Considering the fact that the local Democratic party will not be nominating a candidate in the November general election, the upcoming Shawangunk Republican party caucus was already shaping up to be a highly consequential political night for the town. But the caucus on Sept. 6 became even more interesting this month when the Shawangunk Republican Committee declined to endorse incumbent candidate Matthew Watkins, and instead threw its weight behind challenger Alex Danon, who sits on the Shawangunk Planning Board. With four-term incumbent Councilman Adrian Dewitt also seeking re-election this fall, the local GOP decided to endorse Dewitt and Danon for the pair of nominations up for grabs next week.
Watkins has served two four-year terms on the town council, but the party decided to recommend that voters go in a different direction in Wednesday’s balloting.
“We felt there was some personality conflict on the board and that Matt Watkins wasn’t pulling his weight,” Shawangunk Republican Committee Chairman Leif Spencer said. “We felt he wasn’t doing what was expected. He just didn’t seem to be prepared for meetings, and we have a newcomer in Alex Danon who sits on a lot of town committees and boards and is very active in the community. So we felt that the new blood coming in could enhance what’s already on the board. We didn’t want to go with the status quo.”
For his part, Watkins said he was surprised that the committee chose not to endorse him, and he pushed back against the party’s assessment of his tenure on the board. “Being an active member of the Republican committee for the last 20 years, I find it disheartening the comments made by the current committee chair,” he responded. “During my entire tenure as a board member, and other positions within the town, no questions or concerns were ever raised in the past or current interviewing process. I have always been, and always will, continue to represent my community throughout the entire township. I look forward to giving an opportunity to my fellow Republicans to choose on Sept. 6th.”
All registered Shawangunk Republicans are eligible to vote in Wednesday’s caucus, which will begin at 7 p.m. in the Wallkill Senior High School auditorium. “We’d like the residents to vote for the committee-endorsed candidates, but really we want all of the registered Republicans to come out and express their opinions,” Spencer said. “Let us know if they’re doing well or not. Vote your conscience.” The two winners that emerge from the caucus are expected to be the only names on the ballot for the Nov. 7 general board election, as the GOP nominees will also fill the independent lines on the ballot. “There’s no other announced candidates, so I would imagine when we’re done with the caucus we’ll know what the next town political system will be,” Spencer said.
Councilman Adrian Dewitt
Councilman Adrian Dewitt has been a fixture on the all-Republican board for 16 years, and the official believes there’s still much more for him to accomplish by continuing to serve the town. “The reason I’m running is that I still enjoy it,” he said. “When people come to me to ask for help, I get right on it. For me, it’s still enjoyable to do that, and to see the difference I can make in the community. So I don’t think it’s time to step down. I still get the enjoyment out of helping people. Plus when I see the taxes in the adjoining towns, I know I have a key part in keeping our taxes down so that they’re very affordable. So the kids can grow up and stay here if they want to stay in the community.”
Dewitt, who goes by the nickname Binker, has been married for 23 years to his wife Melissa and has three kids in the Pine Bush school system. Dewitt, 47, has spent the past 26 years with the Orange County Highway Department, where he works as a District Supervisor, and he also serves as Shawangunk’s Deputy Supervisor “I work right with (Shawangunk Supervisor) John Valk, and when he’s out of town I handle the supervisor duties,” Dewitt said.
Dewitt is a major presence in the town government, and his efforts have paid off in numerous departments over the years. “I’ve served on the Highway Committee, and made a lot of changes,” he explained. “We increased the manpower and the machinery. I’m also on the Parks Committee, and I was instrumental in building Verkeerderkill Park and helped develop Galeville Park and the rail trail. We did a lot to develop the rail trail on that committee. I also chair the Recreation Committee, and there I try to get recreation for all ages. I do a lot with the seniors. We throw them a Christmas party, and we’re doing a barbecue next week with them.”
Dewitt is particularly happy with the evolution of the summer rec program under his stewardship. “We had the largest summer camp this year in the history of the town,” he said. “That’s been moved to Verkeerderkill Park, because it’s a beautiful facility and we can use that cost-free. This year we had 91 kids. I have a budget, but I actually do that with little to no cost to the taxpayers. This year we hired 13 kids from the town that actually worked there for the summer.” The local party has also been impressed with Dewitt’s guidance of the summer camp initiative. “He’s in charge of our recreation program, and that thing has exploded,” Spencer said. “They’re doing more and it’s self-sustaining. They actually make a profit. There’s so much for the kids to do during the summer, and that’s an initiative that he took, and was his program. So it’s grown under his leadership.”
If he’s re-elected to a fifth term this fall, Dewitt still has a host of ideas he’d like to implement in the town. “I’d like to continue to work with the Highway Superintendent (Joseph LoCicero) and get some of the roads paved,” he said. “We’re working on that now. I want to continue to further the recreation program, and offer some middle-aged activities such as yoga and pilates. I’m working with a gentleman right now to do some classes. We also want to continue the Wallkill football program, and there’s a travel team in Galeville. We built the field to house the travel team and to generate revenue. We’d also like to make the Planning Board a little more friendly so that we can speed up the process of people that want to develop and bring business and residential into the town.” Dewitt was pleased to get the Republican committee’s backing in advance of the caucus, but hopes that his supporters won’t get complacent and assume victory. “I’m happy to get it,” he said of the endorsement. “I’ve always done 100 percent of what I can do for people, and they know that I work hard. I put in full-time hours being a councilman. It’s very important to me to make sure that things run right in the town. It’s still fun for me, and when it ain’t fun that’s when you quit.”
Councilman Matthew Watkins
Councilman Matthew Watkins is hoping to earn a third term on the board, and the official, who also served a year on the Pine Bush school board, wants to build upon the progress the board has made during his eight-year stint with the group. “I decided to run again because I do feel the community does need a choice,” he said. “For my platform, it’s difficult to say status quo, because that has a misnomer to it. But it has a lot to do with continuing the changes that are going on with the community. I want to continue to work on our budget, and make sure the budget stays within the guidelines of the tax cap.”
Watkins, 55, is self-employed and has resided in the town his entire life. “All of my children have grown up in the Shawangunk community and they’re involved,” he said. “They come with me to as many events and meetings as they can.” Watkin’s brother Mark is the Planning Board Chair, and the family has a long history of serving the community. “I’m always willing to learn and to work for the community and fit their needs the best way we can,” Watkins said. “I’m a lifelong resident and I’m part of a second generation that has donated their services.”
Despite the Republican committee choosing not to endorse him for one of the two available nominations, Watkins insists the current town administration could move forward together if he’s re-elected this fall. “We can continue to work as a team,” he said. “We’ve been a great team. The Town Board works closely with the Highway Department and we work well with the employees within the organization. We’re keeping costs down and maintaining a positive flow. We’re upgrading our zoning laws as we need, and we’re reviewing the entire plan to make it more streamlined.”
Watkins wants the town to plan for the future, and hopes to work towards those goals if re-elected. “The town is growing and we haven’t done a master plan update on the community, so it’s time,” he explained. “We’ve started to do a new master plan to change our zoning to make it more compatible with today’s needs of the community. We also need to work to develop infrastructure in the town. Keeping the roads maintained, but also to keep developing our parks. We also have to maintain our buildings and properties to make sure we keep up with everything so it won’t go by the wayside.”
The council member has gained precious knowledge over the course of his two terms that he believes would prove valuable if he wins another term on the board. “I really want to focus on communication with the people and being more efficient within the government itself,” Watkins said. “I’ve learned that government doesn’t work overnight, it takes time. You have to make sure you listen to the people and work together as a team.”
Alex Danon has served Shawangunk in multiple capacities during his time with the community, as the challenger currently sits on the Planning Board, the Board of Assessment Review, and the re-zoning committee. Danon, 33, is also the chair of the Main Street Revitalization Committee volunteer group, which aims to enhance the downtown area.
Danon, who grew up in the Town of Montgomery, moved to Shawangunk seven years ago and was hired this month by the Wallkill Central School District to be the District Data Coordinator and the head coach of the Panthers boys lacrosse team. After learning the ins and out of local government from numerous angles already, Danon is hoping to secure a seat on the town council in order to improve the lives of constituents.“I would work for the people and be responsive to them,” he said. “I’ve already met with a couple of groups and I look forward to meeting with others to talk about their issues and ways that I’d be able to help if I were on the town board. I just want to move forward, that’s the biggest thing. The town board does a great job now, and I want to keep that going and just find some other areas that we can improve.”
Among the issues Danon wants to focus on if elected is making Shawangunk a destination for thriving local businesses. “One of the biggest things is updating some of the zoning laws to make the town a little more business-friendly,” he noted. “We want to entice some more businesses to move into the town, and help the ones that are already here.” Danon also wants to boost the town’s first response units. “I want to focus on ambulance services,” he said. “Right now, the town struggles with the three volunteer agencies that cover it, because the volunteer numbers are down everywhere. The Fire Department, our numbers are down. So just being able to find a way to help those guys service the town and make sure that when somebody calls, they’re going to get a response.”
The candidate also wants to ensure that the Shawangunk Police Department has the resources and personnel it needs to succeed. “Another thing I want to do is kind of stabilize the Police Department,” Danon said. “They’ve had a lot of turnover, and the Chief (Frank Petrone) is retiring. So hiring a new Police Chief is very important. Just getting somebody in who can stabilize the department and keep the guys once they’re hired. So we can get them trained and then not have to pay for the turnover costs.” Danon is a regular presence in the crowd at town board meetings, which he contends would be crucial to his adaption to the board if he’s elected. “I haven’t missed many in the last five or so years,” he said of the board sessions. “I think that’s important, that I could jump in Day One and know all the issues and be ready to get to work.”
Danon was thankful for the party endorsement, which should provide a boost to his candidacy. “It’s huge,” he said. “The committee was solidified in their choice, and having their support is very humbling and something I’m very proud of. So having their support, and having them help bring people to the caucus is immeasurable to me.” Danon thinks the lessons he’s learned during his time with the Planning Board would help him serve ably on the town board if he’s chosen by voters. “Communication is very important,” he said. “The Planning Board has gotten much better in the past year communicating with everybody. Getting responses back is so important to make sure everybody is on the same page, working towards the end goal of making the best project we can. That’s what I’d like to do with the town, make it the best it can be. Keeping it affordable and keeping taxes low, while providing great services.”
By Ted Remsnyder