What’s been the reaction of Rye residents when campaign mailers arrive, as they have at a dizzying pace in this off-Presidential election year? Close reading at first, straight to recycling as we edge closer to Election Day November 7.
It’s not that voters aren’t all fired up about the contests — County Executive Rob Astorino being challenged by one of Rye’s own, George Latimer; Mamaroneck Mayor Norm Rosenblum trying to unseat Rye’s Catherine Parker on the County Board of Legislators; and the Democratic slate of Josh Cohn, Sara Goddard, Julie Souza, and Ben Stacks, all of whom are running for the City Council for the first time, waging a vigorous campaign against incumbent Mayor Joe Sack and Councilman Terry McCartney, who are running with Susan Watson and Elizabeth Parks.
The trouble is that in many cases, the battle lines aren’t clearly drawn. Far too much innuendo, and, in a number of cases, inaccuracies and falsehoods have voters scratching their heads or running to the windows and shouting, “I’m angry, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
In recent weeks, the County Executive race has become downright ugly. Most voters don’t want Astorino to resign, as the Latimer campaign has suggested, nor do they want to read more about Latimer’s unpaid parking tickets.
Mayor Sack and Councilman McCartney have been making use of the City of Rye email system to send “important messages” and “updates,” the first of which violates a decades’-long City policy during election campaigns. In previous administrations, the messages came from the office of the City Manager.
Meanwhile, Mayor Sack asked the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee to determine whether an ad run in a local newspaper (not The Rye Record) was fair and the Committee deemed it unfair on the grounds that, “moving the DPW for a staggering $50 million” was not yet a “plan,” and those 64 mini-cell towers would be installed “in the right-of-way, not on resident’s front lawns.”
In the final days leading up to the Election, voters are struggling to remember who threw the first grenade and what the candidates stand for, so we asked a number of them and then went straight to the televised debates and, after that, the campaign websites.
Mayor Joe Sack and his opponent, Josh Cohn, have had plenty of opportunity to clarify their positions on every important issue, hot-button or otherwise, at individual interviews at our office and at debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters and The Osborn.
Sack is running on his record; Cohn is running because he believes that actions taken by Mr. Sack and many of the current Councilmembers have created serious cracks in the community, resulted in too many large-scale build-outs on small lots, delayed progress on important projects, and hampered open dialogue.
“When I first became interested in the cell tower proposal, which the Mayor was in favor of, and asked a Councilmember if I could talk further with the Council, I was told ‘No,’” said Cohn. “I get the impression that this is a Council that is a bloc, one that pre-judges. In so many instances, they’ve discouraged public discussion and involvement.”
While more money has been allocated for road repairs, Cohn believes we need a detailed catch-up plan. “There are areas that want sidewalks. Forest Avenue is a game of chicken.”
One of the first things Cohn would do if elected is to schedule a community conversation on residential development. “We need to ensure that people’s property rights are protected, but we also need to make sure that we are protecting the character of neighborhoods.” He added, “ We need to review our Zoning laws, which currently allow generous use but don’t give enough consideration to visual perspective.” Cohn doesn’t think we can sufficiently address the issue simply by a revision of the Master Plan. “The Sack administration has not been willing to look at the question of development and appropriate taxation.”
Cohn emphasizes the fact that while the Mayor sets the Council agenda, he or she should not present himself or herself as running the City. “That’s the job of the City Manager. As Mayor, you should be a strong voice, but not the only voice. You’re just one of seven votes.”
Another philosophical difference between them, said Cohn, regards appointments to boards and commissions. “The Mayor’s prerogative should be used carefully. Each person should be considered individually, on merit.”
On the hot-button issues, Cohn is in favor of reasonable renovation of DPW; is incredulous that the City failed to act in a timely manner on the Starwood project in Port Chester, and that Sack, at the last minute, tried to upend Rye Country Day’s plan to buy the Thruway property for use as field space, field space to be shared and controlled by the City of Rye.
“The poor working conditions at DPW were noted a year ago during the Capital Improvement Plan presentation. But we shouldn’t be rushing to a decision as the Mayor and Mr. McCartney were in the process of doing — trying to get it on the ballot for this election, going to bond with no articulated cost — before a public outcry emerged.” He pointed to the Pandora’s box of environmental issues in moving DPW. When asked if he was in favor of Plan A, B, or C as presented by Stantec consulting, Cohn replied that he favored A and B over C, but he remains concerned about the budget for that plan — already an estimated $10 million — and thinks any plan needs to be reviewed from a needs perspective.
The Thruway Authority indicated two years ago that it wanted to sell the parcel across from Rye Country Day. “Rye Country Day’s proposal, which would be a shared-use agreement, takes that property out of commercial play. “Does Joe Sack want it to be a big box development instead?” Cohn wondered.
“The Mayor has a record of not saying, and not doing until too late,” said Cohn in conclusion. Under his administration, he assured voters, things would be very different. Recently retired, he promises to bring full and non-partisan attention to all of the issues that come before the City and take a fresh look at some of the holdover issues that have not received recent review.
After Election Day, Josh Cohn looks forward to spending time with his daughter, who is a graduate student at Cornell University, and finally having time to read some of the books on his nightstand.
Mayor Joe Sack came to our office after a day of legal work in the city. While he showed some signs of having had a long day, and a long and contentious campaign, he replied to our questions, expanding on more than one.
What might Mayor Sack do differently if he wins a second term? Would he make any adjustments in priorities or style? His answer may surprise some. “All of the above. You should be constantly evolving. You’d be doing something wrong if not.” Sack seems proud of the fact that he saw what worked and what did not in previous administrations. He moved the Council meetings to an earlier start and moved older agenda items up so things wouldn’t drag on.
“As a result of the Rye Golf Club problems, people felt betrayed; there was a lack of trust.” Therefore, he tried to make sure to include as many voices as possible when the Club had an RFP for a new restaurant vendor, feeling it prolonged the process, but it was worth it. “That’s what I made different.” says Sack, who also points to a committee formed to review rock-chipping laws. In hindsight, he wishes that he had made its advisory role clearer to that group, and that the City would review their options but make the final decisions.
Sack sees the Crown Castle affair as a learning experience, “a different animal,” in which there was an adversarial party, with he and the Council trying to protect against too much being said for legal reasons. “I wasn’t leading the narrative and people filled the void.” He does not agree with what he terms the “canard” that he refused to listen, and says everyone got to speak. “You try to kill them with kindness, but people tried to bait me. With Josh Cohn, we took a ten-minute break – I’m not Superman.” Asked about his own article in another paper, widely seen in town as supporting Crown Castle’s plan, Sack responded that he tried to provide a balance against people with a strong opinion who don’t like to listen to other opinions.”
Sack believes the role of Mayor in relation to the City Manager requires both closeness and distance and doesn’t think the Mayor should run the City, “thousands of decisions need to be made every week.” He says that the City needs a City Manager who tells the truth, with the Mayor and Council providing oversight. “I hope I’ve struck the right balance.”
As for the Disbrow Park and Public Works controversy, Sack explains that he had no role in it and that the Rye Recreation Committee was to make the recommendations. He does not think people should be afraid of Rye Country Day School getting the property, but the City wants a closer look at what to do, thinking that the school and City might wind up in the same place again, but believes the school and State Senator Steve Otis tried to steamroll the Council.
“We’ve been negotiating with Rye Country Day. They should tell us what meaningful use we would have. Their people donated to my Democratic opponents, which is not so smart. In a perfect world, it would be better for it to be public property. Nothing will happen before the election. Things may work themselves out.”
Sack understands the issue of trying to retain the community’s character when it comes to land-use policies. He sees Rye as a desirable place to live, pushing property values up, but doesn’t see that as new, with Rye Gardens and Hix Park creating a character shift in an earlier time. “Some people move because they want to cash out,” he said, adding that the City has increased affordable housing so that seniors can stay in Rye.
Sack definitely believes that the tenure on some of the City’s committees, where some have served for over a decade is an issue needing attention. “I’ve been surprised at how hard it is to find people who want to serve. It needs work.”
He declined to name his priorities for capital improvements. “I can’t say and it’s not fair to say. We ought to prioritize. Some say we need two-level parking, others have said it’s only a problem for two hours a day. We will have more discussion.”
Sack believes the upcoming talks with the City’s unions should include a close look at healthcare costs. “We got contracts up to date and We got some relief last time, but there’s still more to be done. We stopped kicking the can and addressed healthcare for Fire and Police.
When the campaign is over. He and his wife, Kerry, look forward to an escape to Chatham on Cape Cod and reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ullysses Grant and “Honey Bee Democracy” a gift from Henry King.