By Rob Montana
With at least 20 people announcing their plans to run for Tompkins County Legislature in the fall, Tompkins Weekly will be offering readers an opportunity to learn more about the people who will be appearing on ballots in September and November.
District 13, which covers part of the Town of Dryden, has been represented by Martha Robertson since 2002. A former chairperson of the Legislature – from 2010-2013 – her political career also includes a run for Congress in 2014.
To learn more about Robertson’s view of being a legislator, we asked her about the issues she sees facing Tompkins County.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Martha Robertson: Housing – and the impacts of our housing shortage on social equity and environmental sustainability
We face a critical housing shortage which creates family instability as people struggle to find and keep a roof over their heads, and results in approximately 14,000 of our workers commuting daily from outside the county.
The county’s 2006 Housing Needs Assessment found a need for 4,000 new housing units between 2005 and 2014, but we fell short: 3,200 units were built even as several thousand more college students than expected came into our housing market over those years. As a result, the 2016 Assessment shows a need for 5,800 new units through 2025, not including new beds for students.
The need for housing that low-moderate income people can afford is especially critical. The private market simply cannot meet the need, and there just aren’t enough public dollars available.
This shortage creates human misery, exacerbates inequities in our society, and contributes to climate change because people are forced to travel farther from home to work and services. The solutions are complex, but they’re within our reach, if we work together toward a more sustainable and just housing market.
Climate change and energy: What can we do locally to play our part in this global challenge?
Locally, climate change is already affecting our agriculture, our health, and our economy. We’re already taking many steps to mitigate the damage and transition away from fossil fuels, but we simply must accelerate the transition.
One of the issues I’ve been working diligently on is finding a way to avoid new gas infrastructure – that is, a pipeline through the Town of Dryden – which NYSEG proposed to provide more gas service to Lansing. We are making good progress in working with NYSEG and the Public Service Commission on a “non-pipe alternative,” which will move our entire community away from its reliance on gas.
Criminal justice system: How do we improve our system, in the community, the courts, and within the jail, to reduce the number of people in that system? How do we reduce and treat substance abuse and mental health challenges, and provide people with the jobs and housing they need, so they’re able to avoid the criminal justice system altogether?
With the recent “jail study report” by CGR consultants, we have a roadmap for changes that can make a difference in people’s lives and in our incarceration rate. The investments that will be needed are worthy of our tax dollars, and a much better investment than building new jail cells would be. Now it’s up to New York State to decide which path we’ll be permitted to take.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
MR: Experience and institutional memory: First elected in 2001, I’ve seen many changes over the past 15-plus years. Now, as three top county officials and five legislators retire, and another three incumbent legislators face electoral challenges, the need for institutional memory is more important than at any time during my four previous terms. When I started, I relied heavily on my more experienced colleagues to explain the many complex issues that we face, and I hope I can provide that support for new folks coming into the legislature!
Hard working, willing to speak up: I think I’ve earned a reputation for working hard and being tenacious on issues that matter most to my district and county residents as a whole. I’m not afraid to speak up, and to challenge “the powers that be,” in Albany for example. I do my homework and learn the facts, and then I work hard to implement the best possible solutions that we can.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
MR: Most people don’t know I’m an identical twin! My sister lives in California, so folks would not be likely to run into her in Wegmans.
TW: How do you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
MR: That’s a constant question for a lawmaker! You can’t possibly poll every constituent to get their position on every issue, so you rely on a combination of your knowledge of your district, and your own judgment and experience. Staying in close touch with your voters is key – to hear from them while also sharing your evaluation of issues based on the best information you can get.
I do not think the Legislature should be a platform for someone to promote their personal ideology. We’re elected to represent people we agree with AND people we don’t agree with. Compromise is often the right decision, even if you would prefer a “purer” outcome.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
MR: I care deeply about this community and about the challenges we face, and I’m eternally optimistic about our ability to make a difference. We’ve been able to lead the state in so many areas, thanks to the engagement of our residents, the vision and expertise of our county staff, and our progressive values. I have the energy and drive to continue to serve and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to do so.