One Man’s Road to Politics

DeWitt town supervisor never envisioned to run for office. Then in 2007 he changed his mind

By Charles Ellis

Ed Michalenko never envisioned that he would spend 25 years — and counting — in politics.

He certainly didn’t think about that when he was loading trucks for UPS while attending Onondaga Community College and Cortland State. And it probably never crossed his mind those summers when he was doing construction work while living with his in-laws in New York City after he was married and was working on his doctoral degree.

“I made as much money in those six or eight weeks of construction work as I made as a teaching assistant the rest of the year,” he said.

Nonetheless, he didn’t want a life in construction. His plan was to become a college professor.

Michalenko was born in Syracuse and moved to East Syracuse when he was in second grade and he graduated from East Syracuse Minoa High School. He has lived in the town of DeWitt, which includes the village of East Syracuse, for most of his life since.

After he graduated from Cortland State in 1979, he taught biology, chemistry and general science at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown High School for three years. He then went to SUNY ESF and earned his master’s degree in environmental education and communications. By then he was married to the former Mary Ellen Seaman, whom he met at Cortland State. They were wed in 1981. He watched their baby daughter, Elizabeth, during the day while Mary Ellen worked as a teacher and he took his graduate school classes at night.

Then he was offered a fellowship, which allowed him to work on his Ph.D. while he was a teaching assistant at SUNY ESF. He did his field work for his research in May and June — before making the real money in construction in July and August.

In 1987, he went to work full-time as an environmental chemist for the Syracuse Research Corp., which was then located at Skytop on the Syracuse University campus. His work focused on the fate and transport of chemicals in the environment, while his doctoral research was on the recovery of the Solvay waste beds along the shore of Onondaga Lake. He earned his Ph.D. in 1992.

With his doctoral degree in hand, he was ready to become a college professor. It was the closest he ever came to leaving the area with his wife and, by then, four children, but that never happened.

“When I first got my doctorate, I applied for positions around the country and got an offer from Dartmouth and a few other schools, but the pay was pathetic,” he said. “They told me I’d have the prestige of working for Dartmouth, but I told them that prestige doesn’t feed my family.”

Instead, he went to work for O’Brien & Gere, where he headed its ecological resources group.

“Most of my work was doing ecological risk assessments,” he said.

He spent a fair amount of time in Florida, traveling there four times a year for a week or two, studying what happened to the rocket fuel used at Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. While the aeronautical work certainly affected the environment, the one plus was that thousands of acres were protected from residential encroachment. His work helped protect the robust wildlife there — including 500 of the remaining 2,000 manatees, the highest concentration of sea turtles in North America. The region is the flyway for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

In 1996, he was hired by HydroQual Inc., a New Jersey-based company that allowed him to continue to do the same kind of work while traveling to New Jersey one day every two weeks.

In 1999, he was hired as president by the Onondaga Lake Cleanup Corp. He helped the nonprofit gain a large EPA grant, and he has been there ever since. In August 2006, the OLCC changed its name to the Onondaga Environmental Institute and in December 2006, expanded its mission beyond Onondaga Lake. He is proud of OEI’s contributions to the Onondaga Lake Partnership, Save the Rain Program, environmental justice projects with underserved southside communities, sponsorship of the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Earth Corps, and membership in the Urban Jobs Task Force.

By this time, he was thoroughly enmeshed in DeWitt town politics, although he wouldn’t have predicted that years before. In the 1990s, he started advising the town board on environmental issues. He then ran for the town board seat that was vacated by the newly elected town supervisor, Jim Guyette. Michalenko was elected in 1996 to complete Guyette’s term, then was reelected to four-year terms in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Michalenko said he never intended to run for DeWitt town supervisor, but he changed his mind in 2007 because he opposed a plan to build a coal gasification plant in the town. He won and he has served ever since. He is in his eighth two-year term. In 2021, he ran unopposed after defeating Republican opponents every other time.

Over 15 years, here are some of the DeWitt projects he has spearheaded, most related to improving the environment:

• Widewaters Pond Project and Elevating Erie

• Local waterfront revitalization planning documents

• 2.66 megawatt and 51 kilowatt rooftop solar arrays

• Carrier Park

• Electric vehicles and charging stations

• LED streetlights conversion

• Inland Port development

• Town Hall net zero energy efficiency designs

• Fiddlers Green Park formation and expansion

• Butternut Trail Park System expansion

• Empire State Trail enhancements

• Water system infrastructure improvements

• Stormwater programs

• Ley Creek naturalization and flood control projects

He recently turned 65 and he’s been married 41 years. Along with his four children — three of whom live in the area — he has six grandchildren, ranging from almost 1 year old to a freshman in high school.

“They’re just the joy of our lives,” he said of the grandchildren, who all live nearby.

He’s equally proud of Mary Ellen, who is still a teacher. She runs what might be the closest thing to a one-room schoolhouse in Central New York. Through BOCES, she teaches students of all ages who have endured various medical crises, in a classroom at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital.

He said he hasn’t decided yet whether to run again. But he talks like he might seek another term.

“I never enjoy elections, but I very much like what I’ve accomplished,” he said. “I describe it as a moth attracted to a flame. As long as I’m getting things done and the public wants me, I’ll stay in.”