BETHLEHEM — “Anyone running for election or re-election should feel an inner call,” said Bethlehem Supervisor John Clarkson, sitting behind his desk at Town Hall two days after formally announcing his decision not to seek re-election to the office he has occupied for more than five years.
Clarkson was first inspired to run for town supervisor in 2011, after spending four years on the town’s 2020 Advisory Committee and becoming frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of action on the part of the town to address problems and achieve goals identified by the committee. He said that now, after being re-elected to two subsequent two-year terms, he feels he has accomplished most of the goals he set out to accomplish.
“After six years in office,” he said, “almost all of the major issues raised by 2020, my transition committee, or subsequent advisory groups have all been achieved or significantly moved forward. So, without a strong call to run and a diminishing list of ‘to-dos,’ it seemed a good time move on. While I very much enjoy serving, there are stresses and costs that come with it. It takes a lot out of you. I feel like I’ve done what I came to do.”
Describing the state of town government when he entered office as “a pattern of bad budgeting and deadlock,” Clarkson said he is most proud of is placing an emphasis on planning for the future and helping to implement financial policies that can make those plans reality.
“Having prudent financial policies,” he said. “I mean, how boring is that? But it leads to being able to do these good things.” Many of those “good things,” he said, had already been identified by the bipartisan 2020 Advisory Committee, but were not acted upon until he took office.
“I like making plans,” Clarkson said. “But, even more, I like following through on them.”
“I was privileged to work with Supervisor Clarkson during my entire four years on the Town Board,” said Jeff Kuhn, now chairman of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee. “I learned quickly that John had a bias toward action, which I think allowed us to accomplish a great deal to improve our municipal government in a relatively short time. I think that John was always willing to make the tough decisions and take the resulting political heat if he believed what he was doing was in the best interests of the greatest number of Bethlehem citizens.”
“One of the things that I am proud of is that I have taken on the issues that have come up,” said Clarkson. “I’ve not avoided them. Some of them were difficult, some were not, but I’ve put them all on the list and tried to move them forward.”
Investments in infrastructure, particularly water and sewer infrastructure; civic improvements, such as the Delaware Avenue projects and sidewalk program; and planning initiatives involving open spaces, complete streets and the town’s waterfront are all things that Clarkson said he is proud of helping to implement during his time in office.
“We’re leading again,” he said, “as Bethlehem should.” He said that is true in the various areas of: ethics; financial policies; the town’s website and publicizing and webcasting of town agendas and meetings; sustainable energy; planning and zoning using smart growth tools; the conservation easement exemption program; sidewalks; parks; traffic; and bike and pedestrian safety.
“We’ve had 12 citizen groups since I’ve been here,” said Clarkson, naming a few of the issues that have been addressed, such as local waterfront revitalization, complete street planning and parks planning. “We have been asking ourselves: what do we really want to become and what do we need to do to get there? I think that’s very important.”
It hasn’t all been successes, Clarkson admitted. He said that he often found himself frustrated by barriers — set at higher levels of government — that stood in the way of structural reforms he felt would have improved the efficiency and effectiveness of town government.
“We won a $776,000 award for consolidating highway and parks maintenance and ambulance services, which was really done by the volunteers, and using bank lock-box services,” he said. “All great reforms, but there are much and bigger improvements/savings out there. To achieve them, you need a lot of push at a county or regional level, which isn’t happening. New York state really needs to do more to support municipalities and remove structural barriers in the myriad mandates we live under. I would like to see broader cooperation among local governments, but it takes a concerted effort and we’ll need more help from above.”
Clarkson also expressed regret about the way the effort to consolidate the Department of Public Works and the office of the Highway Superintendent played out. “I wish the referendum had been held on a regular election day. The dynamics of that special referendum weren’t good, and I think we missed a chance.”
The reassessment of police scheduling and overtime issues, he said, was another one of the most difficult things he has dealt with. “Both were issues that had been around for at least three supervisors and boards and needed to be addressed,” said Clarkson. “We did address them during my tenure, and I have no regrets about that. To be a good public official, you have to be willing to take on difficult tasks and trying issues.”
Clarkson said that, while he will not miss some of the more contentious aspects of politics, he will miss those he has worked with at Town Hall. “They are wonderful, hardworking people,” he said. “They do a tremendous job, at a very high skill level, and work very hard. And, by comparison to some other jobs in the Capital Region, their pay isn’t that high. They do a heck of a lot for the town and I hope they and everyone else who works for this town are appreciated.”
Declining to speculate as to the upcoming election (party endorsements will be announced in coming weeks), Clarkson laughed as he said, “We should all be standing back!” Quickly becoming more serious, he continued, “There have been rumors, but I’m not going to engage in that. I intend to stand back from the process. It’s not up to me to decide who sits behind this desk next year. It’s up to the people who are willing and able to run, and parties will make their designations, but ultimately the people will make the choice among the choices they are given.”
Clarkson said that he and his wife Connie are looking forward to the freedom they will have to pursue other adventures. His wife, who still teaches school in the district, will remain at her job for the time being, but the couple is considering their options. One thing Clarkson is sure of: he will hike the Pacific Crest Trail with his eldest son, Matt. “In a moment of weakness, he promised he would do that with me,” said Clarkson. “And I’m going to hold him to it.”
One word he refuses to use? Retirement. “I doubt very much whether that will really happen,” he said. “I don’t know whether I’ll work professionally again. I don’t know whether I’ll work in politics again. Or maybe I’ll come up with a totally different plan. Having the freedom, and the time and energy, to make these choices is something that Connie and I are really looking forward to.”
Clarkson remains committed to serving the rest of his term and said that he expects to have finalized development guidelines for the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization initiative and completed the vast majority of the Delaware Avenue Streetscape Enhancement project (not to be confused with the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets project, which is still in planning phases) before leaving office. While he expects that open spaces planning will take longer, he feels confident that the conversation is underway and options are being actively explored.
“I leave knowing the town’s in great shape,” he said, “and very happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
“I would like to thank Supervisor Clarkson for the time he has dedicated to the community and wish him and his family the best in all of their future endeavors. I very much hope they remain involved in the community,” said Jim Foster, the Republican who ran against Clarkson in 2015 and lost by only a handful of votes. While Foster’s campaign Facebook page is still active, he declined any formal announcements until the Bethlehem Republican Committee endorses a candidate. “I will not speculate as to committee endorsements of either party,” he said. “However, I will say that I think the community is ready to build upon the momentum and excitement we saw in the last race for Town Supervisor.”
“John’s service as Town Supervisor has been exceptional,” said Town Board member David VanLuven, widely seen as the likely Democratic candidate for the office. “He’s shown the creativity to solve tough problems and the courage to tackle hard challenges. Bethlehem is better today because of his leadership, and this is a legacy that will not be soon forgotten.”
“We have the best suburban town in the Capital Region,” said Clarkson. “I feel that strongly. The schools; the town itself; the park; the proximity to Five Rivers; our own nature preserves; the downtown center. Those were the things that brought us here.” He will leave office, he said, with the hope and faith that those are things the next supervisor will also work to preserve and improve.
“I’ve done what I came to do,” he said.
More on 2017 Political Season
Deputy Supervisor Julie Sasso has announced that she will also be leaving her seat on the Town Board at the beginning of next year and newest Board member Giles Wagoner, who replaced William Reinholdt, will be running to retain his seat. Kuhn said that Democratic endorsements for all open town-wide elected positions will be announced at the committee’s public meeting at Bethlehem Public Library on May 11; Bethlehem Republican Committee Chairwoman Melissa Kermani said GOP endorsements will be made public via press release in coming weeks.