PHOTO SOURCE: New York State Senate website
Celeste Katz of the New York Daily News has picked up a press release from Hudson and Dutchess County Democrats, which alleges that State Senator Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie) has pressured Hudson Valley fire companies to post supportive messages in front of their stations. The release alleges that Saland has explicitly or implicitly tied the display of such messages to whether the stations will continue to get State grants he’s been authorizing for them.
The allegations appear to be backed up by more than the usual political posturing, as the Democrats have obtained and posted a letter from Columbia County Fire Coordinator James Van Duesen that seems to dovetail with the charges. While careful to state that it’s up to individual companies whether to express support of Saland, the Van Deusen letter has no address for a recipient and is generically headed “Dear Chief”—suggesting this was a form letter sent to more than one chief—and offers this reminder:
Senator Saland has asked for your help by putting a message of Support on your outside signs.
The Senator has over the years supported your Fire Co. with grants and monies.
The Daily News picks up a photo provided by the Democrats of a sign in Hillside, said to be an example of pressure from Saland. (In past election cycles, I’ve noticed slightly more neutral and less flagrantly political payback of this kind, such a “Thank you Senator Saland” sign on a Livingston station.) Volunteer fireman Lloyd Hamilton has joined the complaint filed with the State’s Legislative Ethics Commission (co-authored with City of Hudson Democratic chair Victor Mendolia), stating that:
On October 26, 2010, I took the attached pictures of the Hillside Fire Department sign in Dutchess County. As you will see, the signs say ‘Firefighters for Saland’. I immediately went to the company president and chief and asked why this sign was posted. I objected to the use of the sign and said that, as a taxpayer in the district, I felt it was improper use of taxpayer-owned property to support any politician. I was told that it was done because our department received grants from Sen. Saland and that this was payback for those grants.
I also understood that it was likely that future grants would be influenced by our overtly supporting him, meaning that if we didn’t do this, our ability to receive grants in the future would be in jeopardy.
The core issue here is that upstate firehouses are funded primarily by taxes and government grants, leading to a public expectation that they should remain non-partisan. Beyond any legal or financial jeopardy the complaint might pose to Saland or the stations, residents have a basic ethical expectation that putting out fires is a non-political job, and that having signs out for a different candidate—say for Didi Barrett, who is running against Saland and was just endorsed by the Times—won’t have any effect on the responsiveness of a fire company.
In general, part of the power of incumbency is the ability to dole out small grants, “member items” and other patronage. A quick web search turns up numerous examples of Saland arranging funding (and receiving praise back) for various public safety agencies and organizations, such as the Mellenville Volunteer Fire District, Columbia County Emergency Services, Greenport Police Department; the Rhinebeck Fire Department; the Beacon Police Department; the Roosevelt Fire Department in Hyde Park; the Village of Valatie Fire Department; the Kinderhook Fire Company; the Fishkill Fire Department; and the East Chatham Fire Co. Most applaud such support—but not if it comes with a tacit or explicit demand that the assistance produce political dividends.
Politicians of all parties are eager to help local firehouses and law enforcement, and there is widespread support for doing so. But tying that support to political endorsements is a major no-no, and Saland owes the taxpayers and residents of his district an explanation. As of the time of this report, he hadn’t so far responded to inquiries from The Daily News.
But it’s probably just a matter of time before Saland takes a page out of the GOP playbook, and tries to deflect from his own alleged transgressions. So look for the sitting State Senator to counter with a demand that the Dems "apologize" to every firefighter in his district—even though the complaint is about Saland's politicking, not about the countless honest volunteers who risk their lives to keep our homes safe.