SARANAC LAKE - Howard Riley will step down as a justice for the town of Harrietstown at the end of the month.
Riley, who's been on the bench since 2008 and is in the middle of a four-year term, submitted his letter of resignation to the town board last month. It takes effect Aug. 1
Riley told the Enterprise Tuesday that he's leaving office before his current term expires because he's concerned about the workload the town's two part-time justices will be forced to take on when village court dissolves next year. When dissolution takes effect, the courts of the three towns that overlap into the village - Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand - will take over the much busier village court caseload. Even though those cases will be divided among the three town courts, the majority of the village police department's caseload is in the Harrietstown section of the village.
"I don't want to be the judge when they combine the two courts, the village and town," Riley said. "It's going to be really busy, and that doesn't happen until April 2014. I didn't want to wait until then. I figured it was more fair to let somebody get on the ballot in November.
"It was mostly that it's going to be so busy, and (village court sessions) are at night, they're late, and they're really packed in there sometimes. I didn't want to deal with that."
"Had I known they were going to combine those courts - they talked about it some - I wouldn't have (run) again (in November 2011) for a four-year term."
The village board had actually voted in August 2010 to set in motion the process of dissolving village court, saying at the time the change would eliminate a duplicated service and save village taxpayers $50,000 a year.
Under state law, the change can only take effect after the terms of the current village justices expire. In Saranac Lake, that's April 2014, when current village Justice Ken McLaughlin's term comes to an end.
McLaughlin, who is Harrietstown's other judge, has also raised concerns about doing away with village court. In February, he asked the village board to reconsider, saying losing village court will be inconvenient, won't save that much money and could affect the operation and costs of the village police department if its officers have to travel to Bloomingdale and Lake Placid for St. Armand and North Elba arraignments. However, village officials didn't budge.
Riley, who will turn 83 next week, has held numerous different jobs and elected positions over the years. He's a former village mayor, village trustee, village manager and Harrietstown councilman. He has worked at the Enterprise, including as a reporter and editor. More recently, he's been an Enterprise columnist on local history and a tour guide at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid.
He said he has enjoyed his stint on the bench, calling it one of the most interesting and challenging positions he's ever held. Riley said he tried to treat defendants fairly and "help people more than hurt them." One of the highlights during his tenure, Riley said, was performing marriage ceremonies, including ceremonies for roughly 10 same-sex couples in the months after New York legalized gay marriage in July 2011.
Riley said he's not sure what he'll do next.
"If something comes up, like lieutenant governor or something, I might go for that," Riley joked. "(Former Gov. Eliot) Spitzer is getting back into things. He might need an assistant comptroller, but since I haven't balanced my checkbook in 20 years, I doubt I'll fit in there."
Riley said he timed his resignation to take effect around the same time as the retirement of Deputy Town Clerk and town Court Clerk Patricia Meagher, who's stepping down as of Aug. 2 after 12 years with the town. The board accepted her resignation, with regret, at its June 27 meeting.
Village Court Clerk Scott Darrah has expressed interest in taking on Meagher's town court clerk job, in addition to his current position. The town board will consider appointing him, effective Aug. 2, at its meeting Thursday night. Darrah would be a part-time employee of the town with no benefits until April.
Since he will soon be the town's only judge, McLaughlin had asked the town to give him what would have been Riley's salary through the rest of the year, until a new judge is seated on Jan. 1. The two judges make $8,456 each. It's unclear whether McLauglin's request will be granted, however, as the town could also appoint a temporary justice until the end of year, provided the person is qualified to be a judge.