WEIGHING IN – To get on the ballot for next week’s election in the village of Fort Johnson, candidates needed only one signature from a registered voter to support their nomination.
In fact, only a handful of voters are likely to turn out at all on Tuesday, March 21, when polls will be open just four hours – 4 to 8 p.m.
“I hope I get at least four or five,” said Village Clerk Barbara Smith, 81, who has lived in the village for 60 years and been the clerk for roughly three decades.
Smith was only half-kidding about the expected voter total. After all, last year’s Fort Johnson municipal elections saw only 20 people of 399 registered voters cast ballots, which allowed for the single-soul nomination in the first place. (The number of required signatures is 5% of the prior year’s vote total.)
So perhaps next Tuesday’s election, as much of a fool’s errand as it’s likely to be, will serve its purpose: When almost literally no one shows up to vote, it will illustrate exactly why Tuesday will be the village’s final election.
In November, residents approved a proposition to dissolve the government of the Montgomery County village, which sits on the Mohawk River and was incorporated in 1909, by a tally of 90 to 23. By Fort Johnson standards, that turnout was positively scorching.
In truth, village residents have become disengaged with village affairs, which was a major impetus for the decision to dissolve.
“Nobody takes an interest,” Smith told reporter Ashley Onyon last month. “That’s why we’re dissolving, which hasn’t been easy.”
The dissolution turns the village into a hamlet with governance and public works services being rolled over to the town of Amsterdam. The arrangement has been described as a win-win for residents because it will lower their property taxes without cutting benefits like snow removal, which the town will take on. Leaders of both municipalities supported it.
Outside of the village, the town of Amsterdam has approximately 5,500 residents and spans 29 square miles, while the village of Fort Johnson has fewer than 500 residents and covers less than 1 square mile. Under the approved proposal, Fort Johnson the village dissolves Dec. 31.
When voters opted to eliminate the village government late last year, leaders figured this year’s election wouldn’t be necessary. After all, the two seats that are up — deputy mayor and a village board trustee — will only be for seven-month seats rather than full four-year commitments, with the new terms officially starting in June in a village government that will cease to exist by New Year’s Day.
Although there is a lot to do, from transferring records to selling village equipment, the village leadership positions up in this election aren’t all that consequential because the details of the dissolution have already been decided. So for the remainder of the year, village leaders will mostly take care of routine matters like paying the bills.
What’s more, the two candidates running unopposed are the incumbents for the seats: Deputy Mayor William Maines and Trustee Jim Bartone. Why not just extend their current terms, as village leaders had proposed?
By law, the election is required.
“The village still exists until dissolved under law,” a spokesperson for the state Department of State wrote. “As such elections to fill village officers must still be held, which would enable the officials to perform statutory functions such as winding down affairs.”
So next Tuesday’s elections will be held basically as one giant exercise – not to mention a waste of time and money, although the village only budgets about $350 a year to cover election costs. And clerk Smith told me Monday that the prep work on her end hasn’t been all that labor intensive.
Still, it’s striking that this election has to happen at all. It’s an indicator of the fact that the letter of the law too often fails to line up with reality. It’s also a sign of what can happen to places where people fail to remain actively involved.
Smith said she has mixed feelings about the dissolution of the village. Planning to retire, she says she’ll miss the people in the village office, and she’s sad about the change the termination represents.
“There’s going to be ups and downs, quirks here and there,” said the clerk, who lives in an early 20th century house that’s about as old as the village itself. “But it’ll all work out.”
A week from Tuesday, Smith will make sure yet another election runs smoothly. No matter how many voters show up, the day is certain to get remembered as the village of Fort Johnson is about to be history.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.