COLONIE — There is a small plaque on the windowsill of the corner office in Town Hall that Supervisor Paula Mahan has called home for nearly 14 years that says: “Go ahead, underestimate me. That’ll be fun.”
“They definitely did in the beginning,” said the diminutive former special education teacher who is leaving office at the end of the year after opting to not seek an eighth term. “I was new to them, and there was someone of a different political party and everyone thought they were going to lose their jobs but that wasn’t going to happen. I just had to get everyone working together and once that started to happen, we did some really good things.”
In 2007, Mahan was in her 24th year of teaching at Shaker Junior High School when she was asked to try her hand at politics. She started out at the top of the ticket and, as a converted Democrat, took on entrenched incumbent Mary Brizzell, a Republican in one of the last, and certainly the largest, bastions of GOP strength in Albany County.
In January, 2008, she took the oath of office and over the past 14 years has since fought off six formidable Republican opponents to take the oath six more times.
“The transition from school teacher turned out to be pretty smooth. It was not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said. “I never really had time to think about ‘is this really difficult’ or ‘what do we do next.’ I finished school just before Christmas vacation, said good bye to the kids, who were very supportive, and I was here on Jan. 1.”
She and her husband Joe grew up in Democratic Party households — she in Schenectady and he in Albany — and when they got married and moved to Colonie, everyone was Republican. Joe Mahan wanted to become a police officer and back then, a Republican had a much better chance of getting that job than an enrolled Democrat.
“It really didn’t matter to us at the time, we were middle of the road anyway, but we switched enrollments because that is what was expected when we moved to Colonie,” she said.
Joe Mahan went on to have a successful career in the Police Department and as a paramedic and was eventually elected to the Town Board. There was a falling out with some of the Republican Party powers that be, and the Mahans decided to return to their political roots and switched parties back to Democrat.
“They asked me if I would be interested in running and I don’t think I said yes right away but I ended up throwing my name out there,” she said with a chuckle. “I won, and started a whole new career, rather quickly I must say.”
The Mahans were for a long time involved in the community and she and her husband knew the town better than most. But, having an idea on how the different departments work on paper is one thing, on Jan. 1, 2008, those same department heads were looking to her to make decisions on water and sewer systems, roads, planning and all the everyday nuts and bolts behind a city of nearly 58 square miles where some 84,000 people live.
At the same time, Republicans were all still smarting from losing Town Hall — the Democrats took over the Town Board in ‘07 too — and the 550-plus workforce she had to rely on harbored adegree of skepticism about the special education teacher of a different party.
“Getting everyone to work together is a big task in and of itself. We have all the employees and all the people in the town and all the business and getting them all to work together and get great results is a great accomplishment. It takes working together and listening and being respectful to each other. Those are the kinds of skills you develop as a teacher. You have to enjoy working with people.”
One of the first things she did was move department head meetings from the small room behind the board room which she said “felt like a third grade classroom” and “nobody was talking and I thought ‘this is weird this is when they should be talking.’”
“We got them all talking with each other and they started working with each other. It was a lot of work but a lot of fun with some really great people,” she said.
Mahan also brought personality characteristics — like a street-smart common sense, a teacher’s compassion and a sense of pragmatism coupled with a thick skin — to the office and through her career put results above politics in a town where politics can get nasty.
“In a day and age where more leaders seem to make decision based on political expediency — Paula never wavered from her center which was always doing what she believed was right for the people of the town,” said Pete Gannon, who was Mahan’s chief of staff and who now heads up the United Way of the Capital Region.“We are better off as a town because of her selfless service these past 14 years.”
When Mahan took office, in addition to learning about how this sewer line worked and why that fire hydrant didn’t, the depth of the town’s financial problem became readily apparent and was quickly moved to the front burner. The multi-million operating deficit and the need to close the structural gap weighed in every decision Mahan and the Town Board would make for at least her first four years in office and is still a consideration today.
First, to stop the bleeding, she and the board cut some $8 million out of the budget by consolidating departments and eliminating jobs through attrition and trimming wherever possible. The annual budget was balanced, but it didn’t fix the debt problem and a 10-year financial plan was formulated.
“Those were the hardest decisions we had to make, based around the financial situation we inherited,” she said. “How do we keep people’s jobs, how do we function without going under a [state] control board so there was a lot asked of the employees and the taxpayers and they were very supportive so that made it easier but it was an extremely challenging time.”
It wasn’t until 2011, when the town privatized the landfill and received a $23 million upfront payment, that things began to stabilize.
“That was really a turning point for us. We all worked together and we did a lot of research before we put out an RFP for the operating agreement,” she said. “We wanted to make sure we maintained ownership, which we did, and we wanted to make sure we had a contract agreement that was beneficial to us and it definitely helped us turn that corner.”
The town had a structurally balanced budget and was, by and large, out of debt, but still had to watch the checkbook and it wasn’t until her last few years in office Mahan was able to invest back into town’s infrastructure and build a fund balance.
“When you consider water and sewer and highway we have invested more than $50 million,” she said.
Investments were also made at the town’s 12 pocket parks and a considerable amount of money was spent at the Town Park off Route 9 with a new liner and filtration system at the town poll and a new splash pad and a new playground at The Crossings.
Mahan liked to stay above the political fray and many of her decisions were apolitical, or made without considering political ramifications. She had alienated Republicans by beating them at the polls every two years and she alienated a number of left leaning Democrats in town, namely the SAVE Colonie group, for planning policies they say favored developers over the neighborhoods and the environment.
She stayed neutral in this year’s election where voters picked her successor, and opted to not endorse Republican Peter Crummey or Democrat Kelly Mateja. The fact she didn’t endorse a fellow Democrat was, in essence, an endorsement of Crummey and that also upset a number of Democrats.
She did, though, work for Democrats who she favored and that included Town Board member Melissa Jeffers.
“Since the day I expressed an interest in running for Colonie Town Board, Supervisor Mahan has always made herself available to answer my questions and listen to my concerns,” she said. “She has been an incredible mentor to me for the last four years and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from the leader who has always put the town and its residents first.”
Over the years, she has won some tough elections against some formidable opponents including former Albany County Executive Mike Hoblock and former state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner and former director of the town’s Planning Department Denise Sheehan. In 2019, she narrowly defeated the former town and county Republican Chairman George Scaringe by less than 150 votes.
The toughest, she said, wasn’t necessarily the closest or even the most bruising, but it was against Sheehan, because she was the most qualified and probably would have done a decent job as super.
“What I always asked is, is this really a credible candidate. If he or she got in they would do a great job here. Could they do the job as well as I could. That is the first impression,” she said. “She came with solid credentials and she ran a good campaign so that was the most difficult one.”
During her time the town was hit by a ransomware hacker who high jacked the town’s computer system and demanded $400,000 to return it. The town had an isolated backup system and didn’t pay any money but the disturbance lasted months.
There were also the ice storms, snow storms, water line breaks and other emergencies every town in the northeast must combat annually. And, then there was, of course, COVID, which everyone is still trying to navigate.
“This job is 24-7, 365 days a year,” she said. “I don’t know if I will miss that part of it. If anything major happens I would jump back in and help out, but in my mind, I am comfortable spending more time with my family and my friends and enjoying my life.”
She and her husband are expecting their third grandchild next month and they are planning on rescheduling a trip to Aruba they were forced to cancel because of COVID.
“I will miss doing 20 different things at one time, which is how I like to operate. I work better when I am doing several things at once but we are going to have time to spend time with the kids and grandkids and not have to rush all the time.”
Asked if she would have done anything differently she answered sincerely and without hesitation: “No, not a thing.”
Supervisor-elect Peter Crummey said he is in Town Hall on a daily basis and has had numerous meetings with Paula Mahan as well as a number of department heads.
“Paula has had an open door policy and we have been meeting for large segments of time and that is still ongoing as we speak,” said Crummey, a former judge of 21 years who as elected with about 57 percent of the vote.
He said at Mahan’s request, each department head has compiled a summation of their respective shop, complete with what is on the agenda, what issues are expected and what long term goals are on the table.
“It’s been very helpful but I have worked for the town for 41 years and while I don’t have all the answers I do believe I know where to find them,” Crummey said. “As you can imagine, the town of this size, and the heart of the downtown of the Capital Region there are a lot things happening every day and that doesn’t stop because there is a new supervisor coming into office.”
Crummey praised Mahan for her cooperation in making the transition and for her ability to put the town’s finances in order.
“Certainly, she was exceedingly well liked throughout the town and she maintained a steady course throughout her time in office,” he said. “Sometimes when you are a CEO of a company, or a municipal corporation as vast and complicated as the town there are a variety of issues you have to meet head on every day and it would appear not without buffeting and criticism and there is always the political element that continues to percolate year after year.”
Mahan said she is confident in Crummey’s ability to run the town.
“Peter has a solid background in town and he knows the town and we have been working on transition stuff and the town is in excellent shape,” Mahan said of her successor. “I am confident he will do a good job for the residents of Colonie.”
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