The Great Debates

What’s in an opening statement? Lots if you’re running for public office in Rye, as evidenced at the first Candidates’ Forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Rye, Rye Brook & Port Chester October 2 at Rye Middle School.

Six residents are running for three seats on the City Council — Sara Goddard, Julie Souza, and Ben Stacks on the Democratic slate; Terry McCartney, Elizabeth Parks and Susan Watson are running on the Republican slate with Terry McCartney, who is running for a second term. Josh Cohn, heading up the Democratic ticket, is hoping to unseat Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican.

In his opening remarks, Mayor Sack congratulated the Rye Garnets Football team on their victory over Harrison, noting that the team is 4-0 while he has been mayor. He also announced that the City of Rye had again earned a AAA rating from Moody’s. “That’s an indication of fiscal responsibility. Things are going well, so well that we might forget that four years ago there was a crisis of leadership at City Hall. We restored faith and confidence.” He added, “The job of mayor is challenging, not what was done but how we’ve done it.”

Cohn, a 26-year resident of Rye, who recently retired as a partner in an international law practice, has 36 years of experience solving complex financial puzzles, and lots of questions about the current mayor’s performance. “We have a mayor who claims to listen to all, but he only seems to hear his own voice. He approved a nearly 7% tax increase for 2017 and proposes a wallet-busting plan to move DPW.” He added, “We can do better than we do now. How will my Council be different? We will not be condescending. We will be frugal and get things done.”

The mayoral candidates are not strangers as a result of lengthy and often intense discussions at City Council meetings regarding Crown Castle’s right to place mini cell towers around Rye proceeded.

As it happens, the first LWV question related to Crown Castle towers, with Cohn proclaiming that the City “must walk away from the ‘illegal’ 2011 agreement.”

Not surprisingly, Sack is not so sure. “It’s clear some folks don’t want them, but Federal and State law is not necessarily in our favor.”

According to Sack, the City has been talking about the Thruway property along the Post Road for years. As to his recent disagreements with Assemblyman Steve Otis over the issue, Sack offered an olive branch of sorts. “Steve and I have had our problems on this. I’d like to work with him, Scott (Nelson), and Andrea (Sullivan). When you’re the mayor, you look at all options.”

Cohn countered, “There was no reason to go to war on Otis’ bill. If the City wants to share, it could. If not, it can say no. Killing the bill cuts the option.” Cohn said he understood the need for additional fields, but rather than doing what his opponent did — disrespecting Otis’ bill and turning his back without consulting the rest of the Council — he would have kept an open mind and first have asked for a field-use inventory. “The risk is now that the Thruway Authority might sell the property to someone else.

Sack called the creation of a Public Safety Commissioner – Michael Corcoran – and uniting the fire and police departments under him a tremendous success story, commending his colleagues Kirstin Bucci and Richard Mecca for their work. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and we cannot lose that volunteer tradition. We need a combination of the two in the fire department.

Cohn said that having a 130-year volunteer corps history is something to be proud of. “The City’s job is to watch the situation carefully and ensure it is working well for all interests. It appears to be working well under the new Public Safety Commissioner.”

The deer population and how to reduce it remains a campaign issue election after election. The only thing that seems to change is the increase in the herd. Sack said that he has tried to engage the public on the matter and adds that the County would not make its bow-hunting program available to Rye due to our close quarters. He noted that Greenhaven residents had taken the advice of the City’s consultant and that he has reached out to Mamaroneck seeking cooperation.

“It’s not working,” says Cohn. We need to find a humane, effective way to cull. We need to find out what other municipalities are doing.”

And, what would a Rye political campaign be without the question of Playland’s future. Sack sees it as a huge issue, a defining moment, which is why he has taken the County to court. “We stood up to the County. They still maintain they can do whatever they want.” But, Cohn thinks the best course is to begin working with Playland. “The judge threw it out and didn’t think Rye needed to be in court.”

The two candidates are far apart as well on the possible move of DPW to the Thruway property, which Cohn calls a “Pandora’s Box. Fifty million might even be too low. I invite him to renounce it.”

That would be the worst thing according to Sack who has vehemently renounced that $50 million cost estimate. Josh and his team are putting out falsehoods, urgig people to show outrage.

Summing up, Cohn described Sack’s record as one of contentiousness, saying “We don’t need a prosecutorial tone. Sack closed by relating that a resident recently told him it “Was awfully brave of you” to run again. “I willingly do it because I love Rye.”

In her opening remarks, Sara Goddard explained that she is running because she’s been dismayed by the lack of efficiency and civility on the current Council. “I will seek common ground to achieve financially sustainable solutions,” said Goddard, who created a Sustainability Plan for the City and has led the Sustainability Committee for seven years. She promised a full-time level of dedication.

Councilman McCartney stood by his record. “I sat up here four years ago and promised that if you elected me I’d make a difference — regarding the Rye Golf Club scandal, union contract negotiation, returning professionalism and integrity to the Council and City staff. Rye is in great shape today in large part because of what we’ve done.” He added, “You need someone who’s been there before.”

Julie Souza, a sports marketing executive, described herself as someone who is analytic, collaborative, and focused on getting things accomplishments. The mother of three is also president of the Loudon Woods neighborhood association and serves on the Carver Center board.

A chartered financial analyst for 37 years, Susan Watson moved back to Rye four years ago ready to serve, and she is, as president of the Rye Newcomers’ Club and active member of the local LWV. “I’ve always been a libertarian but I’ve always registered as a Republican because I’m fiscally conservative.” This year, Watson also became a card-carrying Medicare recipient, and she wants Rye “to be a great place for seniors.”

Ben Stacks, who works for Capital One Commercial Banking, aims to use his expertise for the public good. He’s served on the Traffic & Pedestrian Safety Committee for almost a decade. Two of his biggest concerns about the current Council are the way they’ve treated citizens, especially during public discussions of the Crown Castle mini-cell tower proposal, and the plan to move DPW from Disbrow Park to Boston Post Road.

After spending 24 years working her way through a very competitive industry — corporate sales executive at Fortune Conferencing — Elizabeth Parks says she feels the best way to give back to a community she loves is to serve on the Council. “I want to make sure Rye remains a safe and vibrant community, and I will do so in a fiscally responsible way.”

The Council candidates were asked to respond to League-prepared questions on: the condition of the City’s sidewalks and roads and the stalled plan to add a sidewalk on the southern end of Forest Avenue; whether the City should continue considering moving the DPW in light of public outcry; how best to preserve the town’s historic character; and what three things can be done to reduce taxes.

The candidates’ answers to the first two questions follow.

As to the first question, McCartney said that the issue is “incredibly complex. We’ve doubled down on what the previous administration did and paved almost four miles of road. The proposals we’ve seen for Forest Avenue start at $1 million and end at around $4 million.” Watson noted that this year the Council moved monies from the Reserve Fund to the General Fund, but Souza pointed out that $100,000 of that funding has not been used for the sidewalks. “There seems to be a hesitancy to execute on this Council.” She said, “If the City doesn’t have safe sidewalks, we’re not living up to our billing.” Goddard was among the many who noted that most of the City’s residents chose to live here because of its beautiful coastline, parks, and downtown. But currently, “with only a patchwork of sidewalks and pedestrian routes,” walkability isn’t what it could be. “The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) has placed a high priority on sidewalks. It’s fiscally irresponsible for the City to consider a DPW move with the state of the sidewalks.” The condition of the City’s streets and sidewalks is the No. 1 issue for residents, according to Parks.

On the second question, Stacks says that we should stop spending any more time on the DPW move, which has “no hope of receiving broad community support. The Council says that it received significant feedback to its community survey on the proposal, when it only received 267 responses. Over 1,100 residents signed the petition in protest of the Crown Castle proposal, which the Council described as a ‘vocal minority.’ There are many more pressing issues before the City than moving DPW.” McCartney was quick to state that some of the Democrats’ campaign ads have been “misleading” about the cost of such a plan. “None of the six options our consultant presented adds up to $50 million, and only one of them includes moving DPW.” Souza countered, “What is the City’s objective? The DPW/Disbrow plan is a solution looking for a problem. A fiscally-responsible plan to improve the current DPW already exists, in the CIP, at a price of $4.5 million. And the cost to Rye for additional field space is zero if the City agrees to let Rye Country Day School go forward with its plan to buy the Thruway property, pending Gov. Cuomo’s approval.” Watson has no plans to move DPW to the Thruway property. “We don’t need to own more stuff; we need to take care of what we have.” Goddard underlined that “we all understand the need for additional fields and recreation space as well as improvements to the DPW facility, but we can’t afford these proposals, any of them, and the community input on this was non-existent until the outcry.” Putting the proposals in perspective, Goddard noted that the current City budget is $36 million. Parks concurred but ended on a positive note: “We will have lots of opportunity to give better working conditions to workers and improve the fields we have.”

<The article will continue in our October 20, 2017 issue.>

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