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Ockawamick haunts Columbia County supervisors as C-I-GOP party chiefs call for Baer's ouster

Dec 10, 2010 11:10 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="The Ockawamick School in Philmont, bought by Columbia County for several potential uses, is currently being used for storage. Click on image for a previous Register-Star story on its fate."][/caption]Just as Columbia County has started to look to the old Wal Mart property in Greenport as a new home, its last attempt to relocate to the old Ockawamick School in Philmont has led to a rare call for a key county legislator's removal... by his fellow Republicans, among others. This morning, the Register Star is reporting that the chairmen of the county’s Republican, Independence and Conservative parties have signed a public letter asking for the removal of Hillsdale Supervisor and Columbia County budget officer Art Baer, a Republican, from the county's main legislative body based on “failed policies and initiatives” allegedly spearheaded by Baer. The letter is signed by Matthew Torrey, Conservative Party chair; Greg Fingar, Republican Party chair; and John Miller, Independence Party chair.

Fingar and Miller said the letter, and the sentiment conveyed in it, originated first during the county’s 2008 decision to purchase the Ockawamick School on Route 217 in Philmont and then during the 2009 general election, when supervisors who had been openly supportive of Baer and his policies lost their respective elections.

Baer, who said he was not aware the letter was being drafted, responded after most of the text of the letter was read to him over the phone. He called it “ridiculous.”

“These are the people that want to go back to the good old days, the three men in a room type of government that existed up until a couple of years ago,” he added.

The county purchased the 77,000 square foot Ockawamick School building in October 2008 for $1.5 million for use as possible county offices and, at one time, a potential site for its social services department, since abandoned following public outcry. The building, unheated, is currently being use for storage of county records, old voting machines, and other governmental detritus.

Fingar specifically mentioned former Claverack supervisor Jim Keegan, a Republican, and Democrats Phil Williams, Livingston, and Doug McGivney, Kinderhook as Baer's lost power base.

Baer repeatedly referenced the Board of Supervisors’ voting record on the issues mentioned in the letter. “You will find that I only had one vote,” he said. “All the policies that were discussed were approved by the board.”

“The government [in Columbia County since Baer took office as BOS chairman] worked. It worked well the last few years,” he said. “We saved a lot of money for the county taxpayers. The county government has been downsized dramatically and now we have a budget that represents the smallest property tax increase in living memory.”

“Why would I resign as budget director?” he asked. “I happen to think the budget situation was extremely difficult and extremely effective as far as putting it together. It’s an appointed position for a year. If at the end of this year, the chairman, whoever the chairman is, wants me to be budget director, I would certainly think about it — but I wouldn’t commit to it right now. The budget has been approved. My job is basically done for the year.

BOS Chairman Roy Brown, R-Germantown, declined to comment on the letter; he hadn’t seen it either. He said he had no intention of removing Baer as budget officer. “Legally there is no cause to remove him.”

A letter was also drafted in November from the Columbia County Republican Party asking Brown to remove Baer from the budget officer position, multiple sources have confirmed.

“We stand by our letter,” Fingar told the Register-Star Thursday night. “He has to stand by his record ... we want to see Art Baer removed as budget officer for 2011. That is the sole intent. We know he cannot be removed in 2010.”

“I speak from the heart,” Torrey said. “I see what is best for all the people in Columbia County and that’s why I agree with everything in that letter. I firmly believe the things in this letter are the best things for the people in Columbia County.”

Miller said he’s tried to sit down with Baer multiple times over the years to discuss various issues and policies but Baer never got back to him. “We’ve had it with Art Baer,” he said. “You can’t reason or talk with this man. He doesn’t see the big picture. I know it’s an aggressive move, but we have to make hard choices now ... he doesn’t see there’s a cry from the public. Government is too big, and elected officials just don’t listen.”

County Democratic Party Chairman Christopher Nolan said his signature didn’t appear on the letter because it “goes way too far.”

“I thought it was pretty nasty. I thought it was not really saying what the real issue may be,” he said. “It seems to me that maybe the old guard isn’t able to control Mr. Baer, and they’re not happy about it.”

“He’s elected by the people in Hillsdale,” Nolan continued. “It’s up to them to get rid of him ... this was strong arm tactics, like political thugs coming out and slamming their fists on the table and saying, ‘you will do what I say.’ It was disgusting ... and I’m no fan of Mr. Baer .... there’s enough blame to go around for all these failed policies and initiatives that are itemized.”

When told that his own party chair signed the letter that asks for his resignation, Baer said, “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that Greg Fingar would sign it.”

“His leadership of the Republican Party has basically been reactionary and, quite frankly, uninformed. I wish he would take the time to do a little more analysis before he starts opining on decisions ... he’s not even qualified to make. But he’s entitled to his opinion.”

“Again, the central issue here is that all the decisions that have been made and all the actions that have been taken have been taken by far and away the majority of the board,” he continued.