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Michael Koplinka-Loehr

Michael Koplinka-Loehr is challenging incumbent Ed LaVigne for Town Supervisor.  Koplinka-Loehr and his wife Carrie have lived in Lansing for ten years, and has lived in Tompkins County for over 50 years.  He currently works as a field representative for the US Census Bureau, conducting surveys across five counties.  Koplinka-Loehr was an Ithaca representative on the Tompkins County Legislature for 12 years, and chaired the Legislature for two of those years, and chaired the Budget Committee for four years.  He has served on the Ithaca City School District and Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Boces School District (representing Lansing) boards of education.  He served on the Lansing Community Council, the Bicentennial Committee, and the Lansing Economic Development Committee.

He says his platform can be described in six words: thoughtful planning, thoughtful budgeting, thoughtful communication.  He stopped by the Lansing Star to talk about his candidacy.

Lansing Star With the power plant closing, there has been a lot of development in the past four years to fill in lost tax revenue.  Is encouraging development still as important, and how do you see it filling in in the town?  This also speaks to what forms of power supply the Town should be advocating/lobbying for.  For example, if the Town wants more renewable energy should it restrict the size of solar farms within its boundaries?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr Thankfully, after six years we've passed the comprehensive plan.  It took a long time.  There was lots of community input, and I'm not satisfied that the end process wasn't rushed.  But we do have a comprehensive plan.

At this moment we're translating that comprehensive plan into zoning updates.  That, itself, is a guideline, a template for where we want different things in our community, whether it's open space, whether it's housing, whether it's business, whether it's industry, or agriculture.  So it's a very critical time for anyone elected to understand the values of the community as it grows.

Everyone, probably, is interested in preserving what we would call the heart and soul of Lansing, the underlying values.  As we grow -- no one is saying we're not going to grow.  It's a fact of nature, essentially, since we're at the edge of a growing county.  So how do we do that?  I think implementing the comprehensive plan through that zoning upgrade is essential, and we have to get community input.

Part of my three highlights is reaching out to the public.  We had an idea of a town center that was moving forward. At some point it got set aside and the land that was designed for the town center was put up for sale.  Thankfully some of the people that were involved in the initial town center discussion, like Cornerstone housing, for instance, followed through on the town center discussion they were having, and put a proposal in to buy some land.  So it's aligned with the vision that focus groups and charrettes and other kinds of community input led to what should our town center look like.  Essentially we did that and we got to a certain point and then we set it aside and put the land up for sale. That's not my preferred method of dealing with planning in the Town of Lansing.

So, yes, I think it's not as stressful at this moment to have the economic development of housing developments, although all of Tompkins County needs more affordable housing, and we can participate in that.   But I do think it's essential that we abide by our comprehensive plan, which does have a lot of citizen input, and continue to seek citizen input.  I think you've seen some reaction to our existing zoning.  For instance if you look at the wedding venue on Emmons Road, "we didn't realize that in our present zoning this would be allowed" -- that kind of thing.

So I think people need to be informed, they need to be asked their opinion about the zoning in their neighborhood, what kind of neighborhood they want, and then we need to use our present committee structure to roll that out.

There is a whole variety of ways to increase our tax base -- not just through development.  I would say at present we are responding to developers' proposals as opposed to moving forward with a vision and incorporating development along with our vision.

As you probably are aware I am a big supporter of renewable energy.  I have solar panels on my house.  I was a consultant with BOCES for schools to save energy.  I think Lansing can be a leader in a sustainable future.

How can we do that?  I think we can and are getting grants to educate citizens about their options, whether it's heat pumps, non-carbon source heating... I also think we can incentivize businesses as well.  So we have an opportunity before us, at this moment, to be a leader, and I think we can capitalize on it with the information we have about both renewable energy and also energy sources all across the spectrum, whether it's ag, business, residential, industrial.

Lansing Star  Some folks have criticized the town government -- you're one of them -- for not doing all it can to communicate with and engage Lansing citizens.  It seems to me that a lot actually is being done, and there have been some improvements, for instance, with videos of town meetings being posted on the Web site for the past three or so years.  Secondly it seems to me that most people don’t choose to engage unless something is upsetting them.  So what is good about current communications, and what should be done to make communication better?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr  I think this is one of the essential differences between myself and my opponent.  I think that one could purport that the present level of communication is satisfactory.  I don't believe that to be true. I think that we all have busy lives. I think that it takes a certain amount of initiative for anyone -- like you said they might be angry.  They might be upset by something -- to get out of their busy lives and come to a board meeting...  to go to the Web site and even find out when meetings are... to look up minutes... to learn about proposals.

So I think its beholding on the Town to reach out to the community, whether it's through newsletter, whether it's through neighborhood meetings... to help people understand "this is effecting you, and how" whether its a particular broad issue that people have said, "I want to follow an ag issues or I want to follow technology issues" or environment, or whatever -- or if it's a neighborhood issue, or a regional issue, or some topical thing.

We are beholding to reach out because people don't have a lot of time. We can do it through social media. We can do it through an actual paper newsletter.  We can do it through neighborhood meetings.  There is a whole variety of ways we can reach out on these topic-centic -- when people have signed up -- things.  So we need to be proactive as a town.

You and I get inundated every single day with way more information than we can digest.  But at least to have the access to it when our radar raises "I want to follow this" I think is beholding on us to do that kind of outreach, and we're just simply not doing it adequately.  I think we've seen that reaction. Yes, there have been some recent highlights, but that's been in response to people, unfortunately, having to come to board meetings to demand it.  The recent training about tone, demeanor, how we're going to be listening well to the public, is in reaction to what was a prior deficit.  This kind of changing of the culture to help everyone in the town government --  the administration and employees -- understand that our responsibility is to get the information out and seek information from, on a regular basis, is an ongoing battle,

I'll give you an example.  When I was chair of the (Tompkins County) Budget Committee, for instance, we didn't just have budget forums.  I think those are dismal.  A budget forum is... someone comes, possibly because they're either advocating for something or they're mad about something.  They stand and deliver, hopefully at a microphone, hopefully they're prepared.  And they sit down and that's it.

I actually believe in structuring the ways to engage the public meaningfully.  So you can actually have a budget forum where you have a way to educate them.  Say they come for an hour. They have refreshments.  They go to different tables and find out about different parts of the budget.  "I want to learn about the ag part of the budget."  "I want to learn about recreation."  "I want to learn about the highway superintendent."

Then, once they've had some education and have had some question and answer... then they can weigh in meaningfully.  And they can say, "thank you very much for this."  I think you've been present at some pseudo-educational sessions where I believe the present administration has stood and delivered, but there was no question and answer and there was no dialog.

I don't find that satisfactory. So I would very much emphasize meaningful engagement, meaningful participation, meaningful civic outreach.

Lansing Star  I have heard both positive ideas and concerns about how the role of the new environmental advisory board should fit into governmental processes.  I should specifically say nobody is arguing that there shouldn't be one -- it's just a matter of how it's going to dovetail with government processes.  On the pro side, of course, is that the town should be protecting the environment, and this is a mechanism for responsible stewardship of Lansing.  But there is also a concern that I heard from a planning board member about inserting extra and possibly unnecessary paperwork, time, etc. in, for example, the site plan process that would discourage development here.  It’s always a balance.  I am just using that board as an example.  Another example is how much to limit land use for large solar projects to protect prime farm land because it's a balance between encouraging new business and renewable energy but also not to penalize farmers who rent land.  What do you think is the right balance between legitimate town governmental concerns and getting projects approved and done?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr  I'll take two steps back from that question and tell you boldly that I really believe in community committees, advisory boards, focus groups. Tompkins County had something like 40 advisory boards and I felt like every single one had value.  In Tompkins County we have something called the EMC, the Environmental Management Council.  Now we have the CAC, the Conservation Advisory Council here in Lansing.

I really believe in -- if there's a need for it... not to have a committee for a committee's sake... but if there's a need for it I think you always benefit from more community input.

Lansing Star  I'm not questioning that, especially in this case (the CAC)...

Michael Koplinka-Loehr  Right.  This particular committee, and I think all committees have a mission.  They're given a charge and they have a work plan to accomplish that, whether it's the Ag Committee, the Economic Development committee which I was on... there could be -- and I have suggested three times to deaf ears -- a citizen engagement or citizen participation committee.  We have a planner and a town attorney who will help devise that charge.

Then those committees do good work and they give recommendations and advice to the Town Board or to the appropriate sub-committee of the Town Board.  They don't have to listen to the advice.  But that's a lot of work.  People do a ton of research. They listen to people in the community. I can't see how that's a bad thing.  Yes, there could be a concern that it might "slow down a process", but if inclusion of a variety of opinions slows down a process but comes out with a better decision, I think we're all for it.

I'm a long distance runner. I'm a long distance swimmer.  I look towards the long term goal. I don't look for short term goals.  In the Town of Ithaca where I lived before I chaired a Traffic Calming committee, six years for a particular community.  It was a small community that had a lot of divisive opinions.  It took six years.  But we were looking at a 50 year plan.  And over those 50 years -- it's been about 20 now since I chaired that committee, out of the 50 -- we slowly rolled out a vision that the community had.  That is the kind of thing that all these advisory committees can and should do.

Another thing that I wanted to highlight is that I come from a big family.  I am a middle child.  I think anybody who is a young person probably has an inate sense of what is fair.  On an advisory committee, to get more information, to get more advice one would say, "that's fair. That's right.  Its not slowing down a process.  You're getting good people in the community with good intentions contributing."  And that can't be wrong.  So I think there's a sense of fairness and justice in not having a smaller subcommittee... that you don't actually know when they're meeting. And there are times when people have asked "when's the fire hall meeting?"  "When's this meeting?  "Do you have to go to Linda's Diner to attend that committee meeting?" It's very odd that you even have to try to find out when committees are meeting.

So I think it's a more open process, it's more fair for citizens to know, "Oh I know those six people on the committee. I can go talk to them in the grocery store."  And I think that we're all better off for those advisory committees.

Lansing Star  The three Democrats' (including your) platform highlights three key points: Better planning, communication, and spending accountability, and you have already addressed communication.  Specifically, how will you make planning and fiscal accountability better than it currently is?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr I alluded to the planning issue before, but I will reinforce it now. I have a masters degree in planning.  I have been involved in planning for my entire professional life, whether it's government planning, or non-profit planning.  I think I bring that skill set to the Town of Lansing in terms of looking toward the long term, but also not responding to proposals, but actually designing what one could typically call a master plan for where we're heading, with a lot of community input.  And then fitting in the ideas proposed by both the community and people from outside the community into what we see as our vision.  That's not happening now.  I gave the example that, in my estimation, we are selling off parcels of what could have been a town center to a variety of proposals was lezss than satisfactory in terms of an overall master plan being achieved.

I, particularly, was one person who considered, in the back part of that (land), putting in a bid for the hillside near the Lansing Residential Center juvenile detention facility) -- which probably wouldn't have a big demand for housing -- for solar. Because it's facing south.  Having a small solar field there, and possibly powering the Residential Center or, depending on where the power line would go.  I decided ultimately not to do that, but I thought it was ideal for that.

But I still disagree with selling off the parcels, as opposed to having an overall plan that people plug into.  That's a very direct example of a difference of approach.

And budgeting. I was chair of the (Tompkins County) Budget committee for four years.  One anecdote which is representative of how I work: I formed a Community advisory  Panel of a variety of leaders from a variety of backgrounds.  One was someone from Lansing who had some financial background.  I added to that committee someone who -- in the past I had been involved in a union, and that was my supervisor. So you can see that there might have been some disagreements in how we approached things, but I appointed that person to the committee to advise, how we could improve our budget process.

That committee came up with about 40 recommendations. We put about 20 of them into place. But one of the most significant ones literally transformed the budget process.  At the time the budget process for Tompkins County was you start with high proposals and you whittle it down.  Ultimately we flipped it and we started with low proposals.  Under inflation we set a tax target and then we had to give justifications for anything added above.

That simple flip -- start high and cut versus start low and add with justification -- saved every single taxpayer in Tompkins County for the last 15 years the difference between where the tax rate has been -- under inflation -- to where it was before that -- sometimes in the teens.

You have benefited.  I have benefited.  Every single taxpayer has benefited.  This is the kind of budget management that have tried. I involved community members in giving recommendations on how to improve the budget process.  But let me get even more specific.  In the Town of Lansing sometimes purchases are made and then, afterwards, they are voted on after the fact.  To do a transfer, for instance... how are we going to pay for this?  The generator was one instance.  Buy the generator -- oh let's a transfer afterwards.   I think that's inappropriate, and it's not following accounting practices.  I think we need to allocate the funds initially in a plan, and then put it out to bid, and then make the purchases as opposed to what's happened recently.

Lansing Star  Despite disclaimers from board members, the Town Board does seem to vote by party quite a lot.  That means that a supervisor who is outnumbered needs to be an effective leader in order to persuade members of the opposing party in order to be effective.  How will you do that?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr In this particular instance I pride myself on actually being quite bipartisan.  At the Lansing Carnival Republicans and Democrats had booths.  I was circulating through the crowd handing out 'I Love Lansing' stickers.  It had an elephant, it had a donkey, and it had the Lansing lighthouse.  My opponent was handing out 'Vote for Ed' buttons.

I felt, OK, that's totally appropriate.  You want to win.  But that's the kind of approach I have.  I'm not twisting your arm on who to vote for.  I'm saying participation in voting is a civic duty and I really hope that everyone votes, and may the best person win.

When I was chair of the Legislature I appointed people from all backgrounds to chair committees, to the angst of my own party.  At the time there were some young members of the Democratic caucus who wanted to get appointments.  I said, well, I think we have persons with greater experience who happen to be of another party.  I appointed them as chairs of committees, and i got some evil eyes for that.  But I felt, again, like we want the best in a room.

The same thing for the committee I mentioned, the bipartisan Budget Advisory Committee and other committees.  When I first got on the board... I was elected to the Tompkins County Legislature in 1998... in 1999 I asked the Chair at the time if I could form a Quality of Life committee.  Everyone's talking about quality of life across Tompkins County. We talk about it in the Town of Lansing.  How might we measure that?  We formed a 30-person committee, people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, including Lansing farmers, to advise us on how we wanted to measure the quality of life in Tompkins County and to get about measuring it, which we did.

There's a report.  It was the year 2000, but it's also called the 2020Report, so in 2020 revisit that.  Have we improved on these quality of life measures?  Have we gone backwards, whether it's in the birth rate, death rate, civic participation... it's got around 25 indicators of quality of life and measures and different duties of who might measure that over the next 25 years.

This is three or four different examples of how I am bipartisan.  I am inclusive. I do think about who is not at the table who should be at the table, and invite them in.  And when young people may be invited to a discussion that is dominated by adults, how can you give those young people support to speak up and feel included and feel like they belong?  What people from other marginalized backgrounds? I just used young people as an example.

Typically, before the meeting, I would ask the young person, Do you have questions about the agenda?  Do you want to meet wish someone to go over it?  Do you want to share?  Do you want to practice what you might want to say about this item?  So you're giving them the strength and the skill set to participate meaningfully.  I do this not just on committees but even if it's the public speaking.

One of the criticisms most recently is 'We don't know what the process is in the Town of Lansing to weigh in meaningfully.  When are these votes happening?  What's the process before the vote happens?'  Again, to reach out and explain, not just this affects you and why, but how you can be involved in the process.  What is the process?  Is the process fair?  A lot of people might weigh in and then say 'It was stacked.  They had their minds made up already.' and these kinds of things.  That's not helpful for civic engagement over the long haul, because people get discouraged and go away.

All these things reflect that I am one of the best, long term, independent of anyone's background or party affiliation, character.

Lansing Star  What makes you the best candidate?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr I have the most experience.  I have well over 40 years of public leadership, public service.  In general anyone you ask in the community would say 'Mike has a calling for public service.'  There's a cost.  I applaud anyone running for office.  I respect and honor every single candidate in this race and any elected office, because it's a lot of work. The family takes a toll. My retirement is much lower because I worked in the public and non-profit sectors because I believe in civic engagement, and inspiring people to make their communities better.

That's a long, long legacy that I bring to this role.  But more specifically, if I had to summarize, perfectly honestly, in one word, it would be respect.  I think I respect the hearts and minds of voters whatever the outcome. I think I respect I respect every single citizen.

You didn't quite ask the question 'why am I running?'  I would say I am running for 11,000 reasons, 11,000 individual residents in Lansing, young, old, from all kinds of backgrounds.  I love going door to door and hearing their stories.  When I ran in 2017 I probably went to almost every -- I'm thinking 96 or 97 percent -- of the voting households in Lansing, and was able to either leave a note or have a conversation. I am trying to replicate that this year.

Evry single person in Lansing has a story -- young, old, various backgrounds... and I'm excited to represent those as Supervisor.

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