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A small-town leader

Saturday, October 13, 2012 - Updated: 7:49 PM

"A very small man can cast a very large shadow."

-- Lord Varys, Game of Thrones

I have to admit, I didn't know what to expect when I first met Charleston town Supervisor Shayne Walters four years ago. We were in the midst of interviewing candidates for our usual round of endorsements in local election contests, when in walked this guy whose beard was nearly as long as he was tall (although he wasn't all that tall to begin with), wearing blue jeans and a faded hat with a bent brim. His handshake was so powerful it was like receiving a formal greeting from granite, and I remember thinking: "If this guy isn't the embodiment of what a town like Charleston is all about, I don't know who is."

And then Walters began talking. I was right. This guy was Charleston, and I mean that in the most positive way possible.

What was most amazing is that Walters knew exactly why people move to a rural town like Charleston and he fought to keep it that way. People who live "out in the sticks" often do so because they like their space and they really, really, really want their privacy. Really. They don't want to be bogged down with heavy government rules and regulations, they don't want people hopping on and off their front porches, and they want their peace and quiet.

There's nothing wrong with that, and Walters understood that. Not only was he a full participant in rural living, he knew preserving that way of life for people in his town and towns like Charleston is important to the fabric of Montgomery County. Walters fought hard to make sure that was never taken away.

He also knew his stuff when it came to county government. When we asked Walters about Montgomery County's future with MOSA, he was able to explain the whole system of cooperative trash pickup, why it works, why it doesn't, and why the county couldn't afford it. He was fully aware of the fact that the county's agreement with the trash authority expires in a few short years and that some sort of post-MOSA plan is needed.

Walters also understood the local government process. He understood that in the grand scheme of things, Charleston's vote in county government matters doesn't often play a make-or-break role in the decision-making process, thanks to an antiquated weighted voting system. It didn't mean Walters didn't fight to make sure his people were taken care of. Far from it. In the few conversations I had with him, his goal was to make sure the people he represented got the most out of their county taxes, and he was good at working within the system to make sure that happened. He was always proud that he was able to get the county to fix up Charleston's roads at little to no cost at the local town level.

Walters wasn't a big fan of the referendum on November's ballot to change county government, but he also understood that people have the right to decide how they want to be governed. It's one of the reasons he favored having the referendum, even though he was personally against it. It's what real representation is all about.

Walters also made sure Charleston wasn't forgotten when times were tough. This was never more evident than when the floods caused by tropical storm Irene tore through Montgomery County last summer.

When major news events like this happen, few things drive me more up a wall than watching politicians scurry about trying to act like they're important (which was only made worse in 2011 because we were in the midst of a heavy local election season). From the photo-ops to promises that go nowhere to counting quotes (yes, that actually happened last year), most of us in the birdcage lining business get to a point where we'd prefer to cover stories like this without talking to anyone who holds elected office.

So while the politicos were busy getting their pictures taken next to Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam (which sustained devastating damage, to be sure), folks in Charleston who live near the Schoharie Creek were returning to their homes only to find them not where they left them when the waters rose. In some cases, it was as if there weren't even any homes to begin with.

Shayne Walters made sure people paid attention to what was happening in his community. He wasn't going to be satisfied if the state and federal governments sent in some flunky with a name tag and a clipboard. Walters got state Canal Corp. Director Brian Stratton to see the damage for himself.

Walters also didn't stop his post-flood efforts at Charleston's borders, either. Several roads across the way in Schoharie County also sustained heavy damage, and although Walters wasn't the supervisor for the people who lived there, he made sure the big wigs paid proper attention to them as well.

One could argue that if is wasn't for Shayne Walters, many people wouldn't have noticed the havoc wreaked by Irene in those areas. Walters has been described by some as a fighter, and his effort during the flood recovery was evidence of that.

When word got out that Walters passed away Monday morning at the age of 49, people were stunned, including many of us here at the Recorder. I found myself wishing I knew Walters better beyond the few conversations we had during the last few years. He was my kind of leader: the kind that talked to you, not at you.

Like any elected official, Walters had his detractors, and, like any elected official, he wasn't perfect when it came to running his town or representing it on the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, even in his capacity this year as board chairman.

But with Shayne Walters, what you saw is what you got: a man who cared deeply about his town and preserving the rural way of life, a man who called it like he saw it, and a man who fought to make sure Charleston didn't get lost in the shuffle. For a not-so-big guy leading a not-so-big town, losing Shayne Walters leaves a large-sized gap not only in his town, but across all of Montgomery County.


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