By Michael Turton
Most organizations evolve, and Citizens of Philipstown (COP) has done just that since the group was established in the summer of 2008. COP came into being largely as a rallying point for residents who were unhappy, or at very least wary, about the Town of Philipstown’s pending adoption of an updated zoning code — a document that had been several years in the making.
Opinions about COP varied. Some saw it as a voice for small business owners, especially those along Route 9, many of whom had concerns about what they felt were overly restrictive proposed zoning laws. Others undoubtedly saw COP as standing in the way of what they believed was good planning.
The early days
As the zoning debate came to a head, the atmosphere was often tense, heated and seen by many as very politicized. That perception was fueled when COP’s first president, Lee Erickson, threw his hat in the ring in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat incumbent Town Supervisor Richard Shea in the fall election. The election was seen in part as a referendum on the new zoning. Many believed COP was solidly in Erickson’s camp. Shea won the election handily and the new zoning was adopted, but with modifications that COP can rightfully claim as having influenced.
COP President Tony Bardes and board member J. Carlos Salcedo are adamant in describing the true nature of COP, both at the time of the 2008 zoning debate and today. “Perceptions from all sides have changed,” Salcedo said. “I think there was unnecessary friction. There were those who thought the (zoning) document was good as is, and those who thought not. Give credit to the Philipstown Town Board for opening up the discussion … and to the citizens for getting involved.”
Bardes and Salcedo debunk the perception that COP was politically motivated and anti-town-board in its early days. In fact, Salcedo credits former Town Supervisor Bill Mazzuca, who had overseen most of the preliminary work on the zoning update, as having played an important role in creating the organization. People who later became members of COP were attending town board meetings in large numbers, but as individual residents.
“Bill said, ‘You’re not a group. It’s difficult to deal with. Why not formalize?'” Salcedo recalled. He also emphasized that Erickson resigned as COP president immediately upon announcing he would run for town supervisor. “It was automatic; we didn’t have to ask him — he resigned, and we accepted his resignation,” Salcedo said. Bardes added that COP also did not endorse Erickson — a decision that caused some discontent within the organization. “Some of our members were pissed off that we didn’t back Lee,” Bardes said.
COP’s role and makeup defined
“When we started out we didn’t really know about [local] government,” Bardes said. “After the zoning [debate] we wanted to educate ourselves — to have a clear picture picture of how government works. We don’t want to fight city hall; we want to work with local government.”
Salcedo said that COP is about community involvement. “We are not political,” he stated. “Our primary goal is to foster democratic participation in our community by becoming informed citizens.” Politicians are naturally drawn to groups of voters, and COP has been courted by local candidates more than once.
“There have been several times when both parties have tried to latch onto us,” Bardes said. “We’ve had to remind people many times that we are apolitical,” Salcedo added. Asked if the membership is mainly Republican, Democrat or Independent, Bardes laughed and said, “It is so all of the above.” Salcedo said that makes the group”… tough to lead sometimes. People want to bring politics into it. We’re not political!” he repeated. Both said they have no desire to run for political office.
COP is a 501(c)(4) not-for-profit, which means it can receive donations but cannot issue receipts that can be used as a tax deduction. It is run by a nine-member board of directors and operates within its own bylaws. In addition to Bardes who is president, Catharine Square serves as secretary and George Marden as treasurer. Other board members include Corry Barreveld, Rene Barreveld, Michael Bowman, Airinhos Serradas, Dave Vickery and Salcedo. The board of directors meets monthly, and there is an annual meeting of the full membership. Elections are held every two years.
Members of COP pay no dues, and the organization’s total number of members is somewhat nebulous. “We had about 100 members right away during the zoning [debate],” Salcedo said. “But we’re not ‘card carrying’ — it’s an open membership.” He said people join based on what issues interest them, from the environment and zoning to Adopt-a-Highway and democratic government.
Perhaps the best way to understand how COP fits into the community is to look at the projects it is implementing and those in which it is interested:
Prior to the last Philipstown election, COP interviewed all candidates and posted the video on its website.
COP now posts video of many local government meetings on its website, including: Philipstown Town Board and Planning Board; Cold Spring Village Board; Haldane and Garrison School Boards; and Putnam County Legislature.
On Aug. 15 at the North Highlands fire hall, COP will host an informal presentation by Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. The public and elected officials are invited to attend.
COP is interested in finding ways to bridge the east-west divide so often mentioned in Putnam County, in particular by working with business owners in the east end of the county and by supporting the movement to have Putnam County share sales tax revenue with towns in the county.
COP supports the Hudson River Fjord Trail, a recreation trail proposed for the Cold Spring-Beacon corridor.
COP supports the consolidation of local election dates as a means of increasing voter turnout.
Passion and the democratic process
Salcedo, who is from Bolivia, is passionate about his involvement in COP and local government. “I’m a first-generation immigrant,” he said. “I majored and graduated in Political Science, but back home it [democracy] was all theory. It was so fulfilling for me to see how the democratic process works (here), as imperfect as it is. (Here) it was like flying in an airplane with wings for the first time!”
He has strong views on democracy at the local level. “If the democratic process can’t work at the local level, it can’t work anywhere. Government should be plain to see. Local government should be the best example of democracy in action.”
Bardes is no newcomer to citizen involvement. “I was a ’60s activist. I met my wife at a war protest,” he said. “After I went to work, life changed; I lost interest. This (COP) has been good. Every once in a while I think about politics, but I think I can get more done this way. My goal is to get both sides working together — changing things, getting things done, seeing good things happen.” He thinks people underestimate how much can be done. “A lot of people think you have no choices. You do have choices.”
Bardes sums up COP’s role in the community this way: “We’re Civics 101 — teaching people things they should have learned in school.”