Woodward passes torch after 4 terms

Above, Fulton Mayor Ron Woodward Sr., seated, receives a standing ovation at his final city council meeting. Woodward, below in profile, retired after nearly 30 years in public office.

FULTON — Development of the Indian Point recreation area, reductions in the city workforce, the closure of Nestle and Birdseye, demolition of the former Nestle site and the start of Lake Neatahwanta dredging.

Until yesterday, Fulton Mayor Ronald Woodward Sr. had been at the helm of city government for more than a decade and a lot changed over his 14 years as mayor, for both better and worse. Throughout his time in office, Woodward said he tried to always be honest and fair, and the rest would work itself out.

After more than a decade as mayor, and nearly 30 years in public office, Woodward said it’s difficult to sit down and pinpoint the many highs and lows experienced in his long career.

“It’s been a privilege,” Woodward said in mid-December after presiding over his final Fulton Common Council meeting as mayor. “I’ve seen a lot of good times and bad times, too. I always tried to stick it out and not to abandon the ship when it got hard.”

Councilors and members of the public gave Woodward a standing ovation at the December meeting, and many thanked the mayor for his many years of service to the community.

Woodward said in an interview earlier this week that he appreciated the support of residents over “all these years,” adding he “did the best (he) could for them.”

It was 1982 when Woodward first took elected office as the city’s sixth ward alderman.

“I was a young man then,” he said earlier this week about the beginning of what would become a 29-year political career — 14 years of which covered two stints as mayor — that spanned nearly 40 years.

Woodward, who would become a stalwart in Fulton politics over the next 30-plus years, started his political career because of a property dispute when he wanted to construct a patio on his property. He believed certain city officials were being dishonest, and ran for alderman.

Four years later, water quality issues in the city led to his first run for mayor.

From 1988 to 1996, Woodward took a hiatus from city politics but returned in 2004 to serve as the executive assistant to former mayor Daryl Hayden, with whom he’d previously worked at Nestle. It was at that time Woodward first worked alongside his future assistant Cathy Trowbridge.

Trowbridge and Woodward would work together nearly every day for the next decade-plus, with the pair being at the heart of nearly every major decision in the city. When Woodward beat out the competition and returned to the mayor’s office Jan. 1, 2008, he hired Trowbridge as his assistant.

Perhaps the biggest changes in his nearly 30 years in public office was the closure of the Nestle and Birdseye factories, Woodward said, noting “those were a huge hit on the city” in terms of the number of jobs provided to the community and the property taxes and other fees paid to the city.

The city always made it through the tough times by working together, Woodward said, noting “there’s nothing you can’t do if everyone works together.” He said earlier this month he has “all the confidence in the world” in Mayor Deana Michaels, who took her oath of office Wednesday, and urged everyone to support her efforts.

“She’s smart and she’ll do a good job,” Woodward said.

Woodward oversaw a significant reduction in the city workforce in his time as mayor, helping to stabilize the city’s finances amid a number of financial hits and the global recession of the late 2000s.

Several of the moves made during that time are what Woodward called some of the major accomplishments of his time in office, including the city’s annexation of its own wastewater treatment plant which was located in the town of Granby, resulting in the city freeing itself a more than $100,000 property tax bill each year.

Woodward cited the demolition of the former Nestle site, which started in 2016 and after several setbacks was largely completed in 2018, as another major accomplishment of his time in office.

The longtime mayor, who was himself employed by Nestle for many years, saw the bittersweet demolition of the city’s most iconic buildings as a necessity, often saying if not torn down it would continue to hold the city back for years to come. In addition to being a largely unusable space along one of the city’s busiest corridors, Woodward said the buildings had become a liability and a danger to the public.

“If we hadn’t done that it likely would’ve sat for another 20 years,” Woodward said while cleaning out his office. “And now it’s being redeveloped and I think you’ll see the development of that site keep going.”

In recent years, Woodward and Trowbridge worked to strengthen the city’s code enforcement department and spearheaded the revision and addition of more than a handful of city codes. Trowbridge, who before working in the mayor’s office spent some of her own time on the Fulton Common Council in the 1990s, and Woodward saw a stronger code enforcement office as a way to improve the city’s neighborhoods.

Woodward and Trowbridge also started a program to rehabilitate properties acquired by the city through tax foreclosure and sell them to first-time homebuyers at market value. The pair said the program not only benefited neighborhoods throughout the city, but also provided homes to deserving first-time homebuyers.

Their work is not yet complete, however, Woodward said this week, noting he “hopes code enforcement stays strong,” under the incoming administration. The commitment to improving neighborhoods continued to the end, with Woodward’s final budget as mayor — approved last month — including additional bodies in the city’s code enforcement office.

Aside from the day-to-day city business, Woodward said some of his favorite moments of his 14 years as mayor were attending the city’s many ceremonies for veterans and overseeing more than a hundred civil wedding ceremonies at city hall, largely for those who couldn’t afford elaborate vows.

Sitting in Woodward’s office Monday, the mayor and Trowbridge spent several minutes remembering a handful of memorable weddings the two helped conduct over the years, including separating in-laws on the verge of fighting.  

With Woodward leaving office Tuesday, Trowbridge will stick around for several months to help ease the transition for Michaels and her team.

Trowbridge said she learned a lot from Woodward in their time working together, and though the two didn’t always agree there was a mutual respect and a recognition they were each open minded, fair and always kept the best interests of the city in mind.

“He’s always been very fair,” Trowbridge said of their time working alongside each other. “In my opinion Mayor Woodward has been elected all these times because of his honesty and fairness.”

Woodward said as he steps out of the political arena, he plans to mostly focus on spending time with his wife of 51 years and his children. He also said he’s planning to do some fishing, something he hasn’t always had time for during his tenure as mayor.

The one project he plans to continue working on for the city is the dredging of Lake Neatahwanta, continuing one of his major initiatives as mayor.

“Right now, I want to get that lake dredged,” Woodward said, adding the underutilized body of water — which was closed to swimming in 1988 — could be a major asset for the community if the water quality were improved.

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