CGP Community Stories

Jeff Katz, November 16, 2015

Title

Jeff Katz, November 16, 2015

Subject

Local Politics
Cooperstown, NY
Tourism
Community

Description

Jeff Katz currently serves as the mayor of Cooperstown, and has since 2012. Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1962. He lived around New York State until he married his wife, Karen, and moved to Chicago, Illinois to work as an options trader. They settled there and had their three boys, Nate, Robbie, and Joey, and lived there until deciding to move to Cooperstown in 2003. It wasn’t long before Katz got involved in local politics, running for the board of trustees, and has been involved ever since in a variety of capacities.

Katz has lived in Cooperstown for twelve years now, though he has been a regular visitor to Cooperstown for most of his life, coming since childhood as an avid baseball fan. He loved Cooperstown as a tourist and his love for the town only grew as a resident. He discusses his and his family’s adjustment from life in a big city to a small village, and how his son’s hyperlexia played into their decision and transition. He talks about his election history and his involvement in local politics. He addresses the role of tourism in Cooperstown, its growing and changing identity, population and economy on the whole. He also speaks about [Mary Imogene] Bassett Hospital’s continually important role in the community, and his involvement in those changes. He also briefly touches on his experiences as a Jew in a small, rural village and relates some stories that were told to him about anti-Semitism in town as well as his and his wife’s experiences with prejudice earlier in their lives. Throughout the entire interview, he kept looking at many of these topics as both a local and an outsider and highlighting the relations between both views and how the lines between them are blurring as the town changes.

I interviewed Mr. Katz at his home in Cooperstown, New York. We spoke largely about his and his family’s experiences in Cooperstown, his involvement in local politics, and his insights into some of the challenges he and the town have faced in the last decade. As a small note, Mr. Katz’ son, Nate, walks through the room a few times and prepares lunch, which you can hear in the background of the recording. He also speaks to Mr. Katz towards the end of the interview, which is included in the transcript.

Mr. Katz, as a politician and author, is very comfortable and familiar when being interviewed. For transcription, I have kept it as true to his style of speaking as possible, but chose to remove some filler words, such as “so”, “you know” and “kind of.” However, researchers are encouraged to consult the audio recordings.

Creator

Peyton Tracy

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2015-11-16

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Language

en-US

Identifier

15-010

Interviewer

Peyton Tracy

Interviewee

Jeff Katz

Location

79 Chestnut St
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Research and Fieldwork Course (HMUS 520)
Oral History Project
Fall 2015

Interview with Jeff Katz by Peyton Tracy

Interviewer: Tracy, Peyton
Interviewee: Katz, Jeff
Date: November 16, 2015
Location of Interview: 79 Chestnut St, Cooperstown, New York

Archive or Library Repository: Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2015

JK = Jeff Katz
PT = Peyton Tracy
NK = Nate Katz, Jeff’s son

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

PT:
The following interview is being conducted with Jeff Katz for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Community Stories by Peyton Tracy. It’s taking place on Monday November 16th, 2015 at Jeff’s home at 79 Chestnut Street in Cooperstown, New York. So Jeff, in brief, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? When and where were you born?

JK:
I was born September 14, 1962 in Brooklyn. Lived in Brooklyn until the middle of fourth grade, moved to kind of the middle of Long Island, Suffolk County where I lived until I graduated high school. Moved to Staten Island, was living with my parents. Went to college freshman year at SUNY Buffalo, transferred to SUNY Binghamton. From that point, I started working on Wall Street, this is like, May of 1984. Met my wife Karen December 31st of 1985. We got married October 1986, so pretty fast, and then a few months later we moved to Chicago where we lived for sixteen years. Had three boys there - Nate, Robbie and Joey - and then in ’03 we kind of wanted to change our life so we picked up and moved to Cooperstown. That’s the short version.

PT:
Why did you choose Cooperstown?

JK:
Well I’ve always been a huge baseball fan, so the first time I came to Cooperstown was in 1973, just to go to the Hall of Fame. It was a very different village then. And then I started coming about once a year starting in 1980 or ’81. Either I was in New York City or I was in college in Binghamton. Even after we moved to Chicago, Karen’s parents live in Niskayuna, outside of Schenectady, so whenever we’d visit I’d come down to the Hall. So I was kind of a standard tourist, I’d go to the Hall, I’d go to Sal’s, I’d go back to the Hall, I’d go to Schneider’s, I’d go home. So we always had an idea - I was an options trader in Chicago - always had an idea that maybe I could do that part of the year here. So in the mid-90s, when the Internet really started hitting and you could be off the exchange floor to work, we started looking at a house. In reality, I’m sure the internet wasn’t here yet, at least in the capacity I needed. But by 2003 it was, and we moved and I worked for myself a little bit, and then kind of changed things. So Cooperstown was a community I knew; I wanted to move to a small village, but I didn’t really know it until I moved here.

PT:
Were you worried at all about the move, the transition from Chicago to here?

JK:
Kind of. You know, to some degree it was a really gutsy move, to a large degree. We did it – I was less conscious of it. Everyone else was conscious of it. But one of the prime motivators was Nate. So Nate is 25 now, he was diagnosed with kind of – he’s on the Autism spectrum, he was diagnosed when he was about three and a half. To our good fortune the national expert in his particular thing, which is called Hyperlexia – he could always read, he has this reverse processing of language – the national experts in that were twenty minutes from our house in Chicago. So people would come from all over the country to get diagnosed once, and Karen would take Nate twice a week for ten years. He did really well in the Chicago suburban schools, he had good support, but looming in his future was a huge high school called Stevenson High School. You know, five thousand kids, really like a college type atmosphere. Socially, Nate always had difficulty, still does, and we really felt like he would suffer there. So when he was in sixth grade we finally said, “Let’s just buy a Cooperstown house, we’ll move here in ninth grade. And then in the interim, we’ll check out the schools, we’ll make sure it’s good, and we’ll ease our way into it.” We came out, we met the people at school there, their message was really different than what we were getting from the high school in Illinois; they were like “Whatever he needs,” and New York State is different from Illinois in terms of how open it is with services. So we actually decided right away, you know, “What the hell, why wait two or three years, let’s just do it.” So we went home, we were here for a week in April, and by June I had quit my job and we moved. And we sold our house and we were done and we were here. That being said, I was just telling this story about what kind of encapsulated my worries. Cooperstown is kind of an oasis of culture in a fairly rural county. Hopefully that doesn’t sound condescending, but it’s a different makeup than the Chicago suburbs. We were at the Southside Mall [in Oneonta] in ’03 - Nate could probably tell me the exact date, because he remembers that stuff - and there was a Hallmark shop in the mall – it’s not there anymore – and Nate was looking around and he was touching these car models, and this woman was watching him and really kind of was excessively nasty to him, and I thought, “Oh my God, what did I do?” - I think our thought process was good, but “Oh my God, he is not going to be tolerated here.” But that has not been the case. I mean, he’s been a huge success – he graduated high school here, he graduated from SUNY Cobleskill with a BA in – not a BA, an Associate’s Degree in Graphic Design, he’s a professional artist, lives at home but he’s part of the community. I mean, he walks to get pizza, he walks to shop, people know him, people like him, people accept his quirks, so it really has worked. But there were definitely early worries.

[TRACK 1, 5:47]

PT:
Did anyone else in your family have any hesitations about moving? Or you said that you had hesitations about Nate, he’s adapted well, has the rest of your family adapted?

JK:
Yeah, I mean on the whole. It all depends on who you are and what age you came at. So, Nate at twenty-five still spent about half his life in Chicago. He misses Chicago a lot. He likes Cooperstown, but in the way Nate says it, he’ll be like “Remember when we moved here in 2003? That was pretty disappointing.” Or worse, he’ll say “I wish we could go back to 2003 and blow up the Cooperstown house so we couldn’t move here.” So I’ll say to him “Well, have you been unhappy here?” He says “No, I like it here, but I like it in Chicago.” He would like to go back. Robbie, who is going to be twenty three, was – let’s see, when we moved, he was about ten when we moved here. So he’s been half and half. Robbie is more of a naturalist; he’s a zoology major at SUNY Oswego, he’s had great opportunities here. He’s been a Rotary exchange student to Brazil, he’s worked at fossil quarries that people we know here are co-owners of, he’s done a lot of amazing things. But he misses Chicago in his own way. Joey, who will be twenty next month, really grew up the most here. He liked it. There was a lot he liked about it, but Joey’s interest level in music and movies and things, he didn’t really have a lot of friends, if any, who shared those interests. So now he’s at SUNY Purchase, which is a big arts school, and he’s found his element. For Karen it was a bit of a homecoming. Her parents still live outside of Schenectady. For me, it was weird. I mean, I’ve only really lived in cities or suburbs, but I am a homebody, which seems odd having entered local politics and being there. But I like being home, so wherever my stuff is, I enjoy being. It’s less a factor for me. So everyone has dealt with it in different ways. The reality of it is that we’ve been here over twelve years, which even in my life, this is the longest I’ve lived in any one house in my life. So I have to remind myself, because it almost feels relatively recent. But it was a big transition; you grow up in cities and suburbs, and all of a sudden you’re in a rural atmosphere and you have to drive thirty minutes to go to a movie theatre, and it’s not even a great movie theatre. But that’s where it is - we go to Albany to see bands, it’s a change, it’s definitely a change.

PT:
Absolutely. So you mentioned that you did get involved in local politics when you got here. How did you get involved?

JK:
We moved here in ’03, that first summer – we moved in June of ’03 – that first summer was just unpacking, we had a garage full of boxes. I felt like a rat in a maze, I had all these tunnels where I was finding boxes and that. So by fall, the kids were in school and I was working, we were meeting some people. By the following year, I was coaching little league for Joey. I met more guys that way, and one of the guys I met – a guy named Milo Stewart, who is a photographer at the Hall of Fame. He was a village trustee, one of the six, and he asked if I would think about running. I was like, sure, I’ve never done that. I mean, I’m interested in politics, I was a poli-sci major at Binghamton, but I never did that. One of the things that is really nice about Cooperstown is because it’s so small, to get things done people have to participate. I mean, the volunteer spirit is so large here, which really gives the community a lot of character. So I’m like, sure, why not. There were two spots open, four people ran for two spots. Milo, and a woman named Madalyn Cimino, were actually the incumbents, and they both lost. I went door to door – literally – that’s like nine hundred something doors. You can cover it, it takes a lot of time, but you can cover it and it’s winter and it’s difficult. But I really wanted to know as much or more than anyone else running because that’s my nature to begin with. So I talked to everybody; I talked to as many experienced people as I could, and I ended up winning. I got the number one vote total. Actually beating Paul Kuhn, who plays Santa Claus, which was always funny because people would say to me, there’s no way an out-of-towner like you can win so soon moving here. And I actually got the most votes. I’ve never gotten that many votes since, now that people know me and some people like what I do, some people don’t, but for that one moment I had the number one amount of votes.

[TRACK 1, 10:55]

PT:
That’s awesome. How long were you trustee for?

JK:
I was trustee from ’05 to 2012, when I was elected mayor. In 2010, I ran for mayor the first time and got soundly beaten by a guy named Joe Booan who had just been on the board for a year. I was the deputy mayor as a Democrat supported by the long-time Republican mayor. Tradition would have it that the deputy mayor is groomed to be the next mayor. But anytime there’s an election, you have a 50/50 of chance of winning or losing and Joe grew up here and I didn’t. Joe beat me by a lot. He beat me by like, a hundred votes, but that’s like 10%. In a village of 2000 that has, I think about 1100 registered voters. It was the first contested mayoral election in a very long time, I don’t know how much. Like 750 or 800 [people] came out, which is a lot percentage-wise, and I think Joe had give-or-take 450 [votes] and I give-or-take 350 [votes]. By the time I went to the polls at 9:00 when it closes, honestly, I’d assumed I’d win. I assumed it would be close. I knew there were certain things about me that were controversial, but I walked in at about 9:00 and they announced from the machines that I was already down by like, 100 votes. It was like getting punched in the nose. It was actually the best way to hear it; it was like it was over before it started. That’s not to say I didn’t have a really sleepless night that night. But the next year, 2011, because of – usually there’s two trustees up every year, they are three-year terms – because of Joe becoming mayor from the board, he had a spot open which he could appoint, but only for a year. Someone had to run for the last year of his term. Then there was a resignation, and someone had to run for the last two years of that term. And then there were the regular three year spots. Four of the six spots were up for grabs by 2011 after Joe’s first year. He had been somewhat controversial; there were a few people he wanted to fire, he wanted to get rid of the police department and contract with the county. It was a difficult time, certainly, from my point of view as a board member, because I didn’t agree with how things went. And what was interesting in 2011, out of the four seats, all the Democrats swept. And I won as well. In 2010 I think that would have been hard to predict. I think the feeling of some was like, “Finally, he’s done. [laughter] He’ll be out of here.” In 2012, I decided I really didn’t want to run again, I mean, one – it had been proven to me that Joe could beat me, although that probably was maybe less likely after his first two years where there was a lot of difficulties and controversies surrounding some of the things he promoted. But when no one else wanted to run, I decided I would run and he decided he wouldn’t, so I ran uncontested, which happened again in 2014. And I enjoy it. I enjoy the policy, I enjoy the work, I enjoy the detail. I don’t find it a thankless job, which a lot of people say, “Oh, you know, it’s thankless.” It’s not, not at all, when you do things that are good and you can see it in terms of the work being done and the health of our budget now and things like that. For a kid growing up loving baseball, loving Cooperstown, kind of worshipping Cooperstown, to actually live here, be mayor and do good things, it’s very rewarding. It’s not a bad gig at all.

[TRACK 1, 15:16]

PT:
That’s great. So in that 2010 election that you lost, do you find the sentiment that your opponent was local to the area, born and raised here, that kind of native sentiment exists in a lot in this community against outsiders?

JK:
Yeah, it’s always good to kind of pull back and realize that it’s not true that all natives don’t like newcomers, and it’s not true that all newcomers don’t like natives. There’s so much diversity of opinion. There might not be a lot of ethnic diversity in Cooperstown, religious diversity, but like any place people have different opinions on things I’ve done that I feel have been undeniably great or deniable. But other people, they don’t particularly love it. The nativist thing – in 2010, there were a few things that came up. One is not being a native; it was certainly a negative. With the big turnout, also, the Republican mayor who supported me - you know people talk a lot about “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice, be bipartisan, get along.” That’s kind of nonsense. People don’t really believe in bipartisanship because when she supported me, it totally infuriated the Republican people who came out in droves to basically say to her – her name was Carol Waller, she was mayor for like, eight years – “You can’t tell us who the next mayor is going to be, you can’t rig it that way.” And I would have liked to have gotten Republican official support, but I didn’t and it wasn’t expected. So, you know, not being from here – traditionally it’s a Republican area, not so much lately, or at least it’s been inconsistent – so there were a few things that definitely struck against me. [Jeff makes a shrugging gesture.]

PT:
[laughs] Were any other challenges that you faced in the transition to the community, any biases or prejudices or…?

JK:
Well the prejudice thing is interesting. So, all I can really relate is third-hand because I’ve heard stories about historic anti-Semitism in Cooperstown. There’s a guy who used to be head of research at the Hall of Fame, a friend of mine named Tim - he’s not there any longer. I forget the details, but he was driving around some older Cooperstown lady who pointed out that until the 1960s, the Otesaga was restricted. I don’t know that that is true; it wouldn’t be shocking if it was true, thinking of rural America through those years. In the election in 2010, a few stories came to me that were kind of anti-Semitic in nature. Again, I have never firsthand felt that people were nasty to me because of my Jewishness, and the reality is we are completely non-observant; no one has been bar mitzvah-ed here in our family. I’m obviously Jewish, I don’t deny that culture stuff, but there was one guy - a friend of mine, he was a higher up in the fire department - and he was at a Main Street restaurant where in the booth behind him a bunch of merchants were saying “We can’t let a Jew run this town.” And he was actually shocked by that and came over kind of shaken, saying “I just want to tell you a story.” Another person in Rotary – I’ve been a Rotary member since ’07, which is a nice community thing – after the election, after I lost, one Rotarian told another “I’m not surprised at all that he lost, I mean, he’s Jewish.” So I would hear those things. I heard another story of some guy who said “You know, it’s bad enough there’s a Jew who runs the Hall of Fame” – Jeff Idelson – “we cannot have a Jew run the town.” That being said, do I think Cooperstown is an overwhelmingly anti-Semitic place? No, I really don’t. Are there people who are anti-Semitic? Yeah. Are their people in the Chicago suburbs where I lived that were? Yeah. When we moved to Chicago in ’87 from New York – it’s not that Chicago doesn’t have a big Jewish contingent, but Karen started working at a trade magazine called Rock Products, and most of the guys who worked there were, I don’t know, I was going to say they were old people, they were probably my age now, guys in their fifties who grew up in the Midwest. And that was the first time Karen heard the phrase “jewing someone down,” and she was appalled. And I don’t think they really meant it in a bad way. So it’s funny, you think Chicago, downtown Chicago, which is very ethnically diverse, religiously diverse, that that would be the first time Karen would really experience some anti-Semitism. So when it comes to Cooperstown, again, these are stories I’ve heard that were related or connected to me, I’ve never heard the kids come home from school and say “I was persecuted.” When we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, it was December of 1971 so I started going to school in January of ’72, and that was a time warp. I had long curly hair and a fringe jacket and they were crew-cutted still. I was definitely tormented for being Jewish. None of our family has ever gotten that from Cooperstown but, like in any part of society, there’s a segment that exists. Was it a factor in 2010? Probably. I would say incredibly small to insignificant.

[TRACK 1, 21:40]

PT:
Have you faced any other challenges as a public official, in any sense?

JK:
The challenges take on different aspects, right? So there is the challenge of doing the job and the way I’ve approached it, and I’ve been fortunate to serve the last few years with a board that approaches it the same way, I mean there are challenges like, how do you deal with the budget? How do you improve the budget? How do you add revenues? How do you cut expenses? How do you get more grants? How do you do more work? We’ve tackled it in a way that I think hasn’t been tackled before. In doing so, it becomes controversial. I was a trustee in 2007 when the board voted four to two to implement paid parking. It took a lot of years to implement it as it is now, and it has worked in terms of producing revenue. That led to some real hostility amongst some in the community. The day after the vote, one of the local stores, Riverwood, had a sign, “Shame on you,” and mentioned the four names who voted for paid parking. I tend to be fairly thick skinned about that, others weren’t. It showed a real rift in the community. It’s not how I would handle stuff, but you know, there have been issues we’ve taken that have become controversial. Since I have been mayor, I think because I was a trustee for so long, I’m very protective of the board. I don’t like the board being abused and we do have guidelines for public comment. So I read them when we have a big crowd and I enforce them. People should be able to disagree without being nasty and screaming at really, their fellow citizens. No one is doing this, at least that I can see, as some political stepping stone to be president, you know? It’s something people do truly volunteer. I mean, we don’t get paid. When Joe was mayor, he made this big, what I considered a grandstanding thing, “Until we show fiscal responsibility, we should work for nothing,” which put the board in a position to say “Yeah, but I want my hundred dollars a month,” which is an impossible position to be put in. So we voted to strip the salaries and we’ve never been able to get them back. It would be nice to have some token for your work. So technically, it’s completely volunteer, no one is getting paid from an elected point of view. The challenges can be vast and they are all serious in different ways. You want to represent the community, but you can’t possibly represent everyone because people have differing points of view. I bring that up a lot. Usually when people say “You’re not listening to me,” what they really mean is “You’re not agreeing with me.” And we do listen to everyone, I pride myself on listening. I just don’t agree with everyone. And what’s interesting as mayor, it’s always been the case that you only get one vote per customer, so as mayor my vote only matters in a tie. I think that sometimes people, particularly when I was a trustee, the idea that one or two people I worked closely with, a woman named Lynne Mebust who was a trustee, the idea that Lynne and I would be able to defeat the other five people was odd. We only have two votes. Ultimately, they can do whatever you want, we’re just making our points. A lot of times, we would kind of win out. I mean, there are challenges and personally, being a private person when you’re a public person, that’s a challenge which I don’t quite win. I mean, you’re always on, I’m always public. I can’t say to someone at a Fenimore [Art Museum] opening “Call me tomorrow.” If they want to talk, I’m there to talk.

PT:
That’s good. Already from what you’ve said, you sound very devoted to the community and willing to be that public face. What sort of rewarding experiences come to mind when you think about the challenges that you have faced already so far as a public official?

JK:
Well, did you say rewarding?

PT:
Rewarding, yeah.

JK:
I find it all kind of rewarding because the process rules. So if you do things well and you explain things well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get unanimous agreement or even majority agreement, and that’s okay. I’ve talked to other people who have worked on other non-village related budget issues and they get very nervous when it’s election time. And I’m like, “Don’t worry about that. All you can worry about is how you got to today, it’s not up to you.” It’s made me learn a lot about what is within my powers, what I can control and what I can’t. From a work point of view, there’s the actual physical work - the amount of streets we’ve paved, the amount of grants we have gotten, how Main Street is looking great. Outdoor dining, which was kind of our idea, really changed the village this summer. It became a whole different feel; the people are sitting outside eating. The amount of grants we get is really proof of something I had a goal of. You know, all the businesses plan for the present and future, and they use the Cooperstown name to their benefit, which is fine. We have Cooperstown named businesses way outside of Cooperstown, including Cooperstown All-Star Village Baseball Camp in Oneonta. The village never did that until I became mayor where I can advocate and push for the village with real detail in terms of our economic difficulties. The assumptions people have about how we as a village rake in money in summer, but it doesn’t go to us. The sales tax goes outside, the bed tax goes outside. So really, I think what has been the most rewarding has been advocating for the village with a real passion. Now I’m not the standard tourist I used to be; part of it is that I’m older. I do appreciate art more, I appreciate the opera, I appreciate the natural beauty, the lake, things like that were not really of interest to me. I go to these things because I want to, not because I have to as mayor. I’m really committed to the community and when my book came out this year, Split Season, I did a lot of national media, which was great to be able to advocate for Cooperstown to millions. It was really a lot of fun. I think that’s the ultimate reward, is I’ve put a great face on Cooperstown. Not that it needed me. I mean the name Cooperstown has such good feeling when people talk about it that all I have tried to do is just push it even further. That’s been the most rewarding part.

PT:
As you just said, Cooperstown is a nationally known community, people know it for baseball all over the place and tourism is inseparable from Cooperstown.

JK:
Right, right, yeah.

PT:
What’s it like being a public official in a very tourist based community?

JK:
You know, it has its rewards. I think everyone has a different approach when you live either within the village or near the village, right? Even before paid [START OF TRACK 2, 0:00] parking, you would hear people say, “I don’t come to the village in summer, it’s too crowded, I can’t find a spot.” Now they say, “I don’t come to village in summer because I have to pay for parking and I don’t want to do it.” I think being mayor of really one of the most famous small villages in the country, it’s just a constantly nice experience. Because people are already predisposed to be positive about it. I think there are certain things in the tourism world that can be bridged better, and people are doing that, right? So, the baseball-opera connection is not going to happen. Those are not really, when you draw the Venn diagram, those circles aren’t touching. But the baseball-Ommegang [Brewery] connection, baseball and beer is very strong. The connection between concerts and the Hall of Fame and things like that, that’s the future for us. You know, how do you merge all these things? And the fact that Cooperstown as a brand is not only just well-known, and well known in a positive way, it’s also synonymous with greatness, right? So when you watch sports and people say “They’re going to Cooperstown,” you know what that means, it means they are the best of the best. And that can be applied to a lot of things. We’re fortunate that we have a lot of things. I mean, even though Ommegang is not in the village, but it is Cooperstown per se, the art museum, the Otesaga, all these things are really of high quality. I think my goal is, or my job is, to make sure people know that. So one of the things I was just saying a couple of days ago, because I’m on Twitter and I’m on Facebook – and I like Twitter, a lot, I do enjoy Twitter a lot – but I read a lot of sports stuff, so when I see people - like in 2013, there were no living players elected to the Hall of Fame. It was a pretty dismal induction weekend. Probably the least attended in decades. So I would read the stories, you know, “Cooperstown: A Ghost Town” or “Cooperstown this…” and I would reach out and say “Look, if you’d like to know the real details of economics in Cooperstown, I will share that with you. If you’d rather pretend to make a story out of something you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s fine too.” So I would get not corrections, per se, but the right point of view out there. That is, both tourism in summer, but Bassett year round. I mean, [Mary Imogene] Bassett Hospital is really the economic engine here, it really is. I mean, that’s what keeps the housing prices high, that’s what keeps diverse and professional people coming into the community. Ultimately the businesses on Main Street and surrounding do make most of their money in summer, but there is a steady flow of people in the off-season. So the Cooperstown economic picture is a bit more complex than people see but certainly, we’re always going to be seen as tourism and always as baseball, although the growth of the breweries, distillery business, the kind of slow increase in growth of the cultural institutions outside of the Hall, which is a cultural institution, that’s where I think our growth is. That’s where all of a sudden we can see big expansion and that’s kind of where my focus is, how to keep building on that.

[TRACK 2, 3:48]

PT:
Can you tell me more about the impact of Bassett in the community?

JK:
Bassett’s an interesting thing. Bassett’s almost like the Hall of Fame in the community where it’s so important and so vital but because we’re a small village in a small area, people are quick to announce the negatives as they perceive them. Like the Hall of Fame; people, who are like, you know, “I hate those tourists, I don’t like them around, they’re a pain in the neck.” That’s almost beside the point. It’s the engine of the Hall of Fame that allows us to have good restaurants year round. In a village of two thousand, I mean, there’s a high percentage of good places to eat and Stagecoach Coffee, which is one of the best coffee places anywhere. And you [the interviewer] come from Seattle so you can compare, but in my light, Stagecoach is as good as anything. We don’t get that without the tourists. That’s not to say the Hall should be able to do anything they want. But there has to be some acceptance of that reality. Bassett’s more difficult than the Hall for the community in several ways. One is the Hall’s audience is not local. The Hall works well with the village; I have good relationships with the executives at the Hall, but the Hall’s interaction locally is relatively small and kind of appropriately small. Bassett’s connection to the local community is vast and daily. So whether it’s the amount of people parking in the street, which causes some neighborhood strife, or Bassett’s growth, which neighbors always want to chime in on, Bassett has to deal with local people more and vice versa. That makes it more difficult. One of the things that really was a disappointment to me was we had worked for about a year and a half on creating a hospital zone for our zoning law. Bassett in our zoning law is a previously existing non-conforming business in a residential area, just like New York Pizzeria. It is absurd to believe that those are the same things. Not just in what they produce for the community but in terms of how they have to relate. So we had a plan that basically cut a little bit of the red tape out of the process for them, a little bit – they still would have to go through zone, not zoning but, historic preservation, planning board, they would still have to have architectural review and integrity, but maybe would be spared three months of public hearings on little nuisance stuff. The Bassett neighbors came out very upset. The Board [of Trustees] ended up kind of shelving it, which I thought was unfortunate. If I was more of an LBJ vote counter, I would have known, but I don’t really call people and say “How are you going to vote? How are you going to vote? What can I do to get your vote?” I’m not that type of person. The good result is that the new administration at Bassett was there, kind of unannounced, people didn’t know who the new administrator was, so he heard it all first hand, which I recommended. I said, “I could tell you what I’ve experienced, but you might want to show up.” It has led to frequent Bassett community meetings where Bassett is saying “Here’s where we are, here’s what we know about our future, here’s what we don’t know, here’s what we’re looking to do.” It’s changed the complexion of Bassett relations. So if that’s the result, then that’s been a good result. But you also have people who’d be like “If Bassett is so important, what do you want them, to move? Let them do what they want.” Well that’s not healthy. From a governmental point of you, you have to balance all these things. And the other side, which is “Bassett shouldn’t be able to do anything, because I live here,” is also not healthy. Bassett is important. So what the middle ground is, everyone has a different opinion. But Bassett, because they depend on local, are always in the mix way more than the Hall of Fame.

PT:
Have you found that since Bassett has been developing those new community relations that local opinion has been improving?

JK:
I’m hearing that, I don’t go to those meetings. I’m not invited because I don’t live near there. I mean, it’s not Bassett and the Board of Trustees and Mayor trying to convince everybody to be nicer to Bassett. They’re really just approaching it as informational. I have heard really positive things from people who live close to Bassett about how they’re informed on things, how they’re more in the know on projects if there’s like, noises. Bassett is emailing them, saying “For the next two days, we’re doing this, you may hear some noise. Let us know if you have any questions.” It’s helping. It’s helping a lot. And that’s ultimately where everyone needs to be. We as a village board, it is amazing regardless of how much you try to reach out to people, if someone doesn’t get the information, they’re like “How come I didn’t know? You didn’t tell anyone.” We’ve done more in terms of press releases, website, there’s a thing in the water bill called the Village Voices, which used to be one sheet, not particularly informational; now it’s like four pages long of real detailed what we’re doing, what’s coming up, revenue coming up, you know. We’re trying to make sure people know more. That’s not so they get on our side, it’s just the more we can explain to people, the better it is. There are certainly people who are just always unreachable. I’ve said to people something about revenue, and they say “Yeah, well you would say that.” And I’m like “Okay?” [laughs] All I can tell you is the facts, if you choose not to believe those facts, I can’t do much beyond that. But this is the reality. So you’re always going to have that group that knows better and doesn’t really want the information that they say they want. But the more anyone can provide, whether it’s the village or Bassett, the better off people are. It gives some depth of understanding, hopefully, for what goes on.

[TRACK 2, 10:49]

PT:
It sounds like there’s this ongoing theme of better communication, between parts of the community. Are they any other ways that you’re working to foster that?

JK:
Right. Well one of the things that - it’s kind of tricky because from a governmental point of view it almost depends on who is in office. So right now, we have a board and myself that is really interactive with the public and is very hands on, is very much out there helping people understand what’s going on or helping support things that we think make sense. That could change within the next five years, it could be all new people and it wouldn’t matter. So to me, one of the challenges is how to, in a sense, institutionalize that. So regardless of who comes, there’s a sense that information is expected. My hope is – and it could be a real naïve hope – is that now that we send out press releases with regularity, or post stuff on the website with regularity, that that will become just business as usual. So people will be like “Oh, we should let the press know about, you know, this meeting.” Well, you have to let them know about meetings. But you know, about this grant or this budget stuff, or you know, whatever. My hope is that stays intact. The other thing from an institutional memory point of view - what was amazing to me when Carol Waller was mayor, she had really good relations with the local elected [officials], so the state elected, the congressional elected, and I’ve got good relationships with them too, but what we have never had until now is institutional connections. That was my goal. For a place like Cooperstown, whoever is the next mayor should know and will know from me, “Here’s our connections at the governor’s office, here’s our connections at the Department of Transportation, here’s our connections at,” you know, down the line. That’s something that Cooperstown has always lacked, but we’ll have now. That’s not a public information thing, but it’s a governmental information thing, where people aren’t coming in totally on their own, which really was kind of the history. Either you would get passed down procedure from people who were there longer, and for me, some of that didn’t make sense, that’s where I struck out. [laughs] Publicly it’s a, you know, “You can’t do this, this is wrong, or this lawful or is this lawful? And prove it.” That would become a problem. So governmentally, you want people to be able to come in as trustees or mayor with a real sense that they know what’s going on and can do with that what they want. They can undo what’s been going on or they can make it better or they can come up with new ideas, but at least they are starting with a base of information. And I think that is going to help the village in the long run. At least, that’s my hope.

PT:
Do you think that – I don’t think you’ve had any experience in public politics outside of Cooperstown – do you think that it makes a difference, the communication venues that you’re pursuing, how would that differ in a larger community, how is the size of the village impacting those communication venues, or lack of communication?

JK:
It’s interesting for us because what we don’t have in size we make up in stature. One of my goals has always been wherever I go, I make sure I’m in the middle of it and I approach people I feel I need to talk to and give them the story. Or counteract something. Like a few years ago, there’s a thing called the Consolidated Funding Application, and that’s an annual state grant period – we’re waiting for the results of this year’s. But I went to the Mohawk Valley Region, which is what we’re part of. I went to a presentation once of kind of finalists, and one of them was like an agri-business, agri-tourism thing from Oneida County, which is where Utica is. And the slides they were showing were of Ommegang and Cooperstown Brewing Company. So I went to the regional director, who I know, and said “Let me just tell you something about what you just saw and this is my problem. Not only is Oneida County latching on to Cooperstown for money for them, but the examples they’re using aren’t even in Cooperstown themselves.” So Ommegang, which I love and they’re community partners, nothing bad to say about Ommegang, but they’re not in Cooperstown. So to say, Cooperstown, New York and get that hook, benefits them. We benefit in other ways, just as they grow, it helps us. But that’s something that I’m not sure many would do, is go right to the regional director and say “Let me set you straight on this.” A lot of our trustees are similarly minded. So this million-seven [$1.7 million] in grant money we got for the next phase of Main Street, two of our trustees went down to Binghamton to a D.O.T. thing and said “We’re from Cooperstown, we’re curious about Main Street.” And the reaction they got was “We’d love to do a project in Cooperstown! No one has ever asked us.” That’s the problem. State agencies, and I’ll say this to them directly, “Look, we will benefit from your money, you’ll benefit from your association with us.” And I get in trouble when I say stuff like this, but I’m like “You’re better off when you go to your budget requests to say ‘We help Cooperstown’ than if you say ‘We help Batavia’ because who cares?” But Cooperstown, everyone cares. So are we limited by our size? In certain ways, so those ways would be like, we’re not normally included. That’s a big problem I have with the county, we’re not at the table. The county is very happy to take our money; they don’t really give anything back. There’s this big upstate competition for three five-hundred-million dollar prizes and I was part of the Mohawk Valley group – and that took me pushing in to say “Look, Cooperstown is the famous name in this whole region.” And what I got by the end of it – and I helped as an author in the writing of it towards the end - but the comments I got were that for the first time ever, Cooperstown was in the mix of regional economic planning and involvement and that is to your credit and to the credit of the community. Cooperstown, I’m sure, could go it alone in 1960 and in 1930; it’s impossible to go it alone now. Everything is more complicated, the money streams are more difficult, the costs of things are more difficult, you can’t have that attitude of “Screw you all,” we don’t have the power as a village to be that autonomous. That doesn’t mean I’m not kind of abrasive about it at times, but in a lot of areas, there’s not a lot we can do. So when there are things we can do, like paid parking or cutting costs, we do it because we can control it. Other things we can [control] other than advocacy, and I’m a pretty good advocate, so it works.

[TRACK 2, 19:13]

PT:
Awesome. What would you say… sorry…

JK:
That’s alright.

PT:
What would you say your biggest impact on the Cooperstown community has been in your time here at all or as a public official?

JK:
Well, again, this is a question everyone would answer differently! [laughter] Some would say it’s been horrible. There’s a book, I think I might have told you about this once, I forget what it’s called… it’s like…

PT:
Mile of Memories?

JK:
No, well there’s that book, but there’s another book, it’s like… I forget. It’s like, Historic Towns in Contemporary Society. It’s from the 1960s. And by Hugh MacDougall, I have it in a bookcase somewhere. Hugh MacDougall, the village historian, grabbed it at a used book sale and gave it to Karen to give to me to read. And in reading it, I realized everything I’d violated in the way I conducted myself. Violated unknowingly. One of them was governmentally, that small towns, small villages, always seek unanimity in votes. That’s kind of a show. It never dawned on me that that was a thing. I mean, there are six trustees, four to two wins. If it’s a tie, the mayor casts the untying vote. Another thing I read about was that in small communities, each and everyone –

NK:
Dad, I’m making my lunch.

JK:
Okay, Nate. It said that in small villages, small towns, everyone has to be nice to each other superficially and then will stab each other in the back at parties. Which kind of makes sense, you interact with the same people every day, you can’t be nasty. I wouldn’t say I’ve been nasty to people in my time on the board and as mayor, not so much the last few years, but a lot of years before the 2010 election and right after it seemed to me you could say anything about me, whether writing it in the local papers or in letters to the paper; it was like all bets were off, you could just say stuff. And in some ways, well in many ways, I became a symbol of divisiveness, that I brought divisiveness to the community. I understand that point, but would argue that point. When I went door to door in 2005, what I realized was even in a small community, there are more outsiders than insiders. And invariably, people would say “You know what, I don’t even bother because, you know at the time it’s these people who run the show and they don’t care and they don’t care about my street and they don’t care about this.” What I learned then and what I’ve always brought forward is, it’s a lot of difference of opinion on a lot of things that people of certain cliques in the village feel is only one opinion. When you open it up for discussion, you realize there’s diverse opinion and with diverse opinion becomes contention and argument. I would say that I am divisive because I foster conversation on things that people have traditionally not wanted to talk about. That has negatives, right? It causes friction. It breaks up that outward civility. It doesn’t have to; I mean you can disagree without screaming at each other, which happens more often than not, it works that way. But I’ve been divisive in that sense. By really pursuing paid parking, sure, that was a divisive issue. It doesn’t mean there was only one opinion before it came up, because obviously there were multiple opinions. And again, it didn’t split; not all natives were against paid parking and not all newcomers were for it. And not all businesses were against it, and not all businesses were for it. But once you foster debate and discussion, it invariably leads to dissention. In that sense I wear that. And I’m okay with that because everybody wants their opinion heard. What I’ve done as mayor, I think successfully - we don’t have screaming terrible meetings, and they’re shorter because they’re more content driven. We hear everyone out, we listen to everybody and ultimately a decision is made. I think that’s the biggest impact. Where I sit, I think it’s vastly positive, but it has its negatives. Other people would say it’s vastly negative; that before I came along, no one argued about this stuff. And that’s true. I wouldn’t say that led us as a village to a good place because we fell very far behind in terms of our budget and in terms of our infrastructure work and part of that is not tackling it head on. When you tackle things head on, you know, you’re going to conflict. So I think that’s my impact. I think history will judge. It’s funny, most of the CGP [Cooperstown Graduate Program] students I talk to look at the Freeman’s Journal as the historic record, because it’s been around, and I would say from probably ’08 to 2012, it was entirely negative about me. And it’s going to be funny, like twenty years down the line, someone like you is going to do a report, like, “Jeff Katz: The Monster of Cooperstown,” like, “Who was this terrible person?” But then like, a few years after it’s been good. But that is also reflective of what I’m saying. I would never say that everyone in this village wants to carry me on their shoulders and congratulate me. But I think I won over a lot of people. They do get what the end game was and now you’re seeing it, you’re seeing it in the streets, you’re seeing the work, it is hard to argue it. It’s not that there’s nothing to argue about, but it’s harder to argue. So I hope my real impact will be, you know, like any small town. It’s like people’s houses, right? It’s only when we die will this be “the Katz house.” It’s still like, the B&B, or “Oh, the Miller's’ house, the B&B” or even further, it used to be a dentist’s office. The dentist’s office was on that side. [gestures to the northeast corner of the house] So there are plenty of people who got their ears pierced here, or used to go to the dentist here. So once you’re gone, then you get ownership. So my hope is ten years down the line, twenty years down the line, people will say “You know, when Katz was mayor, a lot got done. You see this Main Street? You see these roads? Katz was mayor when that all got done.” That’s my hope. Not looking for anything named after me, but my hope is that as people reflect on me, they’ll reflect positively.

PT:
Time will tell.

JK:
Yes, absolutely! [laughs]

PT:
I’m very glad we have this interview to contribute to that record now, too.

JK:
Yes, hopefully that’ll help. [laughs]

PT:
Thank you very much, this has been fascinating and wonderful.

JK:
You’re welcome! Oh good, thank you for doing it.

[END OF TRACK 2, 27:03]

Duration

30:00 - Track 1
27:03 - Track 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128kbps
128kbps

Files

Citation

Peyton Tracy, “Jeff Katz, November 16, 2015,” CGP Community Stories, accessed October 17, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/229.