GovernmentThe Putnam Examiner

Odell Reflects on Historical Run as Putnam County Executive

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As outgoing Putnam County Executive, MaryEllen Odell is looking back proudly on her years of public service as the first woman in the county’s history to be elected to the top governmental post. Legal term limits have required Odell to retire from government, ending a prominent public chapter of her life.

Odell said her initial involvement in community projects is what laid the groundwork for what would later become a full, political career.

“I fell backward into politics when I co-founded the Carmel Sports Association in 1995,” she recalled. “The area was absent a sports association which was so important to kids and their families.”

More community involvement included membership in the Hamlet of Carmel Civic Association, the Carmel Industrial Development Agency and Putnam Economic Development Council. Odell was also on the Executive Board for the Gold Star Mothers statue in Putnam County Veterans Memorial Park. Running for and winning a seat on the Putnam County Legislature in 2006 seemed the next logical step, a seat she held for five years.

In 2011 when Odell lost her primary bid for county executive against former and popular Republican Senator Vincent Leibell, she said she wasn’t ready to give up.

“I didn’t have a good feeling about him, and I almost got him in the primary – I lost by only 200 votes. It was David versus Goliath,” she said.

Putnam County Legislator Neil Sullivan (R-Carmel) remembers how Odell was a formidable opponent to Leibell.

“When she first started running for county executive, we were outcasts because we took on Leibell who controlled everything,” Sullivan said. “It was a real bad time for Putnam County politics, but MaryEllen had a tremendous amount of guts, strength and perseverance to do the right thing.”

Leibell won the election, but he was never sworn in. He was arrested and imprisoned after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and tax evasion. Odell won in a special election for county executive and three days after her win, she was sworn in by former New York Governor George Pataki on the steps of the county courthouse.

Odell is particularly proud of her fiscal accomplishments and noted when she first took office the county had $100 million in long term debt, including $8.5 million owed to the New York State pension fund. “When I leave office, I am leaving $70 million in the general fund and we have cut the long term debt in half. I’m very proud of that,” she stressed.

Good budget planning saved the county in 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit.

“The county could have been wiped out,” said Odell. “But we made some very strategic financial moves that protected our financial stability.”

COVID presented tremendous obstacles for Odell, especially when it came to helping residents with the county’s well-established emergency system of first responders. Chief among the major roadblocks were mandates handed down from Governor Cuomo’s office.

“They created an untenable situation for most of us in county government and showed a total lack of support,” Odell recalled. “The governor and the (state) commissioner of health rolled out their plan but the information they gave on television was completely different. On some levels COVID became political, they lost their focus and it was almost an authoritarian state.”

The county was able to keep its main operations up and running during COVID despite steps taken by the state to control local governments, according to Odell. “We didn’t need to be told what to do. We were able to offer test sites, vaccinations and run other services remotely. Our emergency operations were the best thing we did.”

Among the few regrets Odell mentioned was how the pandemic interrupted the momentum to create the Putnam County Crisis Stabilization Center slated to provide 24/7 support for families in crisis, those suffering from alcohol and opioid abuse and those needing mental health treatment and suicide prevention help. The center is the first of its kind in Putnam County.

“We were ready to mobilize and start working together,” Odell explained. “We are using $2.5 million from ARPA funds (American Rescue Plan). Sorry I won’t be here to see it actually open, but I know it will happen with great people who are very committed.”

A segment of society that Odell felt were extremely underserved was the country’s veterans who severely lacked well deserved benefits.

“Veterans are a huge focus of our attention, and we established the first veteran’s service department with a full-time director to help vets and their families,” Odell explained.

To further recognize local veterans for their service, Odell said she was proud to initiate The Row of Honor display of flags on the shores of Lake Gleneida in Carmel. The 9/11 heroes’ memorial at Spain Cornerstone Park furthered Odell’s passion to those who gave their lives for their country.

During her two terms, Odell ushered in a successful program to transform the Tilly Foster Farm as a tourist destination along with a revitalized Putnam County Golf Course.

“The golf course and Tilly Foster put Putnam on the map for not only tourists but for families and retirees who are drawn here,” Odell said.

Attracting more families to the area has increased the pace of development in both residential and commercial sectors along the 84/684 corridor. Odell said current residential development is probably at a saturation point.

“We are a watershed county and have to comply with the laws of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. We are limited by the topography and the large amount of rock that is here,” she said.

Odell supports the rights of property owners to develop their properties as long as their plans are environmentally safe, address any traffic issues and conform to local land use boards.

Succeeding Odell on Jan. 1 will former Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, who has represented the 94th Assembly District for the last six years. Odell supported Putnam Legislator Carl Albano who lost to Byrne in the Republican primary. Even though Byrne ran unopposed in the general election, Odell never backed him.

Recently Byrne said his transition to becoming the county executive has been one-sided. “There was no communication from MaryEllen,” he said. “We had to issue a FOIA request (Freedom of Information Act) from various county departments to make sure we got the correct information.”

Odell maintained that the county’s doors have been open to Byrne’s transition team. “When he’s sworn-in that’s when he is responsible to build his own administration as I did. I’m confident the county can work through his transition,” she said.

After 17 years of public life, future plans for Odell are still a question mark. The one thing she is clear on is her new life won’t include politics.

“No more politics,” Odell said. “When I was on the legislative board it wasn’t pretty and as I leave now, in 2022, its ugly. Politics have definitely changed in New York State and nationally. It’s not a healthy environment for those wishing to get things done. Overall, for me it was very challenging on all levels and extremely rewarding.”

Odell said she’s not sure what her next adventure will be. “I’m a woman who doesn’t believe in going backwards on anything. You give it your best and keep moving on,” she said.

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