ENFIELD, N.Y. — The Enfield Town Board voted to put the proposed laws changing the elected offices of highway superintendent and town clerk into appointed positions on the November ballot amid Enfield residents’ disapproval of the changes.

In two public hearings held July 22, residents discussed the proposed changes to the highway superintendent and town clerk positions, which were initially introduced at the end of April. Following the hearings, Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey, Councilperson Stephanie Redmond and Town Supervisor Beth McGee voted in favor of putting the proposed laws to a public vote on the ballot. Councilperson Bob Lynch opposed the vote. Councilperson Virginia Bryant was not present at the meeting.

Current town clerk Ellen Woods began her tenure in January, and Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins has been in his position for over 10 years. Before the board formally decided to include these proposed laws on the ballot for the public to vote on in November 2020 during the general election, a public hearing was required. Now, residents will be able to vote on the change from elected to appointed in November.

Earlier in July, over 100 Enfield residents submitted a petition to the board asking for the right to vote on the next town supervisor and councilperson in the November 2020 general election rather than McGee appointing one should she resign, and that the positions of highway superintendent and town clerk remain elected positions.

Approximately 20 people spoke at the public hearings, the majority of whom expressed their desire to keep these positions as elected rather than appointed.

“You’re taking away the rights of the town voters for your own selfish reasons, because you do not like who gets voted, and I don’t even like some of the people voted in. But guess what, that’s how it goes,” Mackenzie Newhart, an Enfield resident, said. “Nothing I have seen at any of these meetings has made me think these people could logically pick someone to run the highway department or be the clerk. I cannot wait for this community to come together and knock this out at the polls in November, if it gets that far.”

Some residents raised concerns about the format of the public hearing on Zoom, being that some elderly residents are unable to access the meeting and share their opinions. 

“I think this effort is a waste of time, and unfortunately quite misguided,”  Greg Stevenson, vice president of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, said. “This simply removes democracy from Enfield’s residents. It can’t be done properly. The town doesn’t have the resources to do this. … And I think doing so now, may be a little bit pouring salt into an open wound, doing it without a traditional, good old-fashioned public hearing where everybody can be in the same place at the same time.”

Redmond later said that the public hearing had over 40 attendees, which is greater than the number of people who would have attended an in-person meeting.

According to the New York State Association of Towns, out of the 932 towns in the state, approximately 90% of town clerks and highway superintendents are elected rather than appointed. In Tompkins County, Ulysses and Caroline have made unsuccessful efforts to abolish these elected positions as well. 

Mehaffey said she thinks putting the laws on the ballot will allow constituents to express more of their opinions about the proposed changes. However, Lynch and other residents worried that the proposed changes are a result of personal agenda and are detracting from COVID-related issues that the board should be focusing on instead.

“Some unnamed members among us don’t like Buddy Rollins or Ellen Woods all that much,” Lynch said. “We scrap with them at meetings and launch snarky exchanges on town emails. That’s not a good enough reason for me. Elections resolve personality fights like that, stealing democracy from the voters does not. I for one don’t want more power. As one of five on this legislative body, I’ve got enough power already.”

Both Woods and Rollins echoed the public’s disapproval of the proposed changes. 

“I have faced constant accusations, most often unfounded, fantastical and baseless, but always exaggerated and lacking any semblance of grace. When the accusations are proven false, there’s never anything resembling an apology, or an attempt to restore the damage to my professional reputation and my spirit,” Woods said. “I have no fear whatsoever in any way that Enfield’s voters will vote for this. My fear is that tonight the Enfield town board will declare open season on myself and the highway superintendent.”

“If you had an appointed highway superintendent, then you have a minimum of three people deciding who is the best choice instead of over 3,000 residents of Enfield. The only true difference between an elected and appointed highway superintendent is the board hires who they want,” Rollins said. “The town has many residents that are qualified to make this choice because of their experience and knowledge. This is why I believe the position should remain elected, and I echo this for the position of the town clerk.”

Lynch said he worried that this vote will tear the community apart, to which Redmond replied that he is mischaracterizing the situation. She said that the move to put the proposed laws on the ballot is not taking a vote away from residents, but rather a chance for them to express their opinion.

“I see no reason why residents wouldn’t want a choice. The residents have clearly said they want a choice, so here’s your choice,” Redmond said. “Please go to the polls in November and hopefully it will be on the referendum. … I really do feel like these positions should be reevaluated and we should continually reevaluate how we run our town.”

McGee, who announced in March that she was planning to resign from the board, said that she is planning to resign before the November election. She said that the presidential election is an opportune time for this to be on the ballot because there will be a higher voter turnout. In last year’s election, about 35% of registered voters voted, and in the 2016 presidential election, over 70% of registered voters voted in Enfield.

Becky Sims, a former board member, urged the board to prioritize Enfield residents when making the decision.

“I know that it’s possible to work with people who are not your favorite and still get things done. It’s not easy to do that, and especially under the stress that everybody’s under right now, it’s even harder, but I just really urge that a number one priority right now would be to really try to get past personal problems and remember that what you’re doing is working for the people,” Sims said. “Before moving forward with a plan, a resolution, a fiery statement or monologue, ask yourself, how is this going to better serve the residents of Enfield? And if there’s not a good answer, then maybe just take a little quick step back, because it’s a tough time and I know you all are working really hard and we do appreciate your work.”

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.