Middletown has bumper crop of planning board applicants

By Matthew J. Perry
The Middletown Town Board is reviewing an unusually large number of applicants who will be considered for four positions: one regular member of the planning board, two alternates, and one alternate to the zoning board of appeals.
Eight applications have been received since June, including five since January 21. The current vacancy occurred on Jan. 8, when Pete Palen, a 20-year veteran of the planning board, stepped down.
The alternate positions, which were created by the town in January 2003, have never been filled. The lack of those appointments has been “an ongoing problem,” according to Supervisor Len Utter, which was made acute when the last selection for the planning board was made in June. That appointee, Sue Finch, spends several months of each year out of town; the alternates would help ensure that the board can maintain a quorum on important votes even when regular members are absent.
The applicant field includes Kathleen McCarthy and Tammy Castillo, who submitted letters of interest last June. If chosen, Castillo would be serving her second term on the board. Paula DiSimone applied in August. Since Jan. 21, the town clerk’s office has received letters from John Blish, Jake Rosa. Kate Van Benschoten, Glenna Herz and Carolyn Konheim.
Councilman Don Kearney, who sits on the administrative and personnel committee, expressed pleasure and surprise at the spike in interest from the community. “I’d say everyone is qualified for the positions,” he said on Monday. “It’s going to be a tough decision.”
The process for selecting the chosen candidate was the subject of extensive discussion at a town workshop on Feb. 3. In the past, the administrative committee, currently composed of Kearney and John Roucek, has been solely responsible for contacting and interviewing applicants for the board; subsequently, the committee would submit its recommendation to the full board for a vote.
But with only one applicant in eight likely to be serving full-time, there was a call for a more formal review process, in which the entire board, if not the public at large, could participate in candidate interviews.
Councilman Brian Sweeney was dissatisfied with the prospect of knowing little of the candidates’ views before a vote. “These are important positions,” he said. “We should get to know them before we appoint them.”
Utter dismissed the notion of subjecting the applicants to a public hearing. “When people are interviewed by the community it turns into an inquisition,” he said at the workshop. On Monday, he referred to his own 25-year tenure on the board to further explain his view. “These jobs are a public service and a lot of responsibility. The board does it for nothing. If I’d had to pass an interview in front of a whole board I don’t think I’d have chosen to do it.”
As a compromise, the council seemed to agree that when interviews with the candidates are scheduled, all town council members will be invited to attend. As of Monday, it was undecided whether every member would be allowed to ask questions. Supervisor Utter expressed satisfaction with the old arrangement. “I trust the committee to do its job.”
Kearney seconded the opinion. “The committee method works.” Sweeney, on Monday, was still not persuaded. “I expect to be asking questions if I’m attending an interview.” Utter confirmed that the details of the process are not finalized.
No dates for the interviews have been set, according to Kearney. Both he and Utter stated that it was unlikely a candidate could be presented for a vote at the council’s meeting on Feb. 10.
Action on the alternate positions has already experienced an extensive delay. Since three applicant letters were on file by late last summer, after Finch’s appointment, the three positions could have been filled for several months, assuming all three are qualified.
The board cited no immediate explanation for the delay. “It takes awhile to get these things organized,” Utter said on Monday. “I think it was inactivity as much as anything.”