— George Washington
Saugerties voters won’t have many local contests to decide this November. They’ll pick a U.S. congressman, a county comptroller and, in the only town office up for election this year, a town justice. The winner will share the job of presiding over town court with justice Daniel Lamb. On the Democratic ticket, incumbent Wendy Ricks. On the Republican side, George Hass. The two candidates both have experience with the law, Ricks on the bench and as a lawyer, and Hass in law enforcement and most recently as court officer in the Town Court.
Born in Queens, New York, George Hass served in the military from 1963-66. He began his law enforcement career in 1968. He worked for numerous agencies in Orange and Ulster County, including the DEP, Ulster County Sheriff’s Department and the Town of Olive Police Department, before joining the NYS DMV Auto Theft Bureau. After retiring from that agency in 2000, he served as court officer in the Ulster County Courthouse and most recently in the Saugerties Town Court. Previously residing in Woodstock, he moved to Saugerties in 2007. He’s married with seven children and 11 grandchildren.
Why does he want to be town justice? “Being involved as long as I was in law enforcement, I figured that my life experiences and my professional experience could benefit the court system,” he said. “And the thought that at the end of a career being out in the street at that end of the law, that I thought I could be a benefit to the community on the other end.”
Does he feel that his experience in law enforcement would give him a different perspective than a candidate without that experience? “I don’t know if it gives me a different perspective. If you sit in judgment of another person, I don’t think you can learn that in law school. I think life experience and professional experience gives you the advantage. I mean a judge has to be someone who’s a little bit compassionate and you judge with your heart and your head. You listen to the facts that are presented, and I believe that my experience is more than sufficient to do the job properly.”
His career has provided him ample time in courtrooms across the Hudson Valley, and Hass said previous experience as a judge or lawyer was not essential for the successful justices he saw. “I’ve been in front of many judges in this county, and the other counties, and everybody conducts themselves in a very professional manner,” he said. “And a lot of them were not attorneys. Some of them were and a lot of them weren’t.”
Hass describes himself as, “fair, honest, compassionate. I don’t prejudge anything. I look at the facts, and I’ve done that my whole career.”
In conversation, Hass comes off as a straight-shooter, and he sees directness as an asset to the job of town justice. “With me, what you see is why you get,” he said. “I’m not two people, I’m one person. I figure I’ve been fair throughout my career, be it interviewing people or actually making an arrest, I treat everybody the same way.”
After doing social work for several years, Ricks attended University at Buffalo Law School and graduated in 1990. She worked as an associate attorney, then partner with Kingston law firm Rusk, Wadlin, Heppner & Martuscello for 17 years, leaving to open her own practice three years ago. She does general practice, focusing on family, matrimonial and real estate law, and is a licensed mediator. She has also worked part-time as an assistant district attorney and assistant county attorney. A lifelong Saugerties resident, she is married and has two children.
Why is she running for a second term? “Because I feel like I’ve done a good job and I have a lot to offer,” said Ricks. “Town Court and the number of cases we get there, it’s very challenging, it’s very busy. I think you need someone with experience and the right kind of temperament.”
Ricks believes a town justice needs to understand the intricacies of the law to render fair and appropriate judgments, and to really understand it, you need to have experience as an attorney or a judge. It’s not just about having good judgment. “I think it’s important,” she said. “I just believe as a judge, every day, even in a small claims case, you’re handling issues that have to do with complicated legal issues. Even the simple issue of hearsay...what evidence is allowable, those sorts of things.”
Ricks said sentencing is an area where her experience is particularly applicable. While it’s true most cases result in plea bargains, “the question is once there’s the plea what’s the appropriate sentence for the person, and that’s where I think it’s really important to have someone with the knowledge of all systems out there and all the different options. Jail is always an option, but there are other options out there.” She named probation, long-term rehab, the many programs provided by Family of Woodstock, GED programs and employment training. “It depends on the circumstance. I’ve certainly put a fair amount of people in jail when that seemed to be the way to go. On the other hand I’ve referred many people to many other services throughout the county.”
When asked to name her strengths as a town justice candidate, Ricks cited experience, integrity, and willingness to listen and hear all sides before making a decision. She said the last point could be considered a weakness by some, because she might let things go on a bit longer than another judge might. But though she’s not setting any speed records, Ricks said giving people time to speak shows respect, and the result is a more civil courtroom.
The town holds criminal court every week and civil court and traffic court twice each month, with the two justices splitting up the work 50/50. Ricks said court night can go from 5 until after 10 p.m. In addition, justices review fines and write opinions during the week, are on-call around the clock to do arraignments, and trials are scheduled separately. Although it varies significantly depending on the caseload, Ricks estimates she logs about 10-20 hours on town justice work.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 2.