BETHLEHEM — In April, after serving nearly three terms as the town’s supervisor, John Clarkson announced that he would not run for re-election in November.
Spotlight News reporter Ali Hibbs caught up with Clarkson just days before he began his transition from politician to everyday citizen for his thoughts about his service to the town, his suggestions for his successors, and what he’s looking forward to most as he leaves office.
Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as town supervisor? How about your biggest failure or regret?
A: The greatest accomplishment was putting the town in a position to invest in its future. People will enjoy the new sidewalks, Delaware Avenue enhancement and parks improvements for many years. They’ll remember them more than the fiscal discipline which was a necessary precursor.
[I have] no regrets in terms of the choices made, but I wish we could have accomplished even more restructuring during my tenure.
The 2013 referendum on consolidation of highway and DPW failed primarily because it was held in April rather than on a normal election day, and that was a mistake. I think it’s natural for people to be concerned about new government models, but perhaps views will change over time.
Leaf pickup went very, very well this year with virtually no complaints, and it was all handled under our DPW commissioner.
But [the] big picture is good, as the town benefited from restructuring several operations and consolidating ambulance and EMS service. As a result we won a $776,000 grant from the state for local efficiency which was reinvested in technology and other improvements.
However, as finances improved dramatically the impetus for change faded. It’s hard to generate support for restructuring when the town is in great financial condition, winning awards and has the best credit rating and financial indicators in the county.
Q: What is your biggest take-away after six years of leading town government?
A: Public office is an opportunity to improve conditions, and you can’t make progress without taking some risks and taking on some baggage.
I did both and faced some tough issues, like reassessment and overtime control, but the results were good for the community overall. It is very heartening to see improved operations and finances, because that’s what allows us to make investments in facilities and public improvements.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
A: The $3.5 million budget gap coming into office in 2012. It equated to about 10 percent of town expenditures at the time, and required a lot of change.
It is at this point a distant memory, and we have put in place multiyear forecasting, fund balance standards and other strong financial policies that should keep it from happening again. It was, at the time, a very difficult circumstance to go through. I think we did it the right way, by bringing in the citizens, including through a very strong budget committee, but it was nevertheless a very challenging process.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from your time in office?
A: No single moment, as there were many, but most of my favorite memories involve going door to door talking to residents, and working with citizen groups, of which there have been 12 formed during my six years in office. These groups did great work and all completed their missions successfully. The local waterfront plan we just put out, the open space plan, and the Delaware Avenue enhancement project are all excellent examples. I got my start in town government by serving for four years on the 2020 committee, and I’m very proud to say that we have acted on just about every one of their recommendations. The result is that the town is headed toward the year 2020 in a greatly improved condition.
Q: Do you have any advice for incoming Supervisor David VanLuven?
A: Knowing when to say no is very important. You can’t do everything, and governance involves choices. You have an excellent town staff to rely on, and they’re people who have the experience that will help guide you and the board to the right answers.
Q: Do you have any advice for incoming Town Board members?
A: Being a good board member means contributing not just ideas, but also time and work to see things through. Take the time to talk to town staff, members of the community, and always strive to understand others’ perspectives.
Q: What are you most looking forward to after you leave office?
A: Having the freedom to pursue some personal goals and the opportunity to take the time to carefully embark on new challenges. I’m not using the r-word — retirement that is — because I’m not sure I can sustain that lifestyle. Then again, many of my retired friends are as busy as they ever have been – working more and enjoying it more. So we’ll see what comes, and I feel very lucky and happy to have many options. Choices are good.
I would very much like my last words to the citizens of Bethlehem to be thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to serve, for your friendship, and for your advocacy. Whether or not we were on the same side of every issue or not, I always value those who strive to improve the common good. Thank you.