hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2019



Area cities left off list of early polling sites


New York voters were able to cast ballots early for the first time this fall, but the list of early voting sites left out several of the region’s urban centers.

In Rensselaer County, election officials set up two early voting sites, in the suburban towns of Brunswick and Schodack. But the Republican-controlled County Legislature refused requests to set up a location in the city of Troy, which is home to roughly one-third of the county’s population.
Saratoga County established three early voting locations – at the county government center in Ballston Spa and in the suburban towns of Clifton Park and Wilton – but left out the cities of Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville.

And Warren County set up only one early voting site, at the county government center in Queensbury, two exits up the Northway from the county’s urban hub, the city of Glens Falls.
The choice of locations for early balloting has been particularly controversial in Rensselaer County, where the New York Civil Liberties Union and several local organizations criticized the decision not to have a site in Troy. Advocates point out that the city, besides being the county’s most populous community, has a disproportionate number of low-income, minority and college student voters – all groups that are more likely to face challenges in getting to the polls on Election Day.

Another criticism is that the county’s two early voting locations – at the town offices in Schodack and Brunswick – are difficult or impossible to reach for Troy voters who can’t drive or don’t own cars. The Brunswick site is a couple miles past the end of a bus route from Troy, and the Schodack site would require taking a bus from Troy to Albany and then another bus to Schodack.
The Times Union of Albany reported that the County Legislature acted three times in recent months to block proposals to set up an early voting site in Troy.

“To some people it certainly feels like discrimination,” County Legislature Minority Leader Peter Grimm, D-Troy, told the paper.

Most recently, Democrats and Republicans on the Troy City Council unanimously backed an offer to have the city pay the estimated $15,000 cost of establishing an early voting location in the Troy’s North Central neighborhood, a comparatively poor area with a substantial minority population. But the Republican majority in the County Legislature rejected the idea in late September.

Republican Legislator Tom Grant of East Greenbush dismissed the Troy City Council’s proposal as a case of Democrats “trying to use public monies to buy polling places in their districts.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union also has raised questions about Saratoga County’s choice of early voting sites, particularly the omission of Saratoga Springs, which has a large student population. County elections officials have said they selected the three early voting sites in an effort to achieve geographic balance.

By late October, the two state legislators who represent Troy – Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem, and Assemblyman John T. MacDonald III, D-Cohoes -- announced a proposal to amend the state’s early voting law to require an early voting site in each county’s most populous community. Their amendment also would require that the site be accessible by public transportation.
If passed, their proposal would effectively require an early voting site in Troy. But it wouldn’t guarantee one for Saratoga Springs, which is not as populous as Clifton Park, nor for Glens Falls, which now has a smaller population than the surrounding suburban town of Queensbury.

In other news from around the region in October:


Keillor visit sparks controversy
The chairman of a nonprofit community group in the Berkshires has resigned after a wave of criticism over the group’s decision to host an appearance by Garrison Keillor, the author and former public radio personality whose career was upended by accusations of sexual misconduct.
The New Marlborough Village Association invited Keillor, the creator and host of the long-running radio shows “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Writer’s Almanac,” to an Oct. 5 event in its Music & More series at the Village Meetinghouse. The event, which attracted a sellout crowd of nearly 300, featured Keillor being interviewed by Sandisfield author Simon Winchester about his life and career, the #MeToo movement and the accusations that forced him off the air.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that in the days leading up to Keillor’s appearance, the association’s board members were flooded with calls and e-mails urging them to cancel the interview. Some of the messages accused the board of glorifying a celebrity accused of sexual misconduct.

An e-mail from a former town Select Board chairwoman, Michele Shalaby, for example, put it this way: “Unfortunately, men of ego, hubris and entitlement continue to behave in such ways while being elevated in business and society with little consequence. … Our current President Trump is an example. Garrison Keillor is another.”

The association’s board said it met for a “robust discussion” of whether to cancel the interview but decided to go ahead. Doing so, it said in a statement, “does not diminish the serious nature of the accusations made against Mr. Keillor.”

Minnesota Public Radio abruptly severed its ties to Keillor in late 2017 after receiving reports of what its chief executive later described as “dozens” of sexually inappropriate incidents, including unwanted touching and requests for sexual contact, involving a woman who worked for Keillor on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The woman has never been identified nor spoken publicly about the case. Keillor has acknowledged only a single incident in which he said he put his hand on the woman’s bare back and apologized when she recoiled.

In January 2018, a lengthy investigative report by MPR News, based on interviews with more than 60 of Keillor’s former colleagues, described “a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled.” But the report also found many female collaborators who expressed admiration and respect and “were baffled by the notion that Keillor, whose social awkwardness is legendary, could have crossed professional bounds with women.”

The Eagle reported that Keillor, 77, was warmly received by the crowd in New Marlborough, and by Winchester, who was “clearly moved to be in the presence of that voice that caused him to fill his study with even more books after learning of this or that poet from Keillor’s ‘Writer’s Almanac’ recitations.”

In his discussion with Winchester, Keillor called the allegations that ended his association with public radio a case of “injustice on behalf of a good cause” and claimed that MPR “panicked” in the face of what he described as an effort by another person – not the woman he was accused of harassing -- to extort $1 million from the network.

Less than a week after the event, the chairman of the New Marlborough Village Association, John Schreiber, announced his resignation, though he said he will remain a volunteer for the organization.

“I felt that I was maybe not aligned with having us be part of a divisive national debate,” Schreiber, a physician, told the Eagle.


Train line’s future in doubt
The future of a scenic railroad line from Saratoga Springs into the Adirondacks is unclear after the only remaining company seeking to operate the line withdrew from negotiations with Warren County, which own the tracks on most of the route.

The county has been struggling for more than a year to find a new operator for tourist trains on the scenic line, which follows the upper Hudson River for much of its 57-mile run from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. A previous operator, Iowa Pacific Holdings, carried tens of thousands of riders annually on the route from 2011 until it abruptly abandoned the service amid financial problems in early 2018.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that United Rail of Nevada, the only remaining bidder of four that had expressed interest in operating the line last year, notified the county Oct. 31 that it was withdrawing its bid for a lease-to-own deal to operate the county-owed portion of the line, from Hadley to North Creek.

But the company’s executive vice president told the newspaper that United Rail is still negotiating with the town of Corinth to operate the portion of the line that lies within Saratoga County.
The breakdown in negotiations with Warren County could strengthen the hand of some county supervisors who have suggested abandoning the railroad line, tearing up the tracks and converting the route into a recreational trail. County Administrator Ryan Moore suggested the county would now move toward that goal.


“I feel confident that over the past year and a half we fully explored the freight option and the passenger option,” Moore told the paper. “We tried very hard to make these options work, but the challenges proved to be too great. It appears that recreational use is the best future use of this asset, and we would like to work with our neighbors to make that happen.”

Iowa Pacific, which operated tourist trains on the line from 2011-18 through a subsidiary, Saratoga & North Creek Railway, had talked optimistically about developing freight business on the line but had little success. Its passenger trains, which featured white-tablecloth dining service and vista-dome cars for scenic viewing, drew enthusiastic reviews from travelers. The company paid to maintain the tracks and also paid the county a fee of nearly $82,000 per year for use of the line.

In an effort to supplement revenue from the tourist trains, Iowa Pacific began storing empty tank cars on unused tracks at the north end of the line in 2017, setting off a storm of criticism from environmental groups in the Adirondacks. The company’s president announced he would abandon its local operations after Warren County supervisors passed a resolution condemning the tank car storage.


-- Compiled by Fred Daley