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Longtime Jefferson County legislators reflect back on their careers

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Between them, Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, and Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, have 28 years on the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. Tuesday was the last day for both men, who have each decided to take a step back from politics in the years to come.

Mr. Ormsby and Mr. Behling, who represent Jefferson County’s Districts 9 and 10, respectively, have more than a few things in common — a generally conservative bent, a propensity for forthrightness and a hard-working streak as wide as a county district line — but they are also very different in key ways.

Whereas Mr. Behling has a penchant for bold moves, bold statements and bold Hawaiian shirts, Mr. Ormsby is often more measured and careful in his approach, though he has never shied away from contentious issues.

The two men have been constants on the board since 2004, when Mr. Ormsby assumed office. Mr. Behling joined the board in 1996.

As the board transitions into a new term, with three new legislators — Patrick R. Jareo, R-Ellisburg, taking Mr. Ormsby’s place; Jeremiah J. Maxon, R-Adams, taking Mr. Behling’s place, and Jonathan L. Hirschey, R-Carthage, replacing Michael F. Astafan, who lost a re-election bid for District 6 — Mr. Ormsby and Mr. Behling took some time to look back on their careers.

The communicator

Much beloved in his district, which includes the towns of Adams, Lorraine, Rodman and Worth, Mr. Behling has had a distinguished political career, though one that has not been without its ups and downs.

Above all, looking back over his 18 years on the board, which included a stint as chairman, Mr. Behling said that he has prized open communication over all else.

To a certain extent, the source of that ethos runs much deeper than one might expect.

“When I was a little kid, I got caught in a lie, and I never wanted that to happen again,” Mr. Behling said.

He also said that when he was younger, he was overweight and often excluded from certain activities by his classmates. When he became a teenager, however, he grew by 5 or 6 inches and lost 50 to 60 pounds and excelled in sports, becoming a leader in his own right.

But the memories of being picked on and excluded stuck with him, and Mr. Behling said he resolved to be different.

“I was looked down upon in a lower grade and I said to myself, ‘When it’s my time to be in charge of something, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to treat everybody with respect,’” he said.

As for those famous Hawaiian shirts, which began as a practical consideration — Mr. Behling does not like to wear neckties — they also played a significant role in making him more recognizable and more approachable.

“You think everybody in your district knows you but they don’t. It works well,” Mr. Behling said.

A hard worker

In lieu of Hawaiian shirts, Mr. Ormsby favors sport coats, ties and heavy work boots, which no doubt serve him well in his day job as a sales representative for Walldroff Farm Equipment, Watertown, an employer he said he wished to thank for its understanding of his legislative responsibilities.

But he is no less approachable.

Described by a colleague as one of the hardest working legislators on the board, Mr. Ormsby is a fixture at local events, which he said helps him keep his finger on the pulse of the community — something he said likely will not change.

“Being out in public I enjoy anyway,” Mr. Orsmby said.

The departing chairman of the Planning and Development Committee and airport ad hoc committee, Mr. Ormsby has seen the Watertown International Airport grow significantly in his years on the board.

He leaves in the midst of a controversial move by the county to secure property at the airport via eminent domain for a Federal Aviation Administration-mandated safety buffer zone.

There is no small amount of discomfort at the board level about the measure, but Mr. Ormsby said he feels it is both a necessary step to ensure continued growth at the airport and a process that will be seen to its conclusion by other capable members of the airport committee.

“I’ve always been opposed to the eminent domain concept, but I think if people were given all the information we’ve had, they would understand our decision,” Mr. Ormsby said. “It’s still our hope to negotiate through this and not go through this eminent domain process.”

Mr. Ormsby said that he has always favored the “iron fist, satin glove” approach, taking time to weigh both sides of an issue, but always being prepared to move decisively if necessary.

“I believe in articulating your point without attacking any one individual or making it personal,” Mr. Ormsby said.

lingering bad blood

While the two men are friendly at social events, a certain awkwardness still lingers from an unfortunate incident nearly eight years ago.

When Mr. Behling was superintendent of the Dulles State Office Building, 317 Washington St., an alleged prank perpetrated by two contract employees and two state employees landed Mr. Ormsby’s wife, her hands and feet bound to a chair, in one of the building’s elevators, which was then sent to several floors.

Mr. Behling, who said he regrets the way he handled the incident, resigned his position amid accusations that he did not move quickly enough to discipline the employees.

“It’s always going to be there. I live with it because, again, you’re in charge of the building and the employees. It’s a difficult thing; you kind of wish it never happened, certainly,” he said.

Mr. Behling said that, looking back on it, he should have applied the same spirit of open communication he applied while speaking his mind as a legislator. By trying to protect his employees, he made things harder for himself and for the victim of the prank.

The issue is still obviously a sensitive one for Mr. Ormsby, though he said that he and Mr. Behling work well together and share a mutual fondness for one another, despite the bad judgment exercised after the incident.

“It was an unfortunate event and it really shook things up,” Mr. Ormsby said. “But we’re all trying to move on from it.”

Since leaving the superintendent position, Mr. Behling has returned to selling produce and flowers at his Spookhill Farms store in Adams Center while also driving a tractor-trailer for M&T Transport, Mannsville, on a route between the Watertown area and West Springfield, Mass.

Those are the jobs that will occupy Mr. Behling’s attention as he settles into life after the legislature.

“I really enjoy farming, growing things and driving a truck,” Mr. Behling said.

And for Mr. Ormsby, who is taking time off to care for his brother, there will still be plenty of opportunities to serve the community.

“I think we’ll probably do enough to stay out of trouble,” Mr. Ormsby said. “You never know what the future will hold.”

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