The mission and work of the Sea Cliff Civic Progress Committee has no doubt been a great service to Sea Cliff and its residents over the past seven decades as it has met and deliberated each winter to nominate many outstanding members of the community to serve in Village government. But as the March 20th Sea Cliff Village Board of Trustees election approaches, let us recognize the benefits that Village residents have reaped from a divided government this past year.
Responding to the game of musical chairs in Village leadership positions that occured out of public view during the fall of 2016 and to the apparent lack of transparency of village government in a variety of areas, several residents organized the Sea Cliff Open Government Party and tapped resident Deb McDermott to be its candidate in last March’s Village Board election. Presenting the first real challenge in nearly a decade to the Civic Progress Committee, which had chosen all village board members for the previous seven elections, nearly all of which were uncontested, Ms. McDermott received the overwhelming support of the community.
Ms. McDermott, in the face of ridicule and unfair, unwarranted, and defensive charges from some that she is a polarizing figure, has shown remarkable independence, persistence and courage as a trustee - whether it is questioning board procedures, being a lone voice asking “why” on a variety of issues or making constructive suggestions to improve the village and its governance. Questions, suggestions, and debate are not “divisive,” they are what democracy and good governance require.
Over the past year, divided government has not only resulted in residents having more access to information, but attendance and engagement at board meetings has flourished and decision-making has become more deliberate.
Reacting to Open Government’s formation last winter and the announcement of Ms. McDermott’s platform which promoted greater transparency and access to information, the Village Board, all of its members having been endorsed by Civic Progress, to its credit, embraced those proposals and announced the formation of the Technology Task Force, chaired by Trustee Kevin McGilloway, and charged the group with developing initiatives to facilitate residents’ access to information and services by increasing the Village government’s transparency and improving its website. After years of inconsistent and infrequent postings on the website of Village Board meeting and conference agendas, that information is now always posted in advance of meetings. Additionally, among other improvements to the site such as resident surveys, both board meetings and conferences are live streamed and archived so that those residents unable to attend can stay informed.
Decision making has become more consistently deliberate. When a recommendation was made and initially embraced by a super-majority of the board that the Village purchase an Altamont Avenue property adjacent to the DPW yard for $355,000, Trustee McDermott was a lone voice questioning the desirability of the deal to neighbors of the property and whether the Village would be better served if $355,000 were used for other priorities or not spent at all. She urged the board to slow down the process to ensure adequate opportunity for public input and expressed concern that Altamont Avenue residents were not there to weigh in on the issue. Her point led the board to go beyond what is legally required by sending letters to residents living within 200 feet of the property inviting them to a public hearing to discuss the issue. Ultimately the input from neighbors persuaded the Board to table the proposal, the passage of which had a meeting earlier seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
Divided government has also helped to bridge a divide that had developed over the previous few years between the Village and Sea Cliff School. That rift was fully exposed in the summer of 2015 when at a monthly conference, the Board, after a brief discussion, without research, and without seeking input from the school district or residents, voted to open to motor vehicle traffic the section of Littleworth Lane between the school and its playground for much longer periods of time than had been previously allowed. The board, facing a flood of criticism from residents at its next meeting, made only modest adjustments to the Littleworth regulations adopted the previous week. Trustee McDermott along with many others in the community pushed for the policy to be revisited, and what has developed is a collaborative effort between the school district and the village board to address that issue and the related concerns regarding the safety of students. At this past week’s Meet the Candidates, both Civic Progress and Open Government candidates touted the work of the joint committee assigned to developing Littleworth Lane recommendations.
Most recently, Trustee McDermott has proposed that the Village develop a 5 year strategic plan to ensure continued long-term fiscal health while prioritizing the projects that will enhance the health and quality of life of the community. Although the idea was initially waved aside and even belittled by board colleagues, Trustee McDermott’s persistence appears to have led to more receptiveness to the proposal which is now actually under discussion. Open Government candidates Terryl Donovan and Liz Baron, as well as Civic Progress Committee candidates Kevin McGilloway and Henriette Rohl at this past Tuesday's Meet the Candidates forum, have stated publicly that they support the idea.
Observers of the Village Board over the past four or five years, who have actually been witness to board meetings and conferences on a regular basis, know that all of the aforementioned would most likely not have happened this past year without last year's contested election and divided government.
While, of course, there are differences of opinion among candidates nominated by a single party, having other parties entering the debate and offering their own candidates, as the past year has shown, is greatly beneficial to the village. It results in actual choices for voters and encourages more discussion, more debate, and more self-reflection - and as a result, better decision-making. It enables all residents - equals as Sea Cliffians, whether newcomers or old timers, first generation or fifth generation - who wish to raise their voices and exercise political influence to have the opportunity to do so.
Divided government is not divisive - it is democracy. Let us celebrate it, not denigrate it. It is what we deserve.