DEMOCRACY IN ACTION - VILLAGE BOARD CANDIDATES DISCUSS LOCAL ISSUES AND GOVERNANCE AT MEET THE CANDIDATES FORUM
a variety of topics that included village governance, pocket book concerns, their respective visions for Sea Cliff, and, of course, the Garvies Point waterfront project. The Sea Cliff Civic Association sponsored the event, and its president Ann DiPietro moderated the discussion, maintaining an engaging, civil, and at times humorous discourse throughout.
QUALIFICATIONS AND BACKGROUNDS OF THE THREE TRUSTEE CANDIDATES
The three Trustee candidates explained their qualifications and laid out some of their priorities for Sea Cliff in their five minute opening statements and in response to the first question, “what are two or three things you would like to accomplish during your term in office?”
Mr. Vitale, running on the Sea Cliff Civic Progress Party line with Mr.Lieberman and Ms. Epstein, was the first to speak, and he emphasized his roots to the community, having been born and raised in the village, as well as his professional background working for the Town of Oyster Bay.
“I’m a local guy, and I really want to help,” he said.
As for his work for the Town of Oyster Bay, he said he was first hired as an employment counselor helping residents on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) find work, and later as a grant writer, a position he holds today. In his current role, he explained, he has established relationships with various levels of government and an understanding of other funding streams that will help reduce government’s burden on taxpayers. He said in his position in the Oyster Bay government, he has helped to secure $35 million in grants.
As Trustee since mid-December, he said that he is the board’s liaison to youth groups and has taken a special interest in working with the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse - an organization that is currently in the process of forming.
As for what he would like to accomplish, Mr. Vitale said that he would like to establish good relations with youth groups and to work with the Village’s grant writer, Erin McDonnell, to bring in money to Sea Cliff for a variety of projects.
In her opening, Ms. Epstein highlighted the current fiscal shape of the Village, which received a score of “no fiscal stress” from the state comptroller’s office, as well as recent infrastructure projects that were paid for primarily with grants. She said it has been a priority to give residents of Sea Cliff “the very best services and efficiently run government while paying the lowest amount possible in taxes."
She continued that she has been active in civic life in a variety of ways, from the late 1990’s when she advocated to stop the Planning Board from approving the construction of an apartment building, to the early 2000s when she testified in defense of the Village in a religious discrimination lawsuit (which the village ultimately won), to serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals, during which time, she said, she voted against over-development .
As for what she would like to accomplish as a Trustee, she replied that she wants to expand the butterfly garden that was constructed at Marden Triangle last summer and to promote composting of organic waste in order to reduce the Village’s Municipal Solid Waste thereby saving taxpayers money.
Ms. McDermott, running on the Sea Cliff Open Government line, said that it was important that voters had an independent voice on the Board. “I offer people a real choice,” she said, “because I am independent of this current board and recent past boards.”
She highlighted her communications and advocacy experience in both her professional career working for IBM and as a volunteer - in particular her efforts on the School District’s Legislative Action Committee (LAC).
“Advocacy is about gaining influence,” she said, that’s why it’s critical to form coalitions,”
Through SuperLAC, a coalition she helped form with the Manhasset and Garden City School Districts, she said she has established relationships with five New York State Assembly members and three State Senators.
As a LAC member, she said she has worked to protect residents from a potential significant tax shift from the decommissioning and demolition of the Glenwood Landing power plant, for which National Grid still pays $20 million to the school district in property taxes; and with SuperLAC - repealing the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a state measure passed in 2010 that reduced state aid to North Shore by $3.7 million over 7 years.
Asked about what she would like to accomplish in her term, Ms. McDermott focused on an issue she came back to repeatedly throughout the evening - improving the Village government’s communication with residents and transparency.
“The more you know, the more you get engaged - we need organized power” she said as she explained that getting communities organized is essential to protecting their interests.
As for her second priority, she said she wanted to maintain the unique character of the village, “which means,” she asserted, “no Garvies Point!”
As her time ran out, she said that she would also like to work towards permanently closing the section of Littleworth Lane that runs between the school and its playground.
GOVERNANCE - Appointments
Right from the start of the forum, Mr. Lieberman addressed the issue of governance, focusing much of his opening statement on two of the appointments he made during his first two weeks in office.
“I thought tonight would be another good opportunity,” he said, “to set forth the circumstances that placed me in the position of Mayor.” He then offered a chronology and explanation of the events and the discussions leading to what happened at the Board’s November 28, 2016 special meeting.
Mr. Lieberman explained that during the five weeks following John Mirando’s resignation as Administrator in late October, while the Village was “receiving resumes and entertaining inquiries,” Mr. Kennedy had taken on the Administrator’s duties without compensation, in addition to continuing his Mayoral responsibilities.
On November 28, Mr. Lieberman continued, the Board met to review resumes and during that process “inquired of Mr. Kennedy’s desire to become a candidate for the position.” He said Mr. Kennedy indicated his interest and submitted his resignation as Mayor, which was followed by Mr. Lieberman’s appointment to that post by the three other trustees, which was followed by Mr. Lieberman’s appointment of Mr. Kennedy to be Village Administrator, “with the unanimous consent of the board.”
Mr. Lieberman also defended his appointment of Mr. Vitale, who ran on the Republican and Conservative Party lines for the 13th District Seat this past November, to the Village Board, asserting that “partisan politics played no role.” To support that point Mr. Lieberman said that he himself has been a registered independent since 1978.
During the question and answer portion of the forum, three residents asked about appointments.
As for the Village Administrator post, one resident asked Mr. Lieberman if the Village had interviewed other candidates for the job.
The Mayor replied that the Board had conducted some interviews, but that he "wouldn't say it was a total vetting process."
"It was beyond the resume," he continued, "it was how the work was being accomplished under a very stressful situation."
During that time when Mr. Kennedy was serving as both Administrator and Mayor, Mr. Lieberman said that he "not only exhibited the expertise and skills that were required for it but also the passion for it." He said he believed Sea Cliff had the best Village Administrator on all of Long Island.
Ms. Epstein, who voted to approve the appointment, said that "interviews were conducted," and that she had reviewed resumes of several candidates and that not one was as qualifed as Mr. Kennedy.
"We would have had to hire two people to fill that position, which means two salaries and two benefits packages," she continued.
The position, Ms. Epstein explained, had been propertly advertised but that she now "understands that people feel they were not informed."
“If I had to do it all over again, would I have done it differently? Yes I would," she said. "We thought we were doing the best thing we could do for Sea Cliff."
Two residents asked about changes in staffing at the Buildings Department.
(At its December 5 board conference, the Mayor and Trustees created the new position of Building Inspector Trainee, and voted to appoint Shane Dommin to that position; and later that month, Drew Lawrence announced that he was leaving his post as Buildings Superintendent. Michael Mandarino was appointed to the post on January 30.)
One resident said that she had heard that the new building department position (Building Inspector Trainee) had been created to help close out open permits, and asked what would happen to that position after permits had been taken care of. Another resident asked how the creation of that new position would impact the budget. (The position has an annual salary of $50,000)
Mr. Lieberman responded that the new position of Building Inspector Trainee was created to deal with the 600 open permits that have gone beyond their expiration date. As for the hiring of the new Building Superintendent to replace Mr. Lawrence, the Mayor said that there was an extensive interviewing and vetting process. As for the impact on the budget, he explained that although a new position of Building Inspector Trainee was created, the new Superintendent was earning a lower salary than his predecessor, but he did not say specifically by how much.
“It’s a little bit more but nothing budget busting,” he said of the cost of the two positions together, compared to Superintendent’s position alone, but added that he believed with the two new hires the village was getting “more for its buck.”
The three Trustees candidates did not address the Building Department appointments.
GOVERNANCE - Transparency and Communication
Throughout the discussion, the candidates touched on the issues of transparency and communicating with the public. One resident asked, “what would you do to get the community more involved?”
Ms. McDermott was the first to respond. She said that the Village had a responsibility to reach out to the community and offered several suggestions for improving communication with residents. She recited a long list of ways that information could be made more accessible to the public using the Village website, that included “in depth links on all major issues we’re looking at; clear explanations of all systems and processes we use in our village government; document library for on going issues; a detailed budget and our financials; a facilities use application and calendar; a robust village calendar; details on any proposed projects; forms and applications; information about the building department and the zoning board; meeting agendas; and surveys.”
Additionally she recommended that the Village have “a more robust emailing system” that it can employ with email blasts when the Village needs to reach out to the community, especially on short notice; and that the Village should video record it's Board meetings, and post those recordings on the Village website.
Both Mr. Vitale and Ms. Epstein encouraged residents to reach out to the board.
“If you don’t see something on the website, let us know, - email us; contact us,” Mr. Vitale said. He continued that he believed many forms and other useful information could be found on the Village website, but said he would support efforts to try to make it more user friendly and easier to navigate. He urged residents, if they have questions, to contact the Village Administrator, Bruce Kennedy, or any of the Trustees, to get the information they need.
In response to another question, Mr. Vitale encouraged residents to attend board conferences on the first Monday of every month, at which the trustees and mayor have their most extensive discussions and conduct most of their business. “Please come and show your support and let us know what we’re not doing right and let’s see what we can do to mend it.”
Ms. Epstein, offered similar thoughts. “The best way to reach out is through human engagement,” she said. “Websites are great, but they don’t involve human engagement, they don’t involve human encounters. The best way to be engaged and to be a volunteer is to reach out. Please come and volunteer.”
The current website, she said, does have a lot of forms and a lot of information including the email addresses of everybody in the village. She announced that there is a public meeting on March 28, to consider membership on all the boards and committees that are going to be appointed at the Annual organization meeting in early April.
“Please email the village and let them know you’re interested,” she urged. “If you don’t tell people that you’re interested, no one will ever know.”
Mr. Lieberman spoke repeatedly about his recent announcement that he was tapping Deputy Mayor Kevin McGilloway to lead a “Technology Task Force.”
“The task force was a concept I came up with, because people were addressing certain things to me as Mayor and when I was Trustee.” Public officials, he continued, have to listen. “The website - everything can be improved,” he said. “We’re going to reach out to people in the community to help us [with the task force].”
POCKETBOOK ISSUES - TAXES AND WATER BILLS
With regard to taxes, one resident asked - “Will you ever vote to exceed the 2% tax cap?”
“No,” replied Mr. Lieberman tersely, offering the questioner and audience no further explanation.
Each of the three trustee candidates conceded that the issue is a complicated one.
Ms. McDermott explained that calling it a 2% cap is not entirely accurate, since with a lower inflation rate, as has been the case the past few years, the tax cap has been significantly lower, and for some school districts and municipalities, with the complex formula that is used, has even been negative. She said that it’s not really responsible or prudent to answer the question definitively “without understanding future circumstances.”
Ms. Epstein said the Village Board is currently putting together its budget for the next fiscal year, and that it would not be exceeding the cap. “If given the choice,” she continued, “I would choose not to exceed it,” explaining that she would look for other ways to balance budgets, and that "we would have to learn to do more with less."
Mr. Vitale commended Ms. McDermott for her answer, and said that he too does “not hold a crystal ball.” He explained that if there were certain things the community wanted to do that would require a great expense, and the community indicated they were willing to break the cap to cover that expense, then that might be a time when it would be appropriate to break the cap. “We have to try to be as fiscally responsible as possible,” he added. In addressing taxes in general, Mr. Vitale said earlier in the forum, in response to another question, that one way to keep taxes in check is to seek grant funding for projects.
With regard to the rate hikes imposed by NY American Water on residents in the Sea Cliff Water District, and what could be done about it, Ms. Epstein, explained that she went to a Water Conference meeting last week and that the water company said rates are not expected to rise as much as originally expected, but has not seen that in writing. She continued that the Village needs to be in contact with the company.
Ms. Epstein explained that while ratepayers in districts served by for-profit corporations like NY American Water have higher bills with than those who live in public water districts like Jericho, there is a water district tax for infrastructure that residents must pay in those districts, and so the costs more or less equal out. If the Village were to try to purchase the district, state law, she said, requires that it would have to merge with another water district and that the community would have to purchase the infrastructure. A feasibility study has been done regarding that approach, she said, and that “it looks like it wouldn’t save us any money.”
Ms. McDermott said that the comment period regarding an 8.5% rate hike and a proposed merger with the North Merrick district had just closed and suggested that residents visit the Public Service Commission website to the see the comments that were submitted. She explained that the issue is a perfect example of why it is important to form coalitions. “We are a tiny little village,” she said. “If we want to advocate against a giant company you need a lot of power and to be organized but Sea Cliff is not big enough. We should be forming coalitions with people in this water district who are in Glen Head, Glenwood Landing, Old Brookville, and parts of Glen Cove, and North Merrick, and, as a municipality, we should take the lead in organizing resistance and working with our legislators.” She said that the evidence shows that people served by for-profit corporations do pay more than those living in public water districts, because those corporations have to show a profit.
Mr. Vitale said that NY American Water is a private company and “they are trying to make money and as result our fees are going up” and that “they seem to be continually doing this and they say they are helping us out - but they are not.”
He said he has been looking at what needs to be done to make this district a public water company, “but that it is going to cost a lot of money.” It is the infrastructure that is very costly he explained, and that there would a lost of costs up front, and maybe no savings in the long term.
THAT VISION THING
During the public question period, a resident specifically asked Mr. Lieberman about his “vision” for Sea Cliff saying that she had read about it in a few different places. All four candidates offered their thoughts, and the responses suggested some difference of opinion.
Mr. Lieberman replied that he was asked that same question four years ago by a member of the Sea Cliff Civic Progress Committee when he was running for a board seat for the first time. Since he became a Trustee, he continued, he has liked the direction the village has gone in with Sea Cliff Avenue having “restaurants, and cabaret licenses and music that is performed by local artists” and that people from other towns now see the village as a destination. “We’ve been discovered,” he said, and enthused that the Village "now has its own newspaper," which for its inaugural issue featured a quarter page photograph on its front page of the mayor seated at his desk, accompanied by an article about his “vision” of wanting Sea Cliff to become a little Nyack. (Ms. DiPietro corrected the Mayor, saying that the Village has had and continues to have another newspaper.)
Ms. McDermott responding to the same question, said that she “loves Sea Cliff and loves the way it is” - in particular the small community feel.
“I moved here to raise my family and I hope I get to see my grandchildren grow up here too,” she continued.
“With all due respect to Ed, I think there are a lot of places to go on Long Island if you want to have a lot of stores around you and have people come visit you from other places. I like knowing everybody. I like knowing that my kids are safe. I like knowing that they can ride their bikes to the pizzeria. I think it’s safe because you know everybody here.” She said later, that she was concerned about the possibility of a Costco coming to Sea Cliff Avenue in Glen Cove.
“I like Sea Cliff the way its is,” agreed Ms. Epstein. “There’s not much I would want to change. We have to discourage over-development. We need to encourage more music at the beach and more activities for children. I don’t think I would change a thing.”
Mr. Vitale responded that he would like to see some things changed in Sea Cliff. “I would like to see phase two of the sewer system completed,” he said. (phase one, completed in the winter of 2015 involved the installation of a line under Sea Cliff Avenue from Main Avenue to Prospect and on parts of Roslyn was completed in the winter of 2015. Phase 2 would connect that line to a line on the Boulevard, thereby completing the connection to the Nassau County Treatment Plant in Glen Cove.)
Cesspools, Mr. Vitale continued, are not good for the harbor.
THE WATERFRONT DEVELOPMENT
Surprisingly, only one question was asked about the Garvies Point waterfront project, a proposed mixed use development just hundreds of yards across Glen Cove Creek from Sea Cliff that includes 1100 residential units, and a building with two 11 story towers.
A resident asked what each of the candidate’s involvement with the issue has been and what his or her understanding was of where things stand now, and if the appeals of the decision dismissing two lawsuits filed to block the development fail what would be the next step.
Ms. McDermott answered first. “This is a big deal to me,” she said, and went on to explain that she and her husband are plaintiffs in the suit being brought by the Coalition for A Sustainable Waterfront.
If the appeals fail, she said, it is especially important for residents and representatives of the village to planning board and other meetings in Glen Cove, and that “whenever there’s a permit application or some kind of review, is to continually enter comments into the public record voicing issues, to lay the groundwork for a future action.” The development, she continued is not only aesthetically a problem but more importantly a problem because of the potential environmental impact.
“We’ve seen this before in this country, when people build on contaminated soil those contaminants eventually leach out,” she said. “I like to swim - my kids like to use that beach.”
Mr. Lieberman said that when Mr. Kennedy was Mayor, “he was at planning board meetings; he was front and center of checking what was going on and submitted village objections.”
He continued, that he himself, as Mayor, was at the planning board last week “putting a statement into the record against the development.”
The Village, he explained has a good case and would continue to argue that a Memorandum of Understanding between the Village and the City of Glen Cove agreed to in 2000 should still apply and that further environmental review (SEQRA) is required.
As for the Village’s litigation against Glen Cove, he said that he himself, as a trustee, made the motion to bring the lawsuit and again made the motion to appeal the decision of the lower court and got the unanimous support of the Village Board.
“This fight will be continued by the Village,” the Mayor said, and expressed optimism that the appeals court will rule in favor of the village.
Ms. Epstein also said she was confident that the Village would win this round in the appeals court.
“I believe Sea Cliff’s case is strong,” she asserted. “Our appeal is strong and our counsel is wonderful and we need to stay the course.”
“I’m not going to talk about defeat because I don’t think that’s on the horizon,” she continued, and that if the Village loses its appeal, “there are options that we have but it [losing the suit] is not going to happen.”
Mr. Vitale said that many times he has expressed his opposition to the waterfront but conceded, “I’ll be the first to admit that I have not been to meetings, I have not sat down with DEC and I have not sat down with the Army Corps of Engineers. I have not sat down and come to these meeting when many people have. I can voice my opinions all I want, but until you actually put your hands on it, you can’t claim it.”
“I am willing to fight this project as much as I can,” he continued and said that he is especially concerned about the environmental impact.
“The complex overdevelopment is a disaster,” he said. “I will be more active.”
Referring to the Committee for a Sustainable Waterfront, he said that it is important to work together. “We need to make sure our continued efforts go in the same direction,” he said.
WE’RE ALL WINNERS
Opening the event, Ms. DiPietro said that she has always been a big fan of participation trophies and expressed regret that in this particular contested election that not everyone would be a winner. But, she continued, “we’re all winners just living here in Sea Cliff.”
“I think you’ll agree,” she said an hour and 45 minutes later as she bid the audience and candidates good night, “all of the candidates have earned their trophies.”
Residents will have the final say on Tuesday, March 21. Voting will take place at the Sea Cliff Children’s Library with polls open from noon until 9 pm.