On the Record: The City Council Race

With the 2015 Election only ten days away, the six candidates for City Council have informed voters of their positions on just about every issue at forums organized by the League of Women Voters and The Osborn, through advertisements and community-wide mailings, and in conversations in private gatherings and on public street corners.

Published October 22, 2015 3:13 PM
12 min read

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candidates-thWith the 2015 Election only ten days away, the six candidates for City Council have informed voters of their positions on just about every issue at forums organized by the League of Women Voters and The Osborn, through advertisements and community-wide mailings, and in conversations in private gatherings and on public street corners.

Osborn-ForumWith the 2015 Election only ten days away, the six candidates for City Council have informed voters of their positions on just about every issue at forums organized by the League of Women Voters and The Osborn, through advertisements and community-wide mailings, and in conversations in private gatherings and on public street corners.

The Rye Record has interviewed the candidates individually and has attended each forum. While we have known some of the candidates longer than others, we were able to have honest, straightforward conversations with all, and learned a great deal about what made them run for office for the first time or another term, as well as their inspirations and their aspirations.

There are three open seats this election, with Richard Slack and Laura Brett deciding not to run again. Richard Mecca, who was appointed by Mayor Joe Slack to fill an unexpired term in January 2014, is running on the Republican ticket with former School Board President Jim Culyer and Leon Sculti, who chairs the Rye Golf Club Commission. Their campaign has focused on the fact that they are “Tested, Tried, and True.” Their Democratic opponents, Emily Hurd, Danielle Tagger-Epstein, and Jeff Taylor, are offering “Fresh Voices, New Ideas.” All three have spoken out on the need for greatly improved infrastructure, creating pedestrian-friendly designs for downtown Rye and Station Plaza, and listening to residents, not just reacting to issues after the fact.

taylorJeff Taylor is Assistant Professor of Arts Management at Purchase College SUNY, which just opened the second art forensics lab in the country. He is also CEO of Taylor Art Advisors, which provides art appraisals and art forensics. Taylor is a board member of the Rye Arts Center, stepping down as board president after deciding to run for the City Council. He is proud to say that the RAC is “not your grandmother’s art center.”

He has been “politically engaged” from his student days at Oberlin College, where he double majored in Government and English. At age 21, he was among the first Peace Corps volunteers in Hungary. He holds a Master’s in History and Ph.D. in History.

When he talks about Rye’s future, his vision is for a more urbanized suburb with additional parking and safe and attractive routes to town and train for pedestrians, parents with strollers, and cyclists. “We’re a desirable community but one with crumbling sidewalks, dangerous crossings at Theodore Fremd Avenue and Purchase Street, and ‘the Mad Max, Road Warrior’ Station Plaza parking lot, and not enough places to sit outside along Blind Brook or in downtown Rye.”

The City has good bones, Taylor says, but while we’re figuring how to fund substantial repairs to our aging infrastructure “we need to look at the bigger picture, with input from residents and businesses. You can’t fix Purdy Avenue or Smith Street without an overall plan for the downtown and its connection to neighborhoods and main roads. He continues, “The parking problem is deeply tangled,” and the current situation with a long waiting list for commuters and not enough short-term parking for shoppers, storeowners, and restaurant-goers.

To keep City taxes low, and under the mandated cap, Taylor says that we should focus on digitalization and recommendations from organizations like Smart Cities. “Our team has been studying reengineering of services and upgrades to the delivery of those services.”

On recent hot-button issues such as the passage of a rock chipping law, Taylor is quick to criticize Mayor Sack’s ‘self-congratulatory’ statements. “The rock chipping law was not a ‘good compromise’ as Mayor Sack said. The law passed, which was not close to what the study committee recommended allows eight more days, more equipment, and a seven-day waiver. Houses aren’t empty on construction days. People are losing their quality of life for long periods of time while a developer chips rock. I live on High Street and I can hear the Central Avenue construction project past I-95 and the train. If elected, I would like to revisit the law in a year’s time to see the track record, how well the law was enforced and look at it with clean, unsentimental eyes.”

­­meccaRichard Mecca is the only incumbent in the race. He grew up in Port Chester, where he attended high school and met his future wife. The couple moved to Rye in 1980. After studying to become an electrician at a union trade school, his first job was as a shop boy for Luca Capelli, who built one of the area’s largest real estate development companies. Mecca built his own successful electrical business. After selling the business, he became the White Plains Electrical Inspector.

In addition to being a longtime volunteer fireman in Rye, Mecca served on the Rye City School District’s Facilities Committee and the committee that oversaw the renovation of Rye’s two firehouses.
Mecca acknowledges that a number of issues on voter’s minds are about quality of life, which he said is everyone’s individual idea. He believes that living on Forest Avenue near Playland qualifies him for the discussion. Leaf blowing, to his mind, is a short term nuisance.

Rock chipping, on the other hand, is more serious and he expected that they would soon vote – the law was passed October 7. “You can’t solve everyone’s problem with legislation, relying on residents to call and complain.”  He expects the Building Department will need to get in the field, since rock chipping is still cheaper than other methods and will not be going away.

One of the capital improvements he’d like to see is the proposed re-working of Boston Post Road and the “snowfield” across from Nugent Field where additional parking can be designed for general use. Staying on the parking theme, he believes that a new Master Plan can also address downtown parking deficiencies.

One area that will need funding according to Mecca is the Rye Fire Department, where the number of volunteers is down and more professionals are required.

He said that the City Council is actively recruiting a Police Commissioner and that there is no current interest in changing the  Charter to have a new Public Safety Commissioner. He expects the City Manager to give the Council a “last look” soon.

He told the paper that the Council was not dragging its heals on the proposed Starwood development in Port Chester as opponents have claimed. “We had our first opportunity to comment; the public is being misled about our ability to have a major impact. We will be included inn the DOT traffic conversation. “We’re not slow to respond, we’re deliberative.”

taggerDanielle Tagger-Epstein from the age of 17 has been part of get-out-the-vote groups. She volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and then switched her allegiance to Barack Obama when he won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. “When we moved to Rye five years ago, I found a real sense of community and I want to give back.” She has already. She is on the board of Community Synagogue and chairs the Rye Neck School District’s Health and Wellness Committee.

Born in Brooklyn (“not the hip part”), her father’s business took the family to London and Israel. The day she completed the required two years of military service in Israel, she moved back to the United States. She worked her way through Emerson College, where she was a theater major. She was set to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career when 9/11 happened. “It changed my perspective on everything,” recalls Tagger-Epstein, who was a first responder at the World Trade Center.

The soon-to-be mother of three worked as a human resources consultant before deciding to follow her passion for service. Among the issues she’s most passionate about is Rye’s growing deer population. “The deer are starving, destroying our ecosystem, and the Lyme disease numbers are outrageous. What we have to do next is tackle the problem in the most cost-effective way. I’ve spoken with County officials. This is a municipality issue and the City has to assume responsibility.”

For Tagger-Epstein, deer are not the only tipping point. Residents are just as concerned about the condition of sidewalks and streets. “A lot of issues keep coming up in Rye with no resolution. We have to be able to juggle more than one big issue as a city.”

While everyone running for a Council seat points to the need for a revised Master Plan (the last one was published in 1985), she asks, “How smart and efficient can we be in the meantime? It takes at least two years to create a new plan. What are we doing now to make Rye a more walkable, livable, and sustainable community?” Tagger-Epstein remarks that with the condition of many sidewalks and no sidewalks in some areas many moms have little choice but to walk and push strollers in the middle of streets. “We need to take more sidewalk ownership as a city.”

Tagger-Epstein says, “We’re not the past, but we have the past. I’d like to look at tax incentives to keep older homes as they are. Our kids deserve to see that future.”

culyerJim Culyer has the distinction of serving on the Rye City School Board from 1991 to 1999 and coming back to serve and was appointed president. “I believe in term limits,” he says with a laugh. He points to his years on the School Board as an example of best practices and what will make him a good City Councilmember: a belief in a consistent and excellent review process. “When we wanted to take a longer look at curriculum, we hired Dan McCann, and brought in Ed Shine as Superintendent because he was experienced in strategic planning and involving the community in Board discussions. Similarly, the City needs a strategic master plan, not just a new one.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in Business and Marketing from Quinnipiac College, he went to work as a salesman at the Burroughs Corporation, which merged with Sperry Univac and was later renamed Unisys. Culyer retired as a Sales Management Consultant Unisys in 2006.

He was born in Port Chester, and it was at the Port Chester YMCA that he met his future wife. She was the aquatics director; he was on the board.

Soon after moving to Rye in 1983, George Latimer asked him to join Rye United Way and Jim Culyer was on his way to a long career of volunteerism.

If elected to the Council, Culyer says his top priority is the safety of children walking to school. “Additional sidewalks are needed. A number of roads and sidewalks are in need of great repair. As much as I support the tax cap it’s hurting schools and cities.”

Culyer is an advocate of enforcing the laws we have. “We have crosswalks. We need to make sure pedestrians use them. The sidewalk outside your home is your responsibility and if someone were to walk around town and identify an unsafe sidewalk, I would send the homeowner the bill. The trouble is that as the sidewalk problem increases we’re less likely to fix it.”

Addressing issues in the Central Business District is on Culyer’s mission plan. “I don’t go downtown after 11 or 12 because there is no parking. In the City’s 1985 Master Plan, parking was considered a problem. We need to consider redeveloping the railroad plaza as they are doing in Bronxville and Harrison. We’ll need to develop a better relationship with the MTA, with whom we’ll need to partner. And with private money we could build more parking on School Street.” He continues, “Parking for the Y, the library, the City is right now a failure.”

Invigorating downtown Rye is high on Culyer’s list. He is not opposed to new thinking on the subject. “Frederick, Maryland had a flooding problem. They created a manmade channel that was tiered.”

hurdEmily Hurd grew up in Wilmette, outside Chicago, she graduated from the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership, then Law School at Berkely, followed by a career in corporate law. Married to husband MacKenzie for nine years, she moved to Rye five years ago.

Hurd says that residents’ burning issues are parking, vacant shops, lack of vitality in downtown, pedestrian safety, and sidewalks. She said that the  current Council has been unresponsive, with one party in total control.

She acknowledges that the City has limited resources with only 16% of the pie, so it needs to be creative about solutions to its problems, including improving City Hall’s technology. She supports the tax cap.

Safety is number one, and she agrees that more professional firefighters will be needed. Hurd wants a new Master Plan and wants to “put some teeth” in our Codes. “I bring a network of families. We need energy to make things happen. We have a lot of residential development, we need infrastructure development.” Along with her running mates, she thinks Rye’s new homeowners really like city life; they are seeking the great schools, but want a vibrant downtown.

We’ll be aggressive on sewer upgrades and fixing potholes.” She said at The Osborn forum. She applauded the Council on the rock chipping law, but says it could have done better, noting that the Council seemed to place developers’ concerns above those of residents.

On Starwood, she believes Rye is late to the game, but that we should be forming a coalition with those in Port Chester who are also pushing to control the impact of the project, like the NAACP and teachers.

Hurd would like to see more public dialogue among Councilmembers. “We have good resident dialogue, but we need decisions made in the open, not behind closed doors.” She noted that, unless you go to the meetings, you don’t really know what’s going on. “Seniors watch RyeTV, but most others use social networking.”

Speaking of seniors, Hurd believes that if Rye wants to retain them it must be a desirable place to be and we could incentivize people to say with better parking and sidewalks. “We can’t be intimidated by the complexities of parking. We need to rethink how we live in Rye.”

scultiLeon Sculti who is Chairman of the Rye Golf Club Commission, is originally from Brooklyn and came to Rye as a 12 year-old in 1979. He is best known locally for having been instrumental in uncovering massive fraud perpetrated by a former RGC manager. He is married to Margaret, whom he met at a Super Bowl party.

Since the spring, Sculti has been in the middle of another RGC crisis, the contamination of the greens, which had to be closed for the summer months, setting off a member revolt and demands for refunds from the City. Sculti discovered through FOILS – he is no stranger to the FOIL process – that Rye had not been following proper purchasing procedures for buying its chemicals, among other things the City buys. “I’m interested in process, a fair and vigorous process. The rock chipping discussion turned out to be a good process.” As for the future of RGC, Sculti believes it’s a question of running it efficiently. To the question of whether it might be time to think about outsourcing golf management as the City did with Whitby Castle catering, Sculti is open-minded, “I don’t know if an enterprise fund is the way to do it. Maybe it’s time to consider another way.”

“Our roads are rough. We have to figure out how to prioritize.” He thinks the City might send a warning regarding sidewalk repair, or perhaps the DPW can do the work and send a bill. But he’s not a fan of punishing homeowners. On parking issues, he believes that different businesses have different needs and says that merchants have different needs. “Maybe we could entice a sale of property on Locust Avenue by the brook. It’s best to increase parking if possible.

Sculti is leery of spending a proposed $50,000 for a Forest Avenue sidewalk study. “We do have a responsibility not to put people in danger. We’re thinking about a vision and sometimes you have to take a step back to do that.” He thinks a new Master Plan might help Rye to do that.

Sculti believes that people in the area most affected by the Starwood project have been keeping his group up to speed. “I know these families; they’re smart people and they know what they’re up against.”

In the public forums, Sculti has been a defender of Mayor Sack and his administration on its work on Starwood and rock chipping, sounding at times almost as of he is an incumbent. He has also been a fierce defender of the Republican campaign theme, “True to Rye” whenever his opponents question what it really means. While not one to mince words, Sculti told the paper that he can work in groups. “I ask questions. If not answered, I have no problem going to the source.”

 

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