January 9, 2013

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Ulster legislature committee mulls guns, traffic

KINGSTON – Ulster County officials held a lively discussion over life and death issues Tuesday night, grappling with gun control and traffic problems. In the end, though, several items remained deadlocked between members of the legislature's Law Enforcement and Public Safety Committee.

Top of the agenda was a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to pass stricter gun laws, in the wake of last month's tragic school shooting in Connecticut. "We either do something, or we do nothing, and doing nothing is not an option for me," said Legislator Donald Gregorius.

Legislator Carl Belfiglio objected to the wording of the resolution, saying it was too broad. "Really what you're asking for is a Constitutional amendment," he said.

Legislature Chairwoman Terry Bernardo told colleagues that if they are going to talk about a response to the Sandy Hook incident, “we need to, at least, include mental health," she noted. "We just did something that sends a pretty clear message to the residents of this county, that I don't think we value mental health," Bernardo said, citing the recent layoff of 28 mental health workers.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Richard Parete said he feels like crying when he thinks about Sandy Hook.

"I don't want people to lose their guns, but I sure as hell want Congress to never have this happen again," Parete said. 

The committee decided to table the resolution until next month, so that more specific language could be hammered out.

Another point of deliberation was the Traffic Safety Board, which has operated without direction since the death of coordinator P. Charles Schaller last September. Board member Craig Grazier warned that "Numerous people are ready to walk," having had no communication from the legislature or executive. "We've heard nothing," Grazier said. The committee deadlocked 3-3, failing to approve Diane Beitl as the new coordinator for traffic safety. They agreed, however, on appointment of Brandon Masterson to board member position.

Among the problems facing the Traffic Safety Board is the park and ride lot along Col. Chandler Drive near the Thruway roundabout, which suffers defective light fixtures. The legislature voted 10 years ago to assume control of the area from the state, but a former chairman neglected to execute the law, leaving maintenance in limbo for the past decade.

"I'll climb up there and fix the lights, before somebody's going to get hurt," Parete suggested. "We're paying attorneys $70 an hour to tell everybody not to do it, when it would cost five bucks to fix the stupid light bulb -- to me it's crazy."

Deputy County Executive Robert Sudlow explained the legal complication.  "Right now, it is not a county owned property; we cannot under statute fix property that is not ours," he said. Municipal lawyers are looking into the matter, he added.

In other business, the committee also deadlocked on authorizing a joint agreement with Dutchess County to share a reciprocal conflict defense attorney. Sudlow cited facts and figures showing $1.3 million in yearly public defense costs, for cases where multiple accused parties force separate representation at trial. The proposed collaboration with Dutchess would solve the conflict, and only cost roughly $170,000.

Sudlow also urged approval of a resolution to authorize an agreement between Ulster and the state Office of Emergency Management to develop a multi-jurisdictional multi-hazard mitigation plan to comply with FEMA regulations. In short, all the municipalities need to get on the same page with the county, state, and federal government. Sudlow said half of the towns have participated recently, but his office is attempting to see every town on board within the next five years. The full legislature will consider it for vote on January 22.

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