Dec 02, 2011 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
A black helium balloon that was set free in Jamesville, and later landed in a Harrisburg, Pa., backyard, sparked a three-decade crusade in local government for DeWitt Town Board member Vicki Baker.
I’ve known and worked with Vicki on local environmental issues for over 30 years. She is a close friend and one of my most trusted and valued board members. She will be missed on the board, but I am sure her contributions and accomplishments on behalf of the CNY environmental community will continue.
— Ed Michalenko, DeWitt town supervisor
She is retiring from local government after years in the county legislature and one term on the DeWitt Town Board.
Her history in local government started after she moved to Jamesville, when plans for the current incinerator plant on Rock Cut Road were coming to fruition.
“I thought to myself, I better see if that’s really a good idea,” she said. “The more I heard, the more I was concerned.”
From her research, she learned the air produced by the incinerator was potentially harmful, pumped full of potential toxins for the environment and those breathing that air. Having moved to Jamesville to set roots for her family, this was of greatest concern.
“I wasn’t an environmentalist until I became a mother,” she said.
She set free black helium balloons with a business card attached that told residents if they’re seeing the balloon in their yard, that they were downwind of possible toxins released by the proposed incinerator. Her phone number was on the bottom of the card, offering residents a place to call. The balloons would typically stay in the Jamesville-DeWitt, Fayetteville-Manlius area. But one day, five hours after the balloons were released, she got a call from a man in Harrisburg, Pa. He had found her balloon.
“It really showed that what we do, no matter where you live, does affect others,” Baker said.
By the late 1980s, Baker became deeply routed in local government.
My mother told me, ‘Oh, don’t do that. Don’t get involved in politics. It’s a dirty game. And I said, ‘Mom, someone’s got to do it.’
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make this community better because I’m staying here and I’m not going away,’” she said. The incinerator was built in 1986, but the station is extensively monitored. Through her research and championing the cause to the planning and town boards, and to the county legislator, she became immersed in the political scene.
“I had some friends in the Democratic party, and they said, ‘Why don’t you run for legislator?’ I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” she said. But the opportunity to run was a chance to put the environmental causes at the forefront.
“My mother told me, ‘Oh, don’t do that. Don’t get involved in politics. It’s a dirty game,’” Baker said. “And I said, ‘Mom, someone’s got to do it.’”
Her friends in the Democratic party promised her she wouldn’t win: the Republican to Democrat ratio was intense at three-to-one in the district.
Come election day 1989, Baker was elected to the county legislature, district No. 9, over the 12-year incumbent. Of more than 6,000 votes cast, she took the seat with just a 38-vote lead over her opponent.
“I spent 12 years in the legislature, and I always had the kitchen sink thrown at me,” she said. She continued to advocate for an environmentally sound community, working in a legislature with a Republican majority.
“I was the tree hugger in the legislature, but someone had to protect those trees,” she said.
Baker helped put in place a monitoring program for the incinerator, following through on her campaign goals.
“It was always a battle, but I stood up for what I believe in,” she said. “I tried to be a reasonable voice in the legislature on issues like this.”
When the districts were redrawn, her district was removed and she retired from the county legislature in 2001 to spend more time with family.
Her retirement didn’t last long — a new plan came along in the town of DeWitt, in the hamlet of Jamesville. Having stayed involved with her home community, she felt a strong opposition to a proposed coal plant in Jamesville. She started attending planning and town board meetings, expressing her due dissatisfaction.
We thought this was a dumb idea, and I’m hoping they don’t come up with any more dumb ideas in the next 20 years, because I’m done.
By 2007, the New York City company had submitted for site plan approval on the coal gasification plant, which would bring more than 150 rail cars through the hamlet of Jamesville. The plant would have converted coal into synthetic natural gas.
“No one said this is being planned for your community,” Baker said. “And I think that’s a fatal flaw.”
Baker started attending the meetings in her capacity as president of the Jamesville Positive Action Committee, or JAM-PAC, sending out information to local residents about the plant, which was planned to be situated in close proximity to the elementary school.
“I kind of became a thorn in their side about that,” Baker said.
She brought the issue to her friend Ed Michalenko, who is the current DeWitt Town Supervisor.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘I’ll run if you run’,” she said. “And we ended up winning. I’ve sort of been a public pest since then.”
Michalenko and Baker took their spots on the board and swiftly defeated the plan for the coal plant. The developer of the plant took his plan to Scriba, where it was abandoned, as well. The gasification plant is not currently planned for any central New York locations.
“We thought this was a dumb idea, and I’m hoping they don’t come up with any more dumb ideas in the next 20 years, because I’m done,” Baker said.
Once the coal plant issue was settled in the town, Baker shared the need for a sustainability plan in DeWitt. She chaired that committee, eventually putting into place a 10-point goal list for the town.
People will see this as a great place to live because we planned ahead and really thought about it.
“We’ve really taken the lead as far as the things we have done,” she said.
The town recently installed photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of town hall, which will help the DeWitt save money in the long-run. It’s all a part of the initiative to be a climate-smart community, a pledge given by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The town consulted with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), who helped point out ways the town could implement more green technology.
“When they told us what we needed to do, I knew there was so much to do,” Baker said. “But we did it.”
The sustainability policy was adopted by the town board, unanimously, December 2010. Points on the list include ensuring energy-efficient and environmentally-supportive town codes, plans and policies, encouraging green economic development and enhancing accessibility of the community to people with disabilities.
“People will see this as a great place to live because we planned ahead and really thought about it,” Baker said.
While Baker is taking this retirement to spend more time with her 96-year-old mother and one-year-old grandchild, she’s planning on remaining active in Jamesville and DeWitt.
People were like ‘Oh no, she’s not going away, is she? But you can’t sit back and expect someone else to do everything. If you wait for someone else to do it, it doesn’t always get done.
“My major goal is to have soft ice cream in walkable distance in Jamesville,” Baker joked. She suggests the site where the coal plant was proposed would be a good area for a continuation of the current shopping plaza in Jamesville.
“[So] that people can know their neighbors again,” she said.
Though Baker won’t formally serve on any boards as an elected representative, she hopes to continue as chairwoman of the sustainability community, educating about and advocating for green initiatives in the town.
When she announced she could not commit to an additional four-year term on the board, much of the community knew this would not be the last of Baker’s advocacy in DeWitt and Jamesville.
“People were like ‘Oh no, she’s not going away, is she?’” Baker said. “But you can’t sit back and expect someone else to do everything. If you wait for someone else to do it, it doesn’t always get done.”
She plans on staying involved with JAM-PAC in a non-political capacity, and will work to keep residents informed on major issues affecting them.
“My goal was to make the town a little better now than when I moved here,” she said. “And I think I’ve done that.”