Niskayuna candidates square off with a few fireworks

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Kristin Schultz

Daily Gazette

Candidates for Niskayuna Town Board and supervisor and their parties have been trading political shots through the mail and social media all week. On Thursday, they faced the public in a Meet the Candidate forum hosted by the American Association of University Women and League of Women Voters of Schenectady County.

There were not enough chairs in the Niskayuna Town Board Room to accommodate the more than 100 residents, candidates and political party bosses that showed up to hear the candidates answer audience-generated questions.

The event kicked off with candidates for county Legislature, but the audience seemed most eager to hear from candidates for town office.

Town supervisor candidates Joe Landry, the Democratic incumbent, Republican challenger Yasmine Syed and Green Party candidate Elmer Bertsch took the dais after the county candidates were finished.

Bertsch talked about his family and the values of the Green Party. Landry listed his accomplishments, saying he valued being fiscally responsible and improving the quality of life for Niskayuna residents. Syed gave a brief biography of herself and emphasized the need for smart-growth policies, supporting police and fostering an environment of respect in Town Hall.

The candidates responded to a question about perceived nepotism and the need for ethics reform in the hiring and appointing practices at Town Hall.

Landry responded by saying there is an ethics law that is compliant with state requirements. He said they struggle to get people on committees sometimes.

Syed said that family members should not be employed by the town and that “we do not become elected so that we can do favors for our family.”

The three had an opportunity to lay out their priorities. Landry wanted to keep programs and services and maintain the bond rating. Syed prioritized getting a fair share of county taxes, rebuilding infrastructure, protecting residents and changing the work environment at town hall.

Flier controversy

The four candidates for Town Board were up next. The discussion got heated when the issue of an inflamatory political flier came up. The flier was mailed by the Niskayuna Democratic Committee and asserted that the Republican candidates endorsed national, extreme, right-wing media figures.

The questioner wanted to know if the mailer was fact-checked and if the candidates approved of the flier.

When asked if the candidates approve political material, Republican Thomas McGarry said he did and said he would ask to be taken off the ballot if he was forced to approve a flier such as the one that was sent out. His comments were met with audience applause.

Democrat Denise Murphy McGraw responded by saying she is concerned about the hate speech that is online. She pointed out that her campaign material had a positive message. She neither endorsed nor condemned the mailing.

Republican Anthony Simone called the piece “unacceptable,” adding “That’s not Niskayuna. Run on your record and let the people vote.”

Democrat John Della Ratta became animated, holding up one of the mailers. He said the piece was fact-checked and the facts are “very disturbing.” He said the Republicans are endorsing the views of figures like Alex Jones, Stephen Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh and that candidates should be aware of what their political party is posting to Facebook even if the posts were put up before the candidates decided to run.

“That’s the most he’s talked in four years,” an audience member quipped quietly about the incumbent.

When asked if candidates thought there was a conflict of interest if an town elected official also drew a paycheck from the county, Della Ratta said there could be but he doesn’t see any conflict in Niskayuna, adding he thinks the town is well run and Landry does a good job dealing with employees.

McGarry said he didn’t think there was a problem but is concerned about nepotism. Murphy McGraw said she had not seen any conflict of interest in Town Hall. Simone was the outlier, answering that, yes, an elected official for the town should not also work for the county.

Landry is an elected official and is also an attorney for the county Legislature and the Democratic County Chairman.

Legislature candidates

The first 45 minutes of the forum featured six of the nine candidates for County Legislature. Residents asked the candidates to compare Schenectady County and its services and programs to Saratoga County’s.

Democrat Rory Fluman pointed to Schenectady County’s efficient library system but cautioned that in many ways, the two counties could not be compared due to differences in demographics and size.

Democrat Cathy Gatta echoed Fluman’s sentiments and highlighted things Schenectady County has that Saratoga does not, including a large, successful community college.

Green Party candidate Peter Looker spoke about his party’s four pillars: nonviolence, grassroots democracy, social and economic justice, and ecological wisdom.

Republican candidates Kevin Mathes, Loretta Rigney and Kurt Semon all emphasized the importance of making sure municipalities receive their fair share of county sales tax, working together and fiscal responsibility.

Audience reaction

Attendees mingled with each other and with the candidates after the forum. Some commented that they would have liked to see  more extensive questioning, with one resident saying the questions asked were just the “tip of the iceberg.” Another resident said she would have liked to see a wider variety of concerns addressed.

Election Day is Nov. 7. Niskayuna residents will vote for three county legislators, two Town Board members and town supervisor.