A Catskill Catalog: October 26, 2011

The town supervisor is the top office-holder in any, and all, of New York State’s 932 towns. The supervisor holds a similar position to that of mayor in any the state’s 62 cities and 555 villages. Each is an elected chief executive officer, head honcho of a municipal government.

With so many seemingly overlapping layers of government, it can be, sometimes, confusing to sort out who’s who and what’s what. Town, village, hamlet, huh?

Around here, we’ve got a number of towns, a couple of villages, and a whole bunch of hamlets.
When I lived in New Kingston, Frank Russell, “the professor,” was generally considered the unofficial mayor of the place, holder of the old stories, welcoming host of the hamlet. But Uncle Frank held no office.

That’s because there’s no office to hold. Incorporated villages, like Fleischmanns and Margaretville, are municipal entities, governed by elected village boards, headed by an elected mayor. Hamlets aren’t.

Hamlets, like New Kingston, are unincorporated clusters of homes, stores, churches, and shops, with history and identity, but no government, no official boundaries, no legal standing whatsoever. Arkville and Allaben, Kelly Corners and Clovesville, Halcottsville and Pine Hill: neat places, but not governing authorities.

The governing authority is the town. Delaware County is comprised of 19 towns. Ulster County has 20; Greene County 14.

The Town of Middletown is older than Delaware County. Founded in 1789 as part of Ulster County, Middletown was, at its founding, literally in the middle of settled New York. The Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna river valleys were the three prongs of settlement, and Middletown straddled the Delaware, the middle valley.

Middletown was formed out of parts of the towns of Woodstock and Rochester. At its beginning, the town contained all the lands that today comprise the towns of Roxbury, Andes, Bovina, Colchester and Hancock. Original Middletown reached into parts of today’s towns of Stamford, Delhi and Walton to the west, parts of Shandaken to the east. Indeed, Middletown, first town in the western mountain region, is the mother of towns.

The first supervisor of Middletown was Charles Tay, elected upon the town’s founding in 1789. Orson Allaben, founder of Margaretville, and Matthew Halcott, first postmaster in Halcottsville, both served several terms as town supervisor.

Traditionally, the supervisor represented the town at the county level, attending regular meetings, in the county seat, of the board of supervisors. Thus, the town chief executive was also a member of the county legislative body: the board of supervisors makes county law by majority vote.
That was fine, as long as you didn’t think about it too much. If you did, you’d soon realize that a town with a population of 700 (like Bovina) would have the same single vote on county issues as a town with a population of 5,500 (like Walton.)

The Supreme Court of the United States began to think a lot about that problem, in the 1950s and ’60s, and their 1964 ruling in Reynolds v. Sims mandated that legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population.

It was up to the localities to find a remedy for any representative disparities.

Ulster County established a county legislature, a few years ago, removing from that county’s town supervisors all county-level responsibilities. When a voter in Shandaken votes for town supervisor, she votes for a chief executive officer with one vote on the five-member, local policy-making town board. Representation at the county level is someone else’s job.

Greene County has also created a county legislature. Voters in Halcott share a county legislator with voters in the towns of Lexington and Hunter.

Leaders in Delaware County have chosen to maintain the close-to-home representation of having each of the county’s far-flung towns represented in Delhi. They do it through weighted voting.
Delaware County town supervisors continue to represent their towns at the county level, continue to serve on the 19-member county-policy-making board of supervisors. They just get more or fewer votes, each, based on the population of the town they represent.

Middletown is Delaware County’s fourth most populous town, behind Sidney, Walton and Delhi. Middletown’s town supervisor casts 405 votes every time the board of supervisors acts, about eight-and-one-half percent of the 4,806 total votes on the board. Roxbury has 251 votes; Andes 136.
Every town represented. Every vote proportional to the population each supervisor represents. That’s weighted voting.

A Delaware County supervisor’s double duty - town executive and county legislator – used to be matched with double duty for town justices, as well. Up to a couple of decades ago, the local justice-of-the-peace also sat on the town board. Reform in state municipal law replaced them with two additional town council members.
- H. William Birns