March 16, 2017 -- About 150 residents packed the parish hall at St. Luke’s Church this past Tuesday night at a Meet the Candidates forum to size up the four candidates running for the two seats up for grabs on the Sea Cliff Village Board this election cycle. Liz Baron and Terryl Donovan, running under the banner of the Sea Cliff Open Government Party, and Sea Cliff Civic Progress nominees, incumbent Trustee Kevin McGilloway and Henriette Rohl, answered questions on a variety of issues facing Sea Cliff and offered their thoughts on how best to confront them. The event was organized by the Sea Cliff Civic Association and its President Ann DiPietro emceed the discussion with, as always, just the right balance of seriousness and humor.
Ms. Donovan introduced herself first. With 25 years of public service as a manager in the New York City Education and Sanitation departments as well as in the North Shore Schools as the Fine and Performing Arts department head, she said that during her career the movement in government agencies has been towards greater openness, transparency and accountability and that she has been involved in implementing those reforms.
Ms. Baron said that her work in private industry as an IT specialist was important not only for its technical aspects but because of the importance of collaboration in that field. Those, she said, would be useful skills in bringing more people into the fold in the effort to modernize Sea Cliff Village government.
“Sea Cliff is is a diverse place of many different needs and perspectives,” she said
“We need to listen to those voices.”
Mr. McGilloway, running for his third two-year term, highlighted the state of the village in his introduction. Things, he said, are going very well in Sea Cliff with rising home prices, a strong village bond rating, the work of the Department of Public Works, and a “booming” business district. That strength, he said, “did not happen by luck,” but was a result of volunteers working to make Sea Cliff better. He said that it was important to avoid the sort of disunity that exists at the national level and that he would be “a voice of reason unifying the Sea Cliff community.”
Ms. Rohl highlighted her business experience, both in the financial corporate world and now as the proprietor of a local business that she started with her husband, and her volunteer work on the Village Traffic and Safety Committee and Environmental Conservation Commission as helping her hone the skills that are necessary for being an effective trustee.
Village Governance - Transparency and Process
Several times over the course of the evening, the candidates were asked to comment on various aspects of village governance -- in particular, transparency and accessing information.
Resident Mark Hayne said that he had heard a lot being said about a lack of transparency and openness, but that in his experience he did not find that to be the case at all -- especially when he has sought permits to do work on his Sea Cliff Avenue home. “I’ve not experienced a problem,” he said.
Ms. Baron was the first to respond, saying that she was glad that his experiences have been positive and that she would like everyone to feel that way. “If feels very complicated to others,” she explained, “and that it is more fair for others than for themselves.”
“Even if that is not the case, perception really matters,” she continued, “and it matters how you feel when you interact with village government.”
Ms.Donovan replied that she has also applied for permits and that sometimes the rules change or projects are impeded by a lack of communication.
“We’re rooted in the procedures of the 1960s - we’re now in the 2000s,” she said, asserting that more needed to be done to modernize permit application procedures.
Ms. Rohl stated that she has had only a “smooth experience” acquiring permits but agreed that it is important to have good communication between the village and permit applicants and that the Technology Committee was working on modernizing the process.
Mr. McGilloway replied that if people believed that the Village was not communicating effectively that they could do something about it by getting involved with the Technology Task Force, a committee that he chairs and that was charged last spring with developing ways of facilitating access to information and streamlining processes through the use of digital technology. He said that the task force had already taken steps in modernizing how the village communicates as can be seen in changes made to the Village website.
Asked to respond to the process the Village Board went through when it appointed Bruce Kennedy to the position of Village Administrator in November 2016 only minutes after he resigned from his position as Mayor at a special meeting with no public attendance in November 2016, Mr. McGilloway stated that in hindsight the process was wrong but the outcome good.
“I’m 100% certain we made the decision to do the right thing - we have a great village administrator,” he said. “I’m 100% certain in saying we made a mistake in the way we did it. . . . I was the first to say the optics were bad.”
“In retrospect,” he continued, “I wish we had taken an extra month, had more meetings and made it more visible.”
Ms. Donovan replied that the episode illustrated the importance of having clear procedures in place for hiring and making appointments.
“The biggest problem is the perception of impropriety - that is a very serious problem for elected officials,” she said. “It’s not unlawful, it’s not illegal but it undermines the trust of the community that they serve and it’s very hard to get back that trust.”
She continued that the missteps in process occurred because “there are not professional personnel management systems in place in Sea Cliff - everything for this current day is too loosey goosey.”
She continued that the village ought to have more competitive hiring practices, more accountability processes for work performance, and more professional development opportunities for workers.
“We need to deal with paid workforce differently than we do with our volunteers,” she said.
Ms. Rohl stated that she “was not too interested in the notice of it [the appointment of Mr. Kennedy] when it was going on at that time,” but that the outcome was a good one.
“I was thrilled that Bruce got the position,” she continued, “because I know he works 80 hours a week and we have amazing services.”
Ms. Baron replied that while many in the village believe that Mr. Kennedy is doing a great job, that there are also many people who take issue with the process and procedures that were followed in the appointment.
“We need to make sure as a community that we have good processes in place to involve people to express their opinion and have understanding of why a particular decision was made,” she said.
Littleworth Lane and Village/School District Relationship
One resident asked the candidates to offer their respective views on what they believed the regulations ought to be regarding motor vehicle traffic on the section of Littleworth Lane between Sea Cliff School and its two playgrounds on the south side of the street. In the summer of 2015 the restrictions were loosened, and this past fall a petition signed by 350 residents was submitted to the board requesting that that section of street be permanently be closed. In January, the Village Board announced the formation of a committee made up of representatives from the School District and from the Village to address the issue.
“We must prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable citizens first,” responded Ms. Baron, “and take into account the other voices that need to be heard.”
She applauded the work of the joint committee and said that what should be done with Littleworth was dependent on their recommendations.
“I rely on the experts of the committee to come up with a couple of ways of doing that - to make sure that it is closed when they [children] are using it [the playground].”
Ms. Rohl, who serves on the Village’s Traffic Safety Committee said that that committee, which has also been looking at the issue, was still waiting on a legal opinion regarding what can be done.
The issue, she continued is “complex” and whatever action is ultimately adopted ought to take into account the opinion of the various groups that are impacted.
“The process has worked really well,” she said, but that she was concerned about the petition because “it wasn’t completely open to the public.”
As for the policy, she said it was important to have consistency so that children know when it is open and closed and that it has to allow for rescue vehicles to get through. As for the permanent closure, she said, “I don’t know why it needs to be closed at 3 am when kids are not around.”
Ms. Donovan likewise said that she would like the process to play out and see what the joint committee’s recommendations are “before we take a firm position on anything.” She said that it is important for the process to be transparent and that it allows for input from a variety of stakeholders.
Mr. McGilloway said that when the petition to close the street had been presented, he advised slowing down the process and raised several issues that needed to be considered for taking such an action including its legality, impact on emergency services, and on residents. He added that he believes the (big kids) playground, that before 2000 had been a faculty parking lot, should be moved back to where the faculty parking lot is currently located on Franklin Avenue.
As for when the street should be closed, he said that he sees “no reason to close that road in the middle of the night and to risk delays to emergency vehicles for any purpose whatsoever.”
Mr. McGilloway added that the Traffic and Safety Committee was working on “traffic calming” measures for the whole area around the school.
As for improving the relationship with the school district, Mr. McGilloway said that there has been movement in that direction with the collaborative effort that has developed between the District and the Village on the Littleworth Lane issue and with the appointment of Deb McDermott to be the Board of Trustees Liaison to youth groups and the schools - a position that was created last year. He continued that Mayor Ed Lieberman has been meeting with the recently appointed schools superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo.
“It’s important to change a tradition from the past that hasn’t served us well,” replied Ms. Donovan referring to the Village’s relationship with the school district, “and to look at the school district as an asset - not a liability.” She noted that half the village is either students or their parents and that the quality of schools affects the value of homes and so it only makes sense to have a great relationship. Ms. Donovan continued that there are opportunities to share resources and to support each other.
Additionally, she said the school district’s transparency initiatives and the way in which it posts the budget and financial information on-line, and the specificity with which the budget book identifies expenditures along with written narratives would be a good model for the Village.
Addressing Ms. Donovan’s response, Ms. Rohl said that the District had a budget significantly larger than the Village’s and that the two have different needs. The Village budget, she continued, is also posted on the village website.
As for the relationship between the Village and the School District, she said she believed it has been a positive one and to support that point offered examples of how Sea Cliff School and the Traffic and Safety Committee have supported each other.
Ms. Baron said that “sometimes it appears that we do not have the best relationship [between the Village and the schools]. She agreed with running mate that the district has “skills, resources, and expertise” that the village can learn from.
Traffic Problems and High Density Development
Asked specifically what they as trustees could do to address traffic and other issues related to encroaching development, the candidates found considerable common ground.
Ms. Rohl was the first to respond and focused on traffic. She said that there were a number of traffic calming measures such as traffic circles with plantings that could be both beautiful and effective in slowing down motorists.
Noting that much of the development was from outside of Sea Cliff, Ms. Donovan emphasized the importance building cooperation with other municipalities. “It’s not something Sea Cliff can solve on its own,” She said. “Sea Cliff needs to develop relationships with surrounding communities.” She also suggested that Sea Cliff research and learn from what other communities in similar circumstances have done.
Ms. Baron responded that she liked Ms. Rohl’s traffic calming ideas and continued that public transportation needed to be improved. Similar to her running mate, she said it was important to develop positive relationships with surrounding communities. “It’s going to get worse,” she explained. “Glen Cove is not going to shrink. What we need to do is what we are already doing which is to reach out to the Mayor of Glen Cove so our priorities are known. . . . and make sure our priorities are safeguarded and not steamrolled.”
In his response, Mr. McGilloway spoke of what the village has done recently with regard to imposing a moratorium on subdivisions which he said mirrors what is being done in Rosyln Harbor. We have to “make dense, less dense,” he said. The “major problem” however, he explained, is outside of Sea Cliff and, like the other candidates said that it was important to work with neighboring communities. He said that it is good that Mayor Ed Lieberman has been speaking with Mayors of surrounding communities. “It is what we need to do,” he said.
Vision For Sea Cliff
All four candidates, in response to two separate questions, offered similar views in terms of the direction Sea Cliff should take moving forward
Former Trustee Carol Vogt asked how they would “keep Sea Cliff Avenue vibrant,” noting that the board about a decade ago had taken actions such as issuing cabaret licenses that helped revive the strip.
“Keep it charming, controlled, and friendly,” responded Ms. Donovan. She continued that while she believed the installation of the sewer was good for the environment and would allow businesses to grow larger, that the Village had to “think of the unintended consequences of going too large.” Through zoning regulations, she explained, the village had to make sure that that would not happen.
Mr. McGilloway touted fellow Trustee Deb McDermott’s proposal for the Village to develop a five year strategic plan. That, he said, would encourage the board “to think about how we want that growth to be and to maintain the village’s character and charm while still being vibrant. Through zoning statutes, subdivision regulations and the 5 year plan, he said that the Village ought to be able to “get the right balance.”
Ms. Rohl applauded the Village’s recent passage of a moratorium on subdivisions and noted that Sea Cliff Avenue has become significantly more vibrant since 2008. A five year plan, she continued, would be helpful in deciding what the village ought to do moving forward.
Ms. Baron agreed that a five year plan was important to “manage this [growth] carefully.” She continued that it was important to get community feedback in developing a strategic plan.
When asked about her vision for Sea Cliff, Ms. Baron came back to the five year plan, which she said should “be developed collectively” to reflect the community’s vision.
She said that the village must be a “welcoming space” for all residents, where volunteerism and participation are inclusive and that facebook and the village’s website ought to be used to promote such opportunities.
As for her vision, Ms. Donovan said that the Village needs to “maintain the traditions of the past while accepting the changes that are necessary for a successful future.” She continued that she wanted it to be “the same charming village it is now for the next 10, 15, or 20 years down the road” in the face of threats to the environment and from high density development, and that “citizens must feel that they are a part of the solution to these powerful forces.”
Similarly, Ms. Rohl said that she wants to ensure in the future that Sea Cliff “looks very much like it is today” and that “we work together as a community” in achieving that goal. “I want generations down the road to want to come back because it is still vibrant and beautiful.
Mr. McGilloway said he had two visions.
A continued high level of volunteerism was the first, he explained. “I see hundreds of people now and they are feeling empowered.”
Second, but no doubt related, he said he would like to see the torch passed to the next generation of volunteers and leaders.
“All the new people moving in - I want them to come in and take over Sea Cliff and keep it beautiful; I want for Sea Cliff to continue for another 135 years to be a groovy place to be,” he enthused. “My vision is to unify the entire community to get the right people doing the right things for Sea Cliff.”
The Sea Cliff Village Board of Trustees election will be held on Tuesday March 20 from 12 noon to 9 pm in the Department of Public Works maintenance building on Altamont Avenue.