While the seeds of the nationwide coronavirus pandemic response may have been sewn in Washington DC, and the hardline logistics of unprecedented mandates fleshed out on behalf of the most vulnerable within the halls of State Capitol buildings across the country, the brunt of the human response to this generational crisis has hit closer than ever to home. Leaders in county and town governments everywhere have experienced the virus’s on-the-ground impact in a variety of both horrific, and hopeful ways while handling new responsibilities they could have never imagined before.
In the small town of Hillsdale, NY, where surnames define eras and neighborly bonds are forged into perpetuity, Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski, whose roots run deep in the Roe Jan area, has taken this new burden upon his shoulders with help from residents and business leaders determined to endure. The landscape of Hillsdale has seen more than a few changes over the last half-century, and though the current transformation defines what is unexpected, Peter shares his faith in the immeasurable connection between the Town residents that will carry Hillsdale through the harsh rigors of uncertainty.
Growing up in the Hudson Valley, spending your youth in the Hillsdale area, and attending Roe Jan, you have seen decades of transformation in the area. Did that play a role in compelling you to get involved in town government? How did you find the path to Town Supervisor?
There were two primary factors that motivated me to get involved and run for the Town Board in 2005. The changing landscape had a lot to do with my decision. For example, Hillsdale was beginning to see some development along the ridge of the Taconic mountain range that straddles our border with Massachusetts – a literal changing of our landscape. Suddenly, there were a couple of gashes along the top of the mountain that felt like an affront to the community – not to mention ecosystems. So a viewshed that had been pristine for millions of years was now vulnerable. I wanted to be part of a Town Government that would adopt laws that would help to protect the ridgeline ecosystem and also provide property owners with appropriate guidelines.
Another catalyst for me came about when I saw how our hamlet center, similar to that of many upstate New York towns, was folding up with each passing year. I knew that Hillsdale had the components to make a vibrant hamlet district – a sewer infrastructure that was already underway, a collection of historic structures, two well-traveled state roads, a village focal point with a handsome Civil War monument, underutilized green space, and plenty of residents who were determined to support local businesses. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Though the Town had adopted a strong comprehensive plan from the 90s, there was no specific blueprint for the hamlet. We adopted one in 2010 and that has given us a vocabulary to guide our growth starting with sidewalks and lamp posts that were installed a couple of years ago. There’s still more work to do but we have momentum.
You’ve spent much of your professional life taking on executive roles particularly in the educational field, is there a correlation in culture or management style when it comes to local government?
I have always believed in building consensus and servant leadership. That’s my philosophy. Though a town supervisor presides over the Town’s agenda, it only works when we support each other. We also have a strong community culture that, in my view, has to be heard and should inform the true direction of the town. Because the Town Board has budget oversight and oversees the big picture, there has to be a lot of prioritization. We can’t do everything we want right away.
I’m also an educator at heart so I like to put all the facts on the table. I try to over-communicate. Everyone in the community should have access to Town issues and, if they feel compelled, the opportunity to weigh in. That can happen at a Town Board meeting or anyone can call me anytime to vent or share their point of view.
Have there been any particular Town issues that have taught significant lessons as town supervisor or that have changed your overall perspective in any way?
A couple of things. As a supervisor, I get to be part of a larger conversation within Columbia County as a member of the Board of Supervisors. County governance is designed to get us through “this year” and “this year” alone. There is very little thinking about the road ahead. For example, we have yet to see a cohesive multi-year plan for economic growth. There isn’t enough concern or planning to support housing needs in rural areas. There is no action plan in place to address the looming crisis in volunteer fire departments and other critical areas that help Columbia County function.
Some of us have suggested that Columbia County deserves a full-time, professional county executive who has experience overseeing a multi-million dollar business, has a vision for the county’s future, and will hold county departments accountable to the highest standards possible. Very little of this comes up and is probably unlikely to anytime soon given the huge financial challenges the county now faces because of the pandemic.
At the town level there are also a few obsolete ways of doing things. There’s too much of every town for itself. For example, I suspect there would be less burden on the taxpayer if town highway departments were restructured. What if the county had a greater leadership role in overseeing road maintenance on town roads? Town highway departments may do the best they can with their budgets, but there are uneven practices and priorities across the towns.
None of this is revolutionary. In fact, most New York State counties already have appointed or elected county managers, appointed (non-elected) town highway superintendents, and shared district courts. I’m inclined to support change if it makes us more efficient, more accountable, and saves taxpayer money. But we need more supervisors to take it on at the county level.
Your husband Bill has landed a big job in Los Angeles and as such you both have recently made the move to Los Angeles. How are you finding the transition and has it changed how you delegate town issues?
Bill started his job in Los Angeles in January and I’ve been transitioning. COVID is rewriting everything. I just spent six week working from Town Hall every day. Carrying on with town business is much easier because Hillsdale has an incredibly supportive town clerk and deputy supervisor. They just want to get the work done in a professional, productive, and positive way. Hillsdale will remain my top priority until the day I leave office.
You have been one of the most reliable resources for updates on how both Hillsdale and Columbia County are managing the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the current state of the pandemic affected your outlook on local government?
It has been a “hair-on-fire” situation for everyone. County leaders have done a great job of distilling the Governor’s executive orders, preparing for and managing the ongoing impact of COVID – especially with respect to health concerns and financial matters – and distributing relevant information with town supervisors. My job has been to support my community, educate where I have to, alert the board and highway superintendent about new financial risks, and do everything I can to protect the town.
Like many of our neighboring towns, Hillsdale happens to have a great support network. Seniors and the most vulnerable are being monitored by our Safe at Home Committee, high school students organized an effective delivery service, masks have been made and distributed, and our Roe Jan Food Pantry is working overtime to serve people in need. We have also received an astonishing amount of financial contributions for the sole purpose of distributing to families who have lost income due to COVID-19. I’m so proud to be part of this community and I’ll be very sorry to step away from being part of it when the time comes. Bill and I are already imagining how we will want to participate when we come home to Hillsdale full-time in the future. •
To reach Peter Cipkowski, Hillsdale Town Supervisor, you can call (518) 325-5073 x6 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.