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Dindl-Neff, wearing many hats, votes her conscience

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Jennifer J. Dindl-Neff wears two different governmental hats — but not at the same time.

She’s an elected Town Council member in LeRay and works part-time for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. But the opinions of her boss are checked at the door when she’s weighing matters that come before the town.

The potential conflict came up when Ms. Dindl-Neff voted on a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with an Albany company looking to retrofit a coal-fired plant on Fort Drum, which Mrs. Ritchie supports.

“We don’t even talk about it,” Ms. Dindl-Neff said. “It’s two separate things.”

Backroom dealing and arm-twisting are frequent fixtures in exposes of Albany dysfunction. Having a local elected official on a legislator’s payroll — an arrangement that’s not only legal, but relatively common in New York — could present opportunities for conflict. But Mrs. Ritchie, a freshman senator, has instituted a laissez-faire approach, telling Ms. Dindl-Neff to vote with her constituents, and not her boss, in mind.

“I have been pretty vocal about supporting the project, but I wouldn’t tell someone who was on my staff who was a local official to vote a certain way any more than I would tell any other person,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “She has to vote her conscience.”

The project was shot down in a 3-2 vote last week, and negotiations are starting again. ReEnergy Holdings wants to convert Fort Drum’s idled coal plant into a biomass facility, which would create electricity by burning what’s left over from the lumber industry.

But a potential loss of sales-tax revenue and opposition on philosophical grounds to a tax break stoked opposition, said Ms. Dindl-Neff, who was elected in 2011.

“They want to make sure that it’s fair and that everyone is treated equally,” Ms. Dindl-Neff said. “That was the main thing.”

Her job in Mrs. Ritchie’s office, where she works less than 20 hours a week, involves constituent casework. If a resident in Mrs. Ritchie’s district is having trouble with worker’s compensation, for example, Ms. Dindl-Neff will work to get it sorted out. That she’s not involved in policy formulation or trips to Albany helps. So does her general outlook on life.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I speak my mind,” she said.

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