The atmosphere at City Hall has been somewhat stormy of late, with a ray of sunshine breaking through now and then (reopening the Central Avenue Bridge, installation of a new sluice gate, the sale of 1037 Boston Post Road).
By Paul Hicks and Tom McDermott
The atmosphere at City Hall has been somewhat stormy of late, with a ray of sunshine breaking through now and then (reopening the Central Avenue Bridge, installation of a new sluice gate, the sale of 1037 Boston Post Road). And, the loud noise you hear at City Council meetings is more apt to be thunder than applause, when the Mayor, the Council and residents get together.
All the more reason then to take advantage of the sunshine and dry air these past weeks around the Village Green, with its historic reminders of Rye’s past – and hopeful inspiration for an even more peaceful and prosperous future: the Square House, the Library, and City Hall itself.
With that in mind, we met on the Library terrace separately with each of the three candidates for Mayor: City Councilman and Deputy Mayor Peter Jovanovich, a Republican running as an independent; Councilman Joe Sack, the Republican candidate running on the “Rye United” slate, and comic book executive Nancy Silberkleit, also an independent.
We covered a lot of ground and our conversations were lively.
What follows is only Part 1 of our coverage.
This year’s sale of the City’s property at 1037 Boston Post Road has increased the General Fund reserve. As Mayor, what capital projects would you prioritize?
Jovanovich: “Two main priorities: improve safety at the Purdy, Theodore Fremd, Purchase Street intersection; it doesn’t work for pedestrians or motorists and is not up to state standard. Also, rebuild Station Plaza, which will probably require negotiations with the MTA, with whom we have not negotiated for four or five years, since the City did not have the money to spend anyway. Now we have increased reserves from the 1037 sale. That will be a difficult negotiation, that’s the nature of the MTA, but we can’t waste money repairing here and there. We probably need to finance it with the General Fund, MTA, and a bond.
Sack: Peter has said that I am ‘in favor of sinkholes;’ I didn’t know that. We definitely need to prioritize projects, and my top priority would be to rebuild Station Plaza. At our last Council meeting, I asked the Mayor, ‘When was he last time you spoke to the MTA?’ He said that he hadn’t spoken to them. We need a relationship there and the mayor needs to be involved. We can’t repave; maybe some kind of parking structure is possible if the neighbors wouldn’t object too much.
Last year, when the Council discussed the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) I said ‘Hey guys, if we do bare minimum, voters will go for it, but, when we go back for more, we’ll suffer.
Both French and Jovanovich thought 1037 was an ‘albatross’ and wanted to sell it for $3.6 million to shore up the reserve fund. We came within a whisper of selling 1037 for $3.6 million, except Laura, Catherine and I lobbied for hiring a real estate professional, and we sold the building for $5.6 million. I’ll give credit to Doug French on pedestrian safety. Before Peter, the City Council planned Oakland Beach Avenue, BPR, and Greenhaven. We can all take credit; you need four votes.
Silberkleit: First, we need to raise some money. We can put new meters in the parking lots. Ticket revenue is the first easy thing. We could do a two-tiered parking lot like in Mamaroneck with a mix of retail behind some of the existing shops. Our roads and sidewalks need repair.
I’d like to be the mayor who gets the schools to recognize our history. I’d like to see our non-profits creating 17th Century games and themes in town, a John Jay ghost walk, colonial food; use what we’re know for to increase the number of people in town for our businesses. In East Hampton, I helped introduce Authors’ Night every second week in August.
Police Commissioner Connors will retire in January, and the City Council agreed that the City Manager should engage a recruiting firm to find his replacement. Should the City Manager begin the search now? Do we need an interim Commissioner? Should we hire a new Commissioner before January, when there is a new Mayor and Council?
Sack: Connors’ leaving is good, because there is enough of a negative atmosphere and enough things he’s been associated with that it will be positive to bring in someone new. Naming an interim is fine. Peter called it ‘appalling’ that I would want to wait to hire a new Commissioner. It isn’t a big deal to wait. I’m agnostic on whether the interim comes from within the Rye Police Department. I’m not discounting the other side. Theirs is not an unreasonable position. I just think we need to wait until January to begin the search.
Silberkleit: Promoting someone within is good. We might have someone in the community. We should use tax dollars wisely. Maybe we could train RPD to be working with youth and having peers interacting and telling about problems with drugs and alcohol.
Jovanovich: It’s a good decision to start the search for a new Commissioner now, because of the time required to find a replacement. If it’s not filled by the time the Commissioner retires in January, it’s likely that the City Manager will have to assume that responsibility; RPD senior officer ranks are thin right now. Anyway, a search will probably take at least four months, so it’s a moot point about the City Manager hiring someone new before January when there’s a new mayor and Council. Scott Pickup has talked about having a Citizens’ Committee to advise him. We should not wait to start the search.
Three union contracts – Police, Fire, and Public Works – are up at year’s end. How should the City Manager approach these negotiations? Do you favor pension reform? What’s a fair contract for employees and taxpayers?
Jovanovich: First, we have to treat uniformed services separately, because they are subject to mandatory and binding arbitration. The City Manager is taking the right position in negotiating for a revision in the current healthcare cost contribution, since the City cannot afford the rising costs with the existing tax cap. We are waiting to hear about the police. Scott Pickup was the first City Manager in a decade to say the City should negotiate health care contributions, which are now 15% of pay. The 2005 contract capped contributions and the difference must be made up by taxpayers.
The City Manager had 13 negotiating sessions with the police union and they wanted salary increases without contributions. My difference with Joe is that he wants an ‘amicable’ agreement completed by the end of the year. I support the City Manager. I support the City Manager on this: 75 percent of our increases in spending have gone to pension and healthcare for current and retired City employees. As the Finance Committee has reported, it’s a train wreck if we don’t get on top of it.
Sack: There are two considerations: 1) ensure we meet our fiduciary duty to taxpayers, and at the same time 2) show a proper amount of respect is paid to our service providers. So, probably Peter and I want the best deal and I respect that. I think though, that Peter’s approach as he described it is that negotiations are not urgent and he favors a process that would drag it out, a ‘Japanese’ method. But, this is like Obama and Congress. These kinds of comments are not helpful in striking a deal, an important part of the negotiating trick is to show respect; amicable means respectful.
I think we missed an opportunity to strike a long-term deal; now both sides have lost thou- sands on lawyers. So, if the police contract is decided tomorrow, both sides will claim victory, but we’ll be back at 2011[the contract currently in arbitration extends only through 2010] negotiating again. Clearly employees have to contribute, but rather than use that as a wedge, maybe union members can take all their members into account. ‘I’m a litigator; you get more with honey than with vinegar.’
How would you as Mayor work to ensure City Council meetings address important issues and still remain civil and efficient?
Silberkleit: The current atmosphere probably is a learning experience. It’s a lesson. New people coming in might be refreshing. There are no sacred cows; we should do what’s good for Rye. It’s getting like Washington D.C. here. We need to compromise, not get into finger-pointing. Got a problem? Deal with it. ‘Know what you know – know what you don’t know.’ I’m here because of what I saw in the Council meetings.
Sack: It is most important for the new mayor to restore the public’s trust in City government for the average citizen. This means: openness, transparency, integrity, accountability, especially when it comes to scandals like Rye Golf Club, Rye TV, the police uniform bid. This is not a sexy quote, but ‘I want to make City Council meetings boring again.’
As mayor, I’ll speak to people before meetings to get their point of view and I’ll run meetings using the gavel more. We all make mistakes, but the test of leadership is how you get back on track. In a sense I feel badly for Doug. The administration got derailed. We’ve got to get back on track. I see Peter as continuation of that atmosphere.
Jovanovich: The primary role of the mayor is to set the agenda, but also, after enough public input and Council deliberation, to decide when to vote on an issue. At times, the Council becomes enamored of process, commissions, and studies. The classic example is the RPD health care costs, where the Finance Committee created a voluminous report about a big budget gap beginning in 2010.
As mayor, I’ll afford opportunities for the public to speak, the Council to think, then put things on the agenda for a vote.