The Battle for Highway Superintendent

The Battle for Highway Superintendent

Few subjects generate more animated conversation in Putnam Valley than the state of our roads. So perhaps it is fitting that every two years the issue of who maintains these essential arteries is decided at the ballot box rather than by executive appointment.

This year we are being offered a choice between two men who have faced each other before: Shawn Keeler and Mark Pawera. Keeler, a Democrat, is the incumbent, having beaten Pawera, a Republican, by just 41 votes in 2021. This year the Conservative Party, in a reversal, has decided to endorse Keeler rather than Pawera.  

Keeler, 47, is well known in town for his 15 years working in the highway department, 32 years volunteering for the fire department (where he is vice president), and his service as a Little League coach and board member and Football Club sponsor. He is even developing something of a national profile as a Christmas light fanatic. Every year he decorates his home and property with what is now a collection of more than 1 million lights, a feat that draws more than 800 local residents to the annual lighting ceremony and has earned him a spot as a contestant on the TV reality show The Great Christmas Light Fight.

Shawn Keeler

In summarizing his first term, Keeler pointed to the significant investments he persuaded the town board to make in new equipment such as plow trucks and street sweepers, while generating $187,000 in revenue from selling older equipment that had been out of use for years. He says these purchases enable his 22-man crew to clean up snow and ice more quickly and clean gutter lines and ditches to allow water to flow faster to the sides of the roads. In his first term, he says the department has also repaved more than 7 miles of local roads.  

Keeler also points with pride to how responsive the department is under his leadership. He is generally at work by around 6am, and when not there, redirects his office phone to his cell phone number, which he freely gives out. (It's 845 745-0795) . Keeler says he answers day and night, even when on vacation.

In challenging Keeler for the position, Pawera, 57, faces an especially uphill battle this time around. Not only is he competing with a popular incumbent and without the Conservative Party endorsement, but even his Republican Party seems to be offering him little in the way of overt support. Requests for his contact information to the town's Republican leadership, for example, went unanswered. Pawera declined to comment about the party's stance towards him. To bolster his campaign, Pawera has taken to posting videos such as this one on his Facebook page.

Mark Pawera

When reached, Pawera was critical of Keeler's investments in new machinery, which he views as expensive and unnecessary. An operating engineer who works for a union local in Westchester County, Pawera says that because of his education in civil technology and his work experience, he's better equipped to apply new technology to road maintenance than Keeler. If elected, he said he would bring more professionalism and efficiency to the department, arguing that his approach would save taxpayer money and provide better service. He faults the town board for supporting bonds to facilitate Keeler's truck purchases. "There has been no discussion, no hearings, no nothing," Pawera says.  "Taxpayers are getting short-changed."

Keeler concedes that Pawera has more technical knowledge of road-building than he does, but counters that his personal experience with the unionized workforce that he has been a part of for many years is also critical to the department's success.

Given that the highway department consumes about 40% of the town's annual budget, voters have an important decision to make this election cycle.  

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