First race for position in years
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
The ballot for November’s election for Putnam County clerk offers something rare: a choice, in a race pitting Republican Michael Bartolotti of Southeast, the first deputy county clerk, against Garrison resident Lithgow Osborne, a Democrat.
Between 1974 and the last clerk’s election in 2010, only three times (1974, 1980 and 1998) could voters pick between rivals. Typically, Republicans have run unopposed, with little to campaign for.
This time, Bartolotti and Osborne have both been on the campaign trail. (For Osborne, that trail in part meant a footpath, since he walked across the county.) Last week at a Mahopac forum they scrapped over several issues, including the propriety of incumbent Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant’s endorsement of Bartolotti.
Osborne spoke with Philipstown.info/The Paper in a Wednesday (Oct. 15) interview in Cold Spring, discussing his ideas for improving records accessibility, ethics, and the possibility of offering county services in Philipstown. (He remains skeptical of the role of the Butterfield redevelopment in that regard.)
As of Thursday noon, Bartolotti had not responded to requests for an interview.
An attorney and lifelong Putnam resident, Bartolotti became acquainted with the clerk’s office as a part-time student worker in 1996. He graduated from Carmel High School in 1994, received an undergraduate degree from Western Connecticut State University four years later, and earned a law degree from New York Law School in 2001. He became first deputy county clerk, under Sant, in 2002.
Born in Auburn, New York, Osborne is a businessman who has run or managed interior design, antiques, and real estate firms.
The county clerk serves as registrar or county keeper of numerous records, from business filings to handgun permits, land-transaction and civil partnership data, and court documents, and oversees the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) within Putnam.
After serving for 12 years as clerk, preceded by 24 years as first deputy clerk, Sant retires this year. He set off a national furor when, after the gun massacre of school children in nearby Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, he refused to make handgun-ownership records available to the press, although the information was a public record.
Throughout his campaign, Osborne has emphasized his interest in innovation in the clerk’s office, especially regarding computer and website technology to enhance accessibility.
Residents rely on the clerk’s office “to be their guardian of the public information — and you can’t access it freely online” through the clerk’s office website, he said. He objected to the clerk’s practice of making records available at no cost for viewing in Carmel but charging for online access. For instance, he said, to look at county land records via the Internet, someone must create an account via an entity called uslandrecords.com, a company owned by the Xerox Corp., and ante up.
“To access those records you have to give a credit card and sign up, and you are charged,” Osborne said. Along with opposing the fees, Osborne claimed that allowing a multinational corporation to control county records, demand personal details, and charge credit cards before granting access raises questions about privacy and cyber-security.
During an Oct. 9 forum held by the Concerned Residents of Carmel and Mahopac (recorded by Putnam Web TV and posted on YouTube, below), Bartolotti defended the online access fee. “We believe the nominal fee of $5 for a casual search is not much to ask because it does offset the cost to implement the security and the additional technologies needed,” he said.
Guns, records and privacy
Osborne also criticized the Sant and Bartolotti stance on disclosing handgun-permit information.
When taken to court over its refusal, the county lost. Sant “spent a lot of time and money defending that decision,” Osborne said. “He’s been dragging the county into court unnecessarily…” Among reasons for not releasing the information, Sant cited gun-owners’ safety and privacy; Osborne speculates that the clerk, sympathizing with gun-owning friends, simply sought to support them. However, he added, “I don’t think that the county clerk’s job is to advocate for any one group,” such as gun owners.
Bartolotti promises to further Sant’s cause. On his campaign website, he calls it a privilege “to take a stand against” such things as “the divulging of pistol permit-holders’ personal information.” Bartolotti also pledges that “without question, I will continue to work tirelessly to assure that personal information of our pistol licensees are kept confidential so their safety and privacy will be preserved for years to come.”
County offices and Butterfield
Osborne observed that “there has been a lot of talk about satellite office or pop-ups” in the western side of Putnam County. “I’d like to investigate the possibility of opening a county clerk’s office in Cold Spring or elsewhere,” studying “whether this is at all possible, or even desirable,” he said. He cautioned that a thorough review entails analyzing the costs, personnel arrangements, citizen demand, and more.
Moreover, with proper online access to county clerk records, the need to interact with that office in person could disappear, he said. “I think we need to start investigating new ideas, about how we make the clerk’s office accessible to a wider, broader range of individuals, citizens, neighbors,” he reiterated.
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell has called for putting branches of county departments at Butterfield, including the clerk’s office. Osborne pointed out that the county executive does not speak for the county clerk (elected separately). In any case, “I think the reality is that the [Butterfield] project is a long way off, if it ever happens,” he said. “I wouldn’t commit the county clerk office to something at Butterfield, because I personally don’t believe it’s actually going to happen. I’d love to be proved wrong about that. I’d love for Butterfield to be a success and be everything that everybody wants it to be.”
However, “I think there are too many individuals who’ve got conflicting ideas about how it should be built and what it should be built [for] and how we pay for it,” he added. At the same time, a DMV office in Cold Spring might make sense, he went on, since Putnam’s DMV is in Brewster — on the extreme eastern side of the county, far from Philipstown. Again, what is feasible must be determined, he said. “These are things I’ll find out once I get into office.”
And get into office he intends to do. “I’d say my chances are pretty good,” he said. “I believe I will bring a new energy, a new approach, to the county clerk’s office.” He said that even bedrock Republicans back changes and referred to incumbent clerks getting mired in their ways, for decades, facing no electoral opposition. “They’ve never had to prove their worthiness. There’s a complacency there,” plus “an attitude that seems entitled” and they fail to avoid lapses, he asserted.
As an example, he cited an incipient campaign controversy, highlighted at the Oct. 9 Mahopac debate where a question involved Sant’s backing of Bartolotti in an endorsement allegedly written on the county clerk’s official stationery.
Using county letterhead to endorse a candidate “is contrary to the code of ethics adopted by the county legislature,” Osborne said Oct. 15. “So you have a county clerk who sees no problem using county stationery, county employees, and county time to send out a letter endorsing his deputy county clerk. And then you have your deputy county clerk who accepts that endorsement and sees nothing wrong with it. And he’s a lawyer!”
When the issue arose Oct. 9, Bartolotti said that “I have not seen the endorsement. I’m very happy that Dennis did endorse me,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know what the context of the endorsement is and how it reads. I am assuming that if he sent a letter out he did it in his capacity as Putnam County clerk and if that’s the case then he is entitled to use his letterhead for that.”
The next day, Bartolotti’s campaign Facebook page included a quotation from a Sant endorsement: “If I could give the citizens of Putnam County one gift as I leave office, it would be a county clerk’s office that is second to none, led by a county clerk who is worthy of the title. It is for this reason alone that I have endorsed Michael C. Bartolotti to be your next county clerk.”