By Tom McDermott and Robin Jovanovich
Sad and surprising news greeted listeners at the first City Council meeting of the year, January 5. Mayor Josh Cohn announced that Councilman Richard Mecca had submitted a letter of resignation effective immediately owing to poor health.
Cohn stated that he was deeply saddened by the resignation. “Rich has always held himself and us, his colleagues, to his high standards of right and wrong.”
Councilmembers paid tribute to Mecca for his extraordinary community service, not only on the Council, but as a member of the Board of Architectural Review and Planning Commission, for his work with the Rye Fire Department, and in many other areas of civic life.
The Council voted unanimously in favor of Cohn’s appointment of former City Councilwoman Emily Hurd to replace Mecca. Cohn remarked that the choice was made, in part, in consultation with Mecca. Hurd immediately took the oath of office for a term that will expire December 31, 2022. If she chooses to stay on the Council after that, she will have to run for election next fall. Later, Cohn also appointed Hurd as Deputy Mayor, a position she previously held during Cohn’s first term.
After Hurd’s appointment, Suki van Dijk called into the meeting to protest the appointment, claiming that Hurd was ineligible because she had not lived in Rye for the past year, had rented out her Rye home during the pandemic, and registered her children in schools in another location.
“We don’t think Emily is ineligible to serve,” responded Cohn, “We don’t think she changed her domicile…This is an appointment, not an election.” The call, which came out-of-order during public comments on leaf blower legislation, was abruptly terminated and it was left unclear as to who had done the terminating.
What is definitive is the City Code, which states, in Article 4, C4-3A: “No person shall be eligible to hold an elective office in the city unless at the time of his election he is qualified to vote therein and shall have resided in the city for at least one year prior to his or her election.”
Further, Article 4, C4-5 states: “If a vacancy shall occur in the office of Mayor or Councilman, the Council shall, by a vote of a majority of the members of the Council remaining in office, appoint a person to fill such vacancy.”
The paper was contacted by dozens of residents the morning after, and we in turn reached out to nearly a dozen current and former City officials for comment.
In every case, every interviewee emphasized that while they welcomed Emily Hurd back as a public servant, they were “dismayed”, “frustrated”, “astonished”, “exasperated” by the process and the fact that the mayor had not followed the City Code — or the process — before “rushing” to appoint Rich Mecca’s successor without public discussion.
In a phone interview with former Mayor Doug French the next day, he said, “In response to the recent Council appointment, I want to first thank Richard Mecca for his leadership during his tenure on the Council and wish him the best.”
French continued, “I was disappointed in the Council decision though. This is the public’s seat, not theirs. We elected them and supported their nominations as stewards of our government to manage the governing process — not replace our authority. Having just gone through the election process, the people had clearly spoken in full support of Jana Seitz, who lost by a razor-thin margin, as their representative. Any appointment or opening should have gone to her, or at the very least, held open until a public conversation about candidates and the process was conducted.
“We hold public hearings on everything else, who sits on the Council should be at the top of the list. Appointments to the Council should be managed by the mayor, but reflective of the will of the people.”
We learned from Jana Seitz that Mayor Cohn did call her the night before the Council meeting to inform her he was going to appoint Emily Hurd. “He then asked me if I would like to serve on the Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee. I politely declined.”
In a conversation with Emily Hurd this week, we asked her how and when Mayor Cohn contacted her about filling the first year of two years remaining in Richard Mecca’s term.
“On January 2, my family and I had just flown back from Florida and were at the airport when my cell phone rang. It was Josh (Mayor Cohn) reaching out to tell me that Rich had stepped down and that he’d been thinking about what the Council needs and what makes sense, given there are so many big issues on the City’s agenda and two new Councilmembers (Bill Henderson and Josh Nathan).
“He asked me, ‘Will you do it? Will you serve on the Council?’”
Hurd said she didn’t hesitate before agreeing to step up. “The next day I met with Rich, who blessed my appointment. We’ve been friends, not just colleagues on the Council.”
When we asked Hurd whether she had been a resident of Rye, not just a property owner who was living out of state, in 2021, she offered the following explanation: In March 2020, when Rye public schools went remote, she and her husband, the parents of three school-age sons, decamped for Maine, where her in-laws have a home, where they’ve gone every summer, and where the public schools stayed open. When a family approached them about renting their Rye home for the summer, they agreed.
The Hurd family returned to Rye at the end of the summer.
“It was never our intention to live in Maine,” Hurd said. “Our plans evolved with the pandemic.”
When it appeared that remote learning would prevail for the 2021-2022 school year in Rye, and all Maine schools required was a utility bill in order to enroll children in schools there, the Hurds went back to Maine. They agreed to another short-term lease on their Rye home.
Both Emily and her husband Mackenzie were and still are working remotely.
“I voted in Rye and paid taxes in Rye,” said Emily, who also said she continued to serve on the City’s Rye Town Park Commission.
At the end of the summer of 2021, with Rye schools returning to on-site learning, the Hurds returned to Rye for good.
Does that mean that Emily Hurd met the qualifications for appointment to an elected seat?
Regarding the statutes, Rye Corporation Counsel Kristin Wilson declined to disclose her legal advice to the City Council. However, she commented, “It’s an issue that’s not over.”
Suki van Dijk told the paper, “My only motivation in bringing this matter to light is the desire to ensure Council decisions abide by the rule of City law, which this decision clearly doesn’t.”
While many public servants and longtime volunteers spoke at length to us, few wanted to go on the record regarding the process. Their reasons were varied: the City has a long and complex agenda and they want to help get things done; they have respect for Emily Hurd; they assumed the appointment was properly vetted and didn’t have time to pose questions before it was announced.