Before the City Council got down to business at its July 12 meeting, Mayor Josh Cohn made an announcement that resonated in City Hall and throughout the community. He said that he and Councilmembers Julie Souza, Ben Stacks, and Carolina Johnson had decided not to seek indemnification by the City in their lawsuit against the City’s Board of Ethics. The four brought suit after the BOE wrote an opinion on the appearance of impropriety on their part for calling a special meeting to pass a moratorium on tree removal when a great number of trees were about to be cut down behind the Mayor’s home.
“The question has been raised repeatedly about the City bearing our legal costs,” said Mayor Cohn. At the June 16 meeting, the four voted for a resolution requesting the City pay their legal fees, up to $45,000, as well as the fees of the Board of Ethics members. The Mayor called for a resolution at the most recent meeting asking to strike that part of the text from the June 16 resolution, and the Council unanimously approved the action. (Councilman Henderson was absent, but Councilman Nathan assured his colleagues that the Councilman was in favor of the decision.)
Mayor Cohn said that it is his desire that while the litigation is ongoing the Council and the Board of Ethics enter into a construct that will bring the “antique code of ethics, one with no rules for its process and one that does not provide for fundamental fairness, into the 21st century.” He recommended the creation of a three-person ad hoc committee, which would include the current chair of the BOE, a Councilmember other than himself, and “an unbiased” member of the community with expertise in ethical government matters. The findings of the committee would have bearing on the lawsuit, he offered, giving residents hope that mediation was on the horizon.
When the time arrived for residents to speak on non-agenda items, many went to the podium to respond to the controversy and the divisiveness in the community. Several expressed support for the four Councilmembers, starting with Erin Pymm, who defended their suit against the City. “Their reputations were at stake. Their decision to hold a special meeting was about saving trees.” She added, “Don’t rely on hearsay. The community needs to do their due diligence.”
Hanadi Zakour read a letter she hoped this paper would publish that was a plea for civility. “We’re neighbors, members of a community. We’ve all lost focus. We’re all fallible.” She noted the hard work and the accomplishments of the four Councilmembers over the past six years.
While resident Suki van Dijk was heartened to hear the call for civility, “what I see is a plea that only goes one way. From the dais, Councilmembers will disparage people in the audience.” She added, “The members of the Board of Ethics respect civility and they are working hard, too.”
Gerry Seitz, a former City Councilman, reminded the four there is State law regarding conflict of interest. “It requires any member of the Council that has a direct interest in a matter to recuse themself from the discussion.”
According to Meg Cameron, 50 Rye residents had signed a letter of support of the four Councilmembers the day before. “The three Councilmembers only stepped in because the Mayor recused himself and the trees were still standing. A simple solution would be for the Board of Ethics to retract its opinion.”
Those remarks were met with outrage by Lisa Tannenbaum. “It is unbelievable that someone could say that ‘the crisis’ of tree removal necessitated action, when the crisis has occurred many times over the last six years and this Council ignored it.” She added, “The Board of Ethics gave an opinion, and their opinion stands.”
Councilmember Carolina Johnson heatedly accused Tannenbaum of lying when she stated that the Tree Committee of which Johnson was a member had never met.
Another former Councilman, Richard Slack, offered his counsel. “I have great respect for those who volunteer, but sometimes good people make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes snowball. It was a mistake to call a special meeting and it had a bad appearance. It is not surprising the Board of Ethics came to the opinion it did,” said Slack, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He added, “The four members compounded the problem by filing a complaint. Bringing suit against other public servants looks even worse.” He ventured further, “You don’t need a lawsuit to get people together in this community on a go-forward basis to change ethics laws.”
While Dan Adler said he appreciates the fact that the four Councilmembers have withdrawn their request for the City to pay their legal expenses, he has a greater concern. “A lawsuit like this, City volunteers suing other City volunteers, doesn’t make sense in the world we live in. We should be working on a holistic design to navigate climate change. Super-charged storms are occurring with more frequency. More than seven inches of rain, a 1,000-year rain, fell at West Point last week. Meanwhile, Rye is considering building a synthetic turf field in a 100-year flood plain.” He added, “We need local government that works with its residents, listens to all points of view.”
Earlier in the meeting, during the Flood Mitigation update, Councilmember Lori Fontanes remarked that Rye had “dodged a bullet” with the recent heavy rains, which caused dire situations all around us. She asked Mayor Cohn to consider creating a task force focused on coming up with a climate-ready program for the City. She mentioned that New Rochelle has one. The Mayor reasoned that discussion with Rye’s Sustainability Committee was a good starting point.