Bieniek selected as new legislature chairman after charged debate

District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek is the new chairman of the Montgomery County Legislature, winning the position after a lengthy debate that featured an impassioned plea from another candidate and accusations of political deals.

District 2 Legislator Thomas Quackenbush, who was the Legislature’s first chairman two years ago when Montgomery County made the transition from a board of supervisors to a county legislature, nominated Bieniek for the 2016 chairmanship. District 4 Legislator Ryan Weitz then nominated Barbara Wheeler, district 7 legislator and deputy chair for the past two years.

“Serving as a legislator for two years now, I don’t think there’s been a more hardworking, passionate person, and [a person] who’s invested in making the community a better place, than Barbara Wheeler,” Weitz said in making the nomination.

Wheeler thanked Weitz for the nomination, then spoke for several minutes, first citing information from the New York State Association of Counties stating that 15 counties who have deputy chairs of the legislature always elect their deputies as chairs for the next year.

“Last year after I was deputy, I talked with Tom [Quackenbush] and Martin [Kelly, 2015 chairman] for many, many hours, I agreed to step down and not run when Roy [Dimond, District 3 legislator] was very gracious and put my name up, because I felt that I could do better work, and work that needed to be done, as personnel chairman. It was my honor to serve under Martin. I would appreciate his vote as chairman. It was my honor to serve under him, and I learned a lot from him.”

Wheeler and Quackenbush are the only two current legislators who served on the board of supervisors. Quackenbush was chairman of the board of supervisors and continued as chairman of the legislature to help make the transition a smooth one.

“I have worked very hard these last two years, and the last six years it has been my honor to serve Montgomery County,” Wheeler said. “It was my privilege and honor to be in on the consolidation of county government. Tom and I have come a long way, and I learned so much from him. It was such a pleasure to vote for him as the first chairman.”

District 6 Legislator John Duchessi, who later would be elected deputy chairman, explained why he would not vote for Wheeler.

“My vote is not based on gender,” Duchessi said. “Should I vote in the negative for this particular candidate, it doesn’t mean I’m voting against her; it just simply means that there’s someone else I’m supporting for the position. And I say that notwithstanding the negative comments made about this entire board in the newspaper just recently.”

The Amsterdam Recorder reported in a December 26, 2015 article:

District 7 Legislator and Deputy Chairwoman Barbara Wheeler, however, said she did not believe the charter is where it should be.

“We haven’t fixed the charter yet. Honestly, I’m disappointed and that’s very heartbreaking for me to say. I think the deals that have been made amongst the politicians, we’re forgetting that we’re public servants,” she said.

Wheeler said she believes deals have been made in the government for self-serving reasons and officials have run to receive the salary alone.

“I hope that this next year, we can work together for the citizens that we represent. I hope that the communications are better for the people of Montgomery County, not the people in office for self-serving reason,” Wheeler said.

(“Looking back at ’15 Ossenfort talks how county has moved forward” by Emily Drew)

Weitz, Wheeler, Kelly and Dimond voted in favor of Wheeler. Duchessi cast the only no vote, but Bieniek, Quackenbush, District 6 Legislator Joseph Isabel and District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell all abstained, leaving Wheeler one vote short of the five needed to win the chairmanship.

Duchessi then nominated Dimond, who also fell one vote short of election, Kelly cast the lone negative vote, but Isabel, Purtell, Quackenbush and Bieniek abstained.

When discussion turned to the nomination of Bieniek, Weitz explained his negative opinion.

“A majority of us [legislators]–I would say eight of us–have accepted our roles as legislators and not as administrators, as the Board of Supervisors was,” Weitz said. “The one person, I believe, in the last few years, who has not accepted that role, is Legislator Bieniek. I think he, more so than anyone on this legislature, represents the ways and the thought process of the board of supervisors and the management over departments. That is no longer our role; that was chartered to the county executive. More so than not, in this past budget session, with Legislator Bieniek’s plan to reorganize an entire [county] department that he used to work for, because he doesn’t like the commissioner of that department, reeks of the old way.”

Weitz drew a contrast between Wheeler and Bieniek, calling Wheeler “the most selfless person serving the county, and Bieniek “the most self-serving county legislator, whether it be voting to give himself his own health insurance benefits or wanting to get mileage reimbursement to go from his house to county meetings, which is his job, and then again, we have a new insurance broker at the county that is a close relationship of … Legislator Bieniek.” Weitz said electing Bieniek as chair of the legislature would be “…a massive step backwards for Montgomery County. It is the worst thing that we could do as a legislature. I think it’s going to end up setting the wrong tone for the third year [of the Legislature form of government]. We’ll see how it goes, but I do believe that it’s going to be a massive failure.”

Duchessi responded by saying he was “happy” to support Bieniek.

“A lot of us [legislators] have [previous] experience in government,” he said. “We like to talk about times in the past and the way things were. One of the reasons I ran was because I like this new system of government. I like the idea of protecting the job roles and the titles of the executive versus the legislature, and I understand the difference in our authority. Still, I’m going to support Terry.”

Quackenbush said he was keeping a promise he made three years ago in supporting Bieniek.

“I stand by my word,” he said. “I gave my word three years ago when a deal was made with you … that I would support the four that supported me in the upcoming years.. I stuck to that, and you know what? An hour ago, Terry, I got a call from Legislator Wheeler telling me she wanted to be chairman, after she told me she didn’t want to be chairman. So to sit here and try to poison the group, Barbara, when you know it’s not …”

At that point, Wheeler interrupted, accusing Quackenbush of trying to call a Democratic party caucus..

“The only reason you didn’t was because Duke is more of a gentleman.”

Quackenbush responded quickly.

“Chair, I didn’t interrupt anybody when they were speaking,” he said. “I just want my time. I interrupted no one when I was speaking. So to make it sound like I did something terrible isn’t what I did. What I did was I kept my word. Terry, I’m glad I’m going to keep my word. I think that, including Barbara, everybody in this room is capable of being chairman. Roy, I abstained. I didn’t vote no because I do think you’re capable. Barbara, I abstained. I didn’t vote no because I do [think you’re capable], but I made a commitment. I’m not going to go against my word, which is what you want me to do.”

He then accused Wheeler of being just as much a deal-maker as anyone else.

“With all the deals people have been accused of making in the newspaper, of all the deals, you made the first deal, and that was in the first year, and that was to put me in as chairman,” he said.

Legislators then voted 7-2 in favor of Bieniek as chairman; Weitz and Wheeler voted no. Quackenbush then nominated Dimond to be deputy chairman, but Dimond declined. Quackenbush then nominated Duchessi, who was elected with seven positive votes; he and Wheeler abstained.

Before the meeting adjourned, Bieniek called on District 8 Legislator Joseph Isabel, who voiced his frustration with the acrimony surrounding the selection of a chairman.

“This legislature is made up of 9 very good people, and we show our worst in this election for the chairmanship,” Isabel said. “Going forward, we should find a better way to do this. It puts who against who, and I just don’t like the way it is. I think it showed the worst of all of us.”

Duchessi responded by saying that the public display–good or bad–is better than secrecy.

“I am not uncomfortable with having this laid out in public,” he said. “I much prefer it to doing it over the telephone or in a side room. I think this is good government, and if we refrain from personal attacks, I think this is a healthy thing. It’s a good way.”

As divisive as the selection process can be, it still beats the alternative, Duchessi said.

“Granted, it seems to be the thing we have the most difficulty with, but it’s much better to have it play out in public than some of the ways chairs are typically chosen,” he said. “We avoided caucus, we have not elected people based on party affiliation in the past, or gender, and I hope it continues in this way.”

Quackenbush agreed with Duchessi’s assessent.

“The process isn’t flawed,” Quackenbush said. “It’s when there are random outbursts and interruptions that take us back to the old board of supervisors that it’s bad. And that’s somebody’s individual choice; that’s not a process problem.”

John Becker

John Becker is both a Reporter and Consulting Editor for The Compass. He and his wife Pat operate Abbey Farms in Amsterdam NY.