Councilman Joe Sack interviewed Mayor Mary Ann Ilse by telephone in April in connection with his documentary, “The Council Project”.
By Councilman Joe Sack
I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Mayor Mary Ann Ilse by telephone this April in connection with my documentary, “The Council Project”.
Below is a partially edited transcript of the interview.
Sack: Mayor Ilse, could you please tell us what you think are the personal qualities that make for a good and effective member of the city council and also mayor?
Ilse: Well the personal qualities are quite different for this local government because basically you’re in touch with and see your constituents on a daily basis, be it at the soccer game, getting coffee at the train, or something like that. And this is the only layer of government where you are in this everyday touch. And believe me, you hear if you don’t get the streets shoveled, plowed, or your driveway shoveled or something like that. I think there are the important things that are obvious: honesty, integrity. But then you get on to some of the other things that are maybe not quite so obvious. I happen to think a good handshake is very important and I can remember when a Republican mayor of New York City came up and it was the first time I had met him, and probably it was the worst handshake I ever had it was so limp. And I still remember twenty plus years later. And I think that that is something that shows a little bit of interest. Then also one of the things that I do also think is important is to look the person that you’re talking to in the eye. You look at them in the eye or keep it at eye level and they know you’re interested and you can keep their attention too a lot easier if you do that.
Sack: How about being mayor? It must take something more to be mayor than just to be a garden variety council member.
Ilse: Patience and an understanding spouse, among other things. Because you do get more people calling you wanting this, wanting that, not understanding exactly when you say, “No I’m sorry I can’t do that.” There’s a lot of people that don’t like to take no for an answer. And you’re more involved, because you don’t of course set the council agenda, but you’re more involved with the city manager and you meet with the city manager. And you look at things a little differently.
Sack: When we were speaking on the phone a week or two ago you were telling me all about the switch over from private collection to public collection of garbage. Maybe you can tell me more about that.
Ilse: Well I’d be very happy to tell you more about that. It was the private company that was collecting our garbage. Their fees were going up too fast and we were going to have a hard time keeping our budget in line if we did that. The city manager, Frank Culross at the time, was not really interested in doing garbage, but he did a lot of investigating and we decided that the best thing for Rye would be to go from private to public. Now that was twenty plus years ago and the general thinking was that government didn’t do as well as private. So we ran into some people that were strongly objective, but I worked very hard and I went to visit every organization for two months that I could. Even if they didn’t want me I conned somebody into getting me there to explain to them basically what we had to do was build a garage and then we had to buy the trucks and it was quite an undertaking. I don’t know the figures now, but I understand that I think we probably saved Rye millions of dollars in the years since we did it.
Sack: It was a very contentious issue; in fact, you told me that you got some phone calls or messages sent to you that were a little bit unsettling.
Ilse: Yeah they were and the night — we went ahead with the election in ’88 and it was a presidential year. We thought we’d lost that election, we thought we’d lost. I think it was about seventeen votes and I was very unhappy because I’d worked so hard. Then when they counted the absentee ballots we won by two votes.
Sack: And there were some people that were very much against that transition to public collection of garbage including some of the carters themselves.
Ilse: The carters themselves were very much against it and they are now out of business, I didn’t mean to put them out of business, but I don’t know if we did. But they are out of business now and still very unhappy with the members of the council and me. It was extremely contentious.
Sack: Well I hate to tell you this, but it’s actually been a topic of discussion in Rye that because of the exorbitant pension contributions that we have to make and the health care costs that it actually may be more expensive now to have public employees doing it.
Ilse: Oh, I can understand that, and I’m not pleased to hear that when you put it that way, but I think times have changed. I would hope that no matter what Rye would continue to have the two times a week pick-up. But I think you should look very carefully before you make a change.
Sack: You must have some funny stories to tell I guess from your time on the council and your time as mayor. Are there any that come to mind?
Ilse: Well there’s one that comes to mind. He’ll remain nameless. George and I lived right by the marina in one of the townhouses there by the marina and he would go out on his boat and he would come back in always at low tide and he would always get stuck. Because he knew I could hear him he would stand there and scream, “Maryann, you’ve got to do something. Maryann, what kind of a mayor are you?” It got to be a funny thing I thought and I would answer him back and I won’t repeat what we would say to him, but my husband didn’t think it was very funny, but it was it was a humorous thing. Also, there was one time in the council meeting when there was a lady who wanted us to change some of the pooper-scooper laws, I’ll call them. She came in to the council meeting and she was holding this bag and she was talking and I thought she was going to give me something that I wouldn’t want, and when she handed me the bag the other council members were looking at me. When I opened it, it was alright and we all had a big laugh out of that. I loved going to the girls softball league for the hot dogs after that and I think not all the mayors went to that. So they were happy to see me. There were tough times like with the group home, which maybe we’ll discuss a little bit later, and that was not easy, that was another very contentious time.
Sack: Well, tell me about the group home. What was that issue about and how was it resolved?
Ilse: Well, it was resolved — the state can do a group home and if they come in and they want to do a group home you really can’t stop them. There’s a couple of reasons that you can stop them, for what I don’t recall off the top of my head. They came in and said that they were putting a group home on Harding. They were going to do it and four of the residents were upset and all over everybody. I wasn’t happy either. What you have to do is find another site for them and that is not easy because nobody wants it. I don’t think it was an appropriate site for what they were looking for because it’s a house that’s flooded occasionally down by the brook. So that went on and on for quite a while. And I went and met with people because we were looking at other sites. I set up a committee, we went and met with people that were near homes that were being considered for the second time. The reason that it didn’t happen has nothing to do with us. It was because they changed their minds.
Sack: What years did you serve and talk to me about your memories of some of the people you served with on the council.
Ilse: ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89 – I served with some nice people on the council. I served with John Alfano, Ellen Millberg, Marcia Kapilow, and Bob Brunner was on the council at times too and so was Ted Rogers. Warren Ross and Ellen Millberg were the Democrats that were on the council when I was mayor. We got along. We understood. I think it’s a lot more contentious now than it was because we might fight like hell during the meeting, but when we walked back into the council room we were talking to each other, not screaming at each other. And that was good. I think it made for better government.
Sack: What would you say was the best part of being mayor?
Ilse: Oh, the feeling of being able to do something good for people. And when we could do things like fix the curbs for the handicapped. Getting out and meeting a lot of people. I went to a number of boy scout things and girl scout things. Anything getting out and doing, it was interesting. I like going to the American Legion services on Memorial Day at City Hall and Veterans’ Day. Getting involved with things like that which I had known little about was very rewarding for me.
Sack: What would you say to people today who are thinking about possibly stepping forward to serve their community and running for city council. What pitch would you make to them as to why it’s something that they should consider seriously?
Ilse: Well first of all, I would say do it, if you’re thinking about it, do it. Get out there and see what you can do. You’ve got to learn. You’ve got to learn about the city and it’s not — it’s cohesive, but it’s not completely cohesive. And people have different ideas. I think that if you get out there and talk to people, go have coffee someplace, go have a drink someplace, go do something. Work with a scout. You really have to listen to the people and if you’re a candidate it’s doubly important that you listen because that’s the way you’re going to learn. And you’re going to learn what people are thinking, and what they want, and how they react to what you have to say. You go in there with an idea of you might like, to pave a road or something like that, or do something to Rye Rec and see what their reaction is. But you should have a few ideas of what you think would be good government and take it from there.
Sack: Is there anything that you wanted to cover that I haven’t asked about so far?
Ilse: I think it’s pretty established that I’ll always be known as the “Garbage Mayor” and I’m not sure that I love that title, but I earned it. So I’ve got it, so I’m stuck with it!
Sack: Well there are worse sobriquets to be had, I’m sure, Maryann!
Ilse: Yeah, well anyway, you gotta keep your sense of humor. Also, if you’re going to be a candidate for mayor, keep your sense of humor because you’re going to need it.
Sack: That’s for sure.
Ilse: And things as you know can get kind of rough during the campaign.
Sack: Well, I certainly wish you all the best and good luck, thank you so much for agreeing to do this.
Ilse: Oh, I was happy to do it. It’s nice after all these years to be remembered.
Sack: Yes, absolutely! More than remembered, remembered fondly.
Ilse: Okay fine, thank you very much.