All 11 candidates running for the six open seats on New Rochelle’s City Council attended the League of Women Voters’ debate held Monday night at City Hall. With opening and closing statements from and several rounds of questions for each candidate, there’s too much material to squeeze into the pages of the newspaper. So I thought I’d pull out some highlights here on the blog.
First, the setting and the players: The Council Chambers at City Hall. Sitting on the dais, from left to right, were Republican Lou Trangucci, the incumbent representative for District 1, and his opponent, Democrat and former council member Roberto Lopez; District 2 Councilman Al Tarantino, a Republican running unopposed; Democrat Jared Rice, the incumbent from District 3, and his challenger, Republican John Earvin; Ivar Hyden, a Democrat, and Kevin Barrett, a Republican, both running for the District 4 seat; Barry Fertel, the Democratic incumbent from District 5, and Republican challenger Ilyse Spertus; and, finally, Shari Rackman, the Democratic hopeful for the District 6 seat, and Stephen Mayo, the Republican running for that position.
Hard to say how many people were in the audience, but most of the seats in the room were filled.
A couple themes stood out. The Republicans hammered on the cost of giving tax breaks to developers, singling out, most often, the 30-year tax-abatement plan given to the company behind the Avalon residential buildings in downtown New Rochelle. The Democrats said the Republicans had no real plans that would lead to improvements. There was general agreement that New Rochelle needs to focus on bringing more retail and commercial development to the downtown neighborhoods. Barrett, who described himself a “politician in the good sense of the word” in his opening statement, went so far as to propose a moratorium on residential development. The candidates also agreed that New Rochelle’s roads are in lousy shape.
Trangucci, the District 1 councilman, provided several sobering assessments of the city’s financial standing, pointing out that with revenues down and expenses increasing, “you’re going to continue to lose services until we make a change in this city.”
Lopez called the GreeNR sustainability plan “one of the best thing to happen for New Rochelle” and pointed out that Trangucci was the one council member to vote against it. He distanced himself further from Trangucci by describing the city’s Industrial Development Authority as an “independent board” that “can make its own decisions.” Trangucci had said the council should have more control over the IDA and that the authority’s membership should be composed of representatives from each district.
Those with time served on the council pointed to that experience as an asset. Those who have lived in New Rochelle pointed to their long, enduring affection for the city as a reason to vote for them.
Fertel defended the city’s development efforts over the last two decades, saying that, taken overall, they have not proved a burden to taxpayers. Still he, said, “There has been vast improvement since then (the mid-1990s), but we have a long way to go.” His opponent, Spertus, pointed to the much-discussed proposed shoreline development at Echo Bay and said, “I don’t see where we’re going to get anything out of this deal.”
The District 4 candidates, Hyden and Barrett, agreed that 30-year tax breaks are excessive. Hyden talked up his success at bringing a trio of small businesses to the downtown area; Barrett called for a forensic audit of the city’s books, echoing a talking point from the Republicans on the City Council. The two later tangled after Barrett accused Hyden of being so partisan he wouldn’t give a drink of water to a Republican. Hyden responded by questioning Barrett’s residency qualifications and pointing out that he, Barrett, has never voted in a New Rochelle election. “I discriminate against people who don’t tell the truth,” Hyden said.
The District 6 candidates, Mayo and Rackman, steered clear of personal barbs. Mayo dismissed several questions (one about a city-wide re-valuation of properties, another about whether New Rochelle’s form of government, which uses a city manager, rather than a strong mayor, was working) as distractions. “Our problem is fundamentally bad decisions by the City Council,” he said. “Change the board of directors” to get different results.
Rackman also put aside the notion of a re-valuation, saying the city couldn’t afford to undertake it now anyway. She said one of her top goals would be to work to bring the north and south ends of the city closer together. “We have this unseen dividing line between north and south and it drives me crazy,” she said. “It’s part of why I’m running.”
In District 3, Rice and Earvin largely talked past each other, with Rice pointing to his professional accomplishments (he’s an attorney) to his achievements in his nine months on the City Council, like starting a Community Enrichment Zone. “For these next four years, we really need to have the best and the brightest on the City Council,” he said.
Earvin, meanwhile, described himself as a problem-solver and fighter who ended up in New Rochelle because of a wrong turn he took years ago after crossing the George Washington Bridge. “I am destined to do something good in New Rochelle,” he said. Earvin’s charisma easily outshone that of his competitors, and he was by far the funniest person in the room. Asked how he would help clean litter from the city’s streets, he gestured to the members of the audience whose hair, like his, has grayed with age, and said he would “like to enlist some New Rochelle gray panthers (to) get some exercise” and pick up trash.
Tarantino was silent for most of the debate. Because he has no opponent, he was asked no questions. During his opening statement he said he ran last time on a pledge to end payments in lieu of taxes (or PILOTs) to developers, and said he would continue to work toward that end.
The general election is Nov. 8. Look for articles about the races for council and mayor in the pages of upcoming editions of The Journal News.