“Coming into office and then 2 months later we hit a recession and a pandemic, it’s like, the perfect time, right?”
Like everyone else in the world, Jacob Testa’s 2020 did not go as planned. After being elected to the Red Hook Town Board in November 2019, Testa began to prepare for his first experience working as an elected official in government. Testa moved to the area when he came to Bard in 2015, first working in the Office of Residence Life & Housing for two years before moving to the Office of Gender Equity. Testa still works in that office as the Director of Clarity Compliance and Deputy Title IX Coordinator. Now, as a Councilmember, Testa works with the rest of the Board as well as the Town Supervisor to review and adopt Town programs and policies, such as the annual budget. Last year, the Dissonance published a profile of Testa following his election, and followed up with him a year later to reflect on local government and civic engagement in 2020.
Reflecting on his experience on the Town Board so far, Testa noted the impact that COVID-19 has had on interpersonal relationships and collaboration in local government. Testa said that as a new member of the Town Board, he started the 2020 term with a smaller network of local elected officials than his fellow councilmembers. The first part of Testa’s term was simply adjusting to his new post by learning from other councilmembers. Testa said the meetings held in-person provided “more opportunities to build a relationship and to ask questions that aren’t necessarily tied to what you’re doing in the moment, but are important for doing the job.” More casual one-on-one conversations happening before or after meetings gave Testa insight into how his fellow councilmembers viewed the position. However, after just five meetings held at Town Hall, the Board was forced to transition to online meetings on March 25, 2020.
“Everything is really limited,” Testa said. “There’s still a little bit of time for small talk but it’s very different from in person where you [can] have a 1:1 conversation on the side. [In] every Zoom you’re always “on” but to some degree. You’re on camera, it’s a performance in some way […] it’s different from just being in person.”
In continuing his work in the Office of Gender Equity at Bard, Testa had another experience of transitioning to remote work with which to compare his experience on the Town Board. In his position as Director of Clarity Compliance and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Testa had three years of experience to lean on in transitioning to COVID-safe work. “I had all of this time where I already built up all my relationships; I knew my job, I knew the people I was working with. If I need something, I know where to go. I probably know the answer for a lot of things already, just because I’ve been around” Testa said. “Which, you know, there’s value to that. That’s why experience is good.”
The transition to convening as a Board over Zoom has obvious advantages and disadvantages. While the collaborative aspect of sitting on the Board has been impacted, Testa also noted that it is easier for him to attend committee meetings that typically would have conflicted with his 9-to-5 work at Bard. The same goes for residents.
“In some ways, the accessibility for people who want to be at a meeting–that can be easy,” Testa said. “There are also challenges there; not everybody has the same resources[…] But from my experience at least, some of it has been a little bit easier and a little bit more accessible.”
Specifically addressing the Economic Development Committee, Testa said Zoom has provided more accessible ways of collaborating and sharing resources. “Talking about the Economic Development Committee, there’s a lot of collaboration that happens there. That’s between the Town, the Village, and business owners, the Chamber of Commerce; [which generates] a lot of ideas for ways to promote economic activity in Red Hook. And that’s something that I think Zoom does make a little bit easier, a little more accessible, and you can share resources in a way that’s in some ways easier.”
Looking back to Testa’s campaign last November, there are initiatives that have had to be tabled in the face of pressing health and economic issues.
“When I was running, there were a couple of things that I was focusing on; one of them was housing,” Testa said. “Trying to promote development and trying to promote having more supply in the housing market, to have it be accessible, that’s the sort of thing that is a little bit more challenging whenever you have a big financial/economic downturn. I think there’s still ways to do it, and it’s something we’re going to be focusing on, but that might have been something that in a non-COVID environment there might have been more of an effort.”
On the other hand, Testa also ran on issues concerning diversity and inclusion in Red Hook, which have become even more relevant in the past year. Testa, along with fellow Councilmember Bill Hamel, are tasked with leading a diversity and inclusion working group.
On civic engagement in 2020, Testa said that despite a wildly different landscape, the Red Hook community remains engaged and dedicated to improving the Town.
“The people in town are still really passionate about what they’re doing and still really interested in making the community better and are still working together [on] that. It’s just different and it’s kind of shifted in that way,” Testa said. “There still is a lot of collaboration and a lot of effort to get the town through everything. It’s just trying to navigate the complications of it.”
Testa’s commitment to encouraging engagement within the Bard community has not wavered in the past year.
“I still want to keep reiterating whenever I get a chance that [getting involved] is really important,” Testa said. “The local stuff is really important specifically for the College’s relationship to the Town; the most immediate impact it can have is going to come through the Town.”
Testa added that the ways in which local government has become accessible in the wake of COVID-19 gives students new opportunities to get involved.
“At Bard in particular, students are engaged enough to get why it’s important and to actually have it be accessible,” Testa said. “We’ll have students reach out sometimes that want to work with a committee or present something or have some questions, and it’s always accessible and easy to access in a small town like Red Hook.”
Readers looking to get involved can find upcoming Town Board meeting agendas here. The Board meets on the second Tuesday and fourth Wednesday of every month at 7:30 pm.