more federal funding to finish cleanup of the site.

But even that lineup of local officials seemed kind of light. I’d like to see more local officials, including the state assemblyman and state senator, when the U.S. senator comes to town. I don’t recall seeing State Assemblyman Steve Hawley or State Sen. George Maziarz at a Schumer appearance. I often see them with Congressman Chris Collins when he stops by.

Gillibrand’s office sent out an advisory on Friday to media members that she would be in town on Monday. I don’t want to fault her for not getting the word out, if that’s the case.

The local officials should talk with her staff and the county leaders should have a “response team” of county, town and village leaders that can spring into action on short notice. It would be good to have the local state legislators appear at the some of these events with the U.S. senators.

We shouldn’t take for granted that the U.S. senators will be frequent visitors around here. Callard noted that Schumer’s predecessor, Al D’Amato, rarely stopped by and even he didn’t give local officials much notice.

I wondered what Callard would have told Gillibrand if he was given a few minutes to press some issues. He said he would have noted the Oak Orchard Harbor was recently dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers for the first time in a decade. The harbor is critical to the county’s recreational and fishing industries, and Orleans officials anxiously waited for it to be dredged. Schumer used money for the Sandy cleanup to get the harbor dredged. Callard said the federal government needs to follow a systematic schedule for harbor maintenance.

He worries about a new plan for regulating Lake Ontario water levels. An international board is proposing the biggest change to the lake level regulations in a half century. Callard fears the southshore counties will see more erosion, lost backyards and property damage. He would have asked Gillibrand to fight for a plan that protects the southshore.

He would have pressed for Broadband Internet coverage in rural counties, such as Orleans. The county has many gaps and that puts residents and businesses at a disadvantage.

Callard also would have asked Gillibrand to press Congress about so-called “zombie houses,” homes that have been foreclosed on but sit in limbo with no clear owner. The properties often sit vacant for years, falling into disrepair and dragging down a neighborhood.

Callard would like to see legislation requiring banks to have banks at least assign a contact person to the vacant houses so they can’t just languish. In some cases, communities aren’t sure which bank owns a site because the mortgages often change hands.

If the sites could be resold and improved it would help villages, in particular, by boosting their assessments and population bases, Callard said.

I hope the next time Gillibrand or Schumer stops by, Callard makes his case to them personally.