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Letter: Non-Partisan System is Open and Fair, and it Works

davidbrodskyHere is a letter from longtime resident David Brodsky who currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Scarsdale Procedure Committee:
To the Editor: I write in response to numerous attacks on the Scarsdale Non-Partisan System by Harry Reynolds, an independent candidate for Trustee in the election on March 20.

As a citizen of Scarsdale, Harry Reynolds has every right to run for Trustee and every right to his opinion on what he perceives to be the inadequacies of the Scarsdale Non-Partisan System. But, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, you're entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.

The fact is that, because of the time-tested and proven system of fair, honest, and responsive government under the Non-Partisan System, Scarsdale has been largely free of the partisan sniping and character assassination that is typical of most partisan electoral systems in this country. The Non-Partisan System is based upon the feedback of residents of Scarsdale and others with whom proposed candidates have worked over years in civic, charitable, and other endeavors. Based on that feedback, the Citizens Nominating Committee and School Board Nominating Committee (two separate groups that select candidates for Mayor, Trustee and Village Justice and for the School Board) choose persons to run on the Non-Partisan slates because of their proven and verified leadership skills.

The fact is that the two Nominating Committees are made up of citizens who have gathered petitions to be placed on the ballot and are then elected by the population of their elementary school neighborhoods.

One can't have a closer representation of grass roots connections than what these Nominating Committees provide.

The fact is that, once members of the Nominating Committees have been chosen in an open and contested election, a call goes out to the general population for candidates to put themselves forward for consideration for Village-wide office, whether it be for Mayor, Trustee, Village Justice, or School Board member. Anyone who is over 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen and resident of Scarsdale can be a candidate. Mr. Reynolds could have decided to seek office in that way in 2012.

The fact is that all candidates fill out a publicly-posted questionnaire asking for their educational backgrounds, employment history, and prior commitments to the Scarsdale community and that each candidate is then asked to speak for 10 minutes and to answer the same three to four questions, which each candidate is supplied with before hand. The questions address basic issues relating only to the nominee’s experience, qualifications, and understanding of what a Trustee does (e.g., "What qualities and special skills do you bring from your background and experience which would be of value as Trustee?" "What is your understanding of the role of a Village Trustee relative to that of the Village staff, community, and other Trustees?"), and not to any specific issues.

The fact is that there is no questioning by members of the Nominating Committees -- never mind, hostile cross cnclogoaexamination (which Mr. Reynolds recently implied he objected to facing in an op-ed piece he published). What matters is what the candidates say about themselves and their objective records, as attested to by people they have worked with over the years.

Mr. Reynolds complains that under Scarsdale’s Non-Partisan System, “'Issues' are anathema...[and that t]he committee’s object is to divine from the applicant’s history the applicant’s desirability..." But the fact is that “divining” is not what either of the Nominating Committees does; instead, each engages in extensive due diligence.

Based on what the candidate has done in his or her career, including in the Scarsdale community, the Committees seek out and speak to persons who have worked alongside each candidate in any of his or her prior positions. The purpose is to find candidates whose proven records in prior activities show them likely to be intelligent, independent, and creative leaders in our governing bodies. Only information from persons who are willing to be identified by name is allowed to be discussed during the nomination process. Thus, anonymous smears or hearsay play no role in the evaluative material used in judging whether a candidate should be selected.

The reason for this form of inquiry of candidates is plain: one doesn't know what issues will be coming before the Trustees or School Board from month to month, not to mention over a two or three year term. It could be revaluation, it could be development, it could be storm waters, it could be searching for new principals, it could be curriculum reform. What is the hot issue of the moment may not be an issue of concern in a future year.

What matters is not each candidate's point of view about particular issues but proven track record of working well with others, intelligence, inquisitiveness, and creativity. And, after this due diligence process, it is rare, indeed, for someone to be elected as a Trustee or School Board member without such a record reflecting dedication to working in a conscientious and collegial manner, without known biases or agendas.

Mr. Reynolds complains that the Non-Partisan process "keeps secret ... what is said when those applicants appear before its nominating committee..." But one can see why the confidence of discussions within the Nominating Committees is so important. As a member of the School Board Nominating Committee for three years and an observer this year of the Citizens Nominating Committee (by dint of being the incoming Chair of the Procedure Committee), I heard frank discussion of candidates' working habits, indifference to others' opinions, or lack of preparedness for meetings from friends and colleagues of one candidate or another who had first-hand experience with the candidate and who are willing to be quoted for attribution.

I believe that without such confidential discussions, it would be rare for such useful and necessary candor to be elicited, and, therefore, I believe that the confidence of discussions within the Nominating Committees serves a necessary and highly useful purpose. The Non-Partisan System needs – and the entire Scarsdale community benefits by -- such confidential candor in order to continue to produce the highly qualified candidates that it has historically done for 100 years.

Mr. Reynolds complains that campaigns are "uncontested," but they need not be, and have not been on several occasions within the last several years. Indeed, his own candidacy this year, the write-in candidacies last year, and the formation and election of candidates from newly-formed parties in prior years, makes clear that any person who believes himself qualified can be a candidate. Overall, it is the Scarsdale Non-Partisan System's very transparency, as well as the abundant number of volunteers who work for the betterment of Scarsdale, that has kept it as viable as it has been and hopefully will continue to be.

No one can defend the highly regrettable history of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, where qualified resident were excluded from participating in Scarsdale's civic life, and I don’t think that even Mr. Reynolds truly believes that such odious practices would be resurrected by the continuation of the Non-Partisan System. When I served as an observer of the Citizens Nominating Committee in December 2011 and January 2012, as well as when I served on the School Board Nominating Committee several years ago, both the committee members and the candidates for School Board and Trustee came from a variety of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The time when the secrecy of the Scarsdale Non- Partisan process was used to foster class or religious hatred or social injustice in Scarsdale is, thankfully, a vestige of our past, nonexistent in the present, and not a harbinger of our future.

Finally, Mr. Reynolds implies that he is running for Trustee so as to do away with the Non-Partisan System. But the Trustees of the Village have nothing to do with the processes by which candidates are selected, a fact that Mr. Reynolds appears not to understand. Every year, the voter-adopted Resolutions that govern the procedures followed by both the Village and School Board Nominating Committees, as well as the Non-Partisan election processes, are studied and, where desirable, proposed amendments are drafted by residents who are members of committees established under the Resolutions. These recommendations for changes are often adopted by residents of the Village in open elections.

This past November, nine such changes to the Non-Partisan Resolution governing the Village elections were adopted by the voters of Scarsdale, and just last month, another group of changes to the Resolution governing School Board elections were adopted by the voters. As with any electoral system, the Non- Partisan System is not perfect and if there are desirable changes to be made in the future, it will be residents of the Village, operating in those committees, who will recommend changes to be made, not the Trustees of the Village.

In closing, I urge all residents to vote on March 20 to support the candidates nominated under the Non- Partisan System -- Kay Eisenman, Jon Mark, and David Lee -- and elect them as Trustees of the Village. I also urge that any residents who question the merits of the Non-Partisan process to experience it first- hand by volunteering to run for election to the Citizen's or School Board Nominating Committees, rather than to speculate on imagined shortcomings.

Respectfully,

David M. Brodsky
Vice Chair, 2011-12 Scarsdale Procedure Committee
4 Burgess Road
Scarsdale, New York

 

 

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#9 Stuart Keith 2012-03-08 04:46
Re: David Brodsky’s Letter to the Editor of February 24, 2012.

While I might agree with Mr. Brodsky that the Scarsdale nonpartisan system has produced some very fine candidates, any democratic system where only about 4 % of eligible voters participate, as the Inquirer pointed out in that same issue, might perhaps be in need of some change. Mr. Brodsky claims that Scarsdale’s system is free from the “partisan sniping and character assassination that is typical of most partisan electoral systems”, but I would suggest that most partisan electoral systems have a much higher participation rate than 4%.

Furthermore, I am not so sure that Scarsdale’s system is a free from those elements as Mr. Brodsky suggests. Certainly last year’s contested election had much of this. I served on the Citizens Nominating Committee for 3 years, and found plenty of that going on (not partisan sniping per se, but something similar and certainly character assault if not assassination), some of it during the official meetings and much more of it in communications that occurred outside of the meeting room. And even if you argue that the partisan sniping and character assassination is less than what goes on in partisan systems, the absence of a truly rigorous examination of potential candidates is an equally serious issue. When I was on the Nominating Committee and doing my “due diligence” inquiry on the qualifications of the various candidates, I found very few people in the community willing to go on record with concerns they had about the candidates. A number of people I interviewed said that they wanted to convey negative impressions about a candidate to me, but that I could not attach their name to it. Of course, because the rules dictate that any information that is to be presented to the Committee must have attribution, I was unable to present this information to the Committee. While Mr. Brodsky lauds this as a good thing and a way to prevent hearsay and smears, I often had the feeling that the information was probably true and relevant, it was just that the person with the information did not want it stated publicly before the Nominating Committee that so-and-so said this about a candidate. Let’s face it, this is a small tight-knit community and few people wish to speak ill of their friends and acquaintances. And this it seems to me, is a great weakness in nonpartisan system we have in Scarsdale.

I have over many years been involved in getting out the vote for the nonpartisan elections in Scarsdale, both for the membership on the Citizens Nominating Committee and for the general election for Mayor and Trustees. Leaving aside the issue that most of the elections are uncontested, I am often asked by residents “who is this person and what do they stand for”. I then often find myself in the position of explaining Scarsdale’s nonpartisan system to the person I am speaking to and why these questions are perhaps not the appropriate ones. But I have to say, this is often a hard sell. Every so often the residents of Scarsdale are chastised for not voting. But, voters in Scarsdale are asked to vote for a bunch of people they do not know and who have no discernible stands on any issues. Is there any wonder there is considerable voter apathy? Mr. Brodsky argues “[w]hat matters is not each candidate’s point of view about particular issues but a proven track record of working well with others, intelligence, inquisitiveness and creativity.” I think that description would include probably the vast majority of the residents of Scarsdale. He further argues that issues are not important because no one can foresee what issues will arise. Of course, in any political system, even partisan systems, there is no guarantee as to what issues will come up. But I think the residents do have an idea about the issues which are likely to be confronting the Village and what issues are important to them. I for one, do not see any reason why a candidate’s general views and attitudes about issues such as development vs. the Village in a Park, the proper enforcement of rules regarding construction sites, noise abatement, or the issue of tax caps should not be shared with the Nominating Committee and the voters. Without discussion of issues, the system gives the impression to some of being little more than a popularity contest and the sharing of such views might dramatically increase voter participation without destroying the nonpartisan nature of the system.

I don’t believe there are any nefarious motives behind the “secrecy” element of the Citizens Nominating Committee, but I do think that the system is very insular and by its nature does not involve the citizenry and so they do not participate. Education about the system, while laudable, will not solve this problem because it is a part of the system itself.
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#8 Bruce Wells 2012-02-28 10:44
Mike,

I am not sure there is a better way than how the CNC operates now, but that does not mean we can't improve the process. There were some on the Procedure Committee that advocated open CNC meetings. I believe that most past and present CNC members support the confidential policies of the CNC. The reason is not what you might think of hiding the choice of candidates, but rather to have a full uninhibited discussion of each candidate to get an idea of who would best serve Scarsdale. If the process were public, I think you would only get tepid and polite endorsements. As it is right now, I feel the CNC gets candid assessment of candidates. Sometimes that is not pretty. Sometimes it is false. It is up to individual CNC members to decide how to weight all comments and cast their vote.

One idea would be to publish the names of the people up for consideration (if they choose to do so). I think this may have solved Harry Reynolds issues with the process in my discussions with him. This is a possibility and I suggest you bring this up if you feel it would help. The down side of this is of course that people may not want the knowledge of their defeat to be publicly known. Bob Selvaggio has publicly stated he put his name in the ring but was not chosen, as he is entitled to do. He is the only candidate I know of in about 10 years that has done so. This says to me that most would not like their names public.

As for issues, the CNC tries to select well rounded candidates that can deal with any issue that may come up. Issues are not discussed in CNC meetings. As a CNC member, I voted for candidates that were smart, open minded and good listeners. That is what you saw with the parking issue. Believe me, previous boards would have told you to take a hike if they told you anything. Your issue was quickly resolved. The CNC looks for candidates that are responsive to the citizens, or at least the CNC's that I have been involved with.

The main reason the CNC does not deal with issues is that an issue based candidate may not have the depth to deal with the next issue. For example, my last year as a voting member of the CNC, the issue du jour would have been (had we discussed issues) the community center. April 15th of that year produced the worst flooding Scarsdale has ever seen. Luckily the CNC choose smart capable Trustees (Miriam Flisser and David Irwin) that could deal with the large on going issue, and not some community center tunnel vision person that may have not adapted to one of the largest issues facing Scarsdale today.

Rising tax rates have more to do with pension and health care costs, which are both out of control. Some help is coming shortly from Albany, but Scarsdalians like the services we get from our Village, so the Trustees try to preserve them.

Mike, you seem like a smart guy. Try running for the CNC and let us know what you think of the process after three years. When I was elected, I was not considered an insider. You might consider me an insider now, but that is only because I put a lot of effort into working in the process and I saw it operate first hand. After sending six years in it, I can 100% honestly state it is good process and I am glad we have the CNC to select the cream of the crop to guide our Village into the future. Scarsdale is lucky to have the Non-Partisan process, it has made Scarsdale what it is today. It deserves our support, otherwise we risk falling pray to money and career politicians. Look around, it happens.
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#7 Mike Weinstein 2012-02-28 03:18
While I take Mr. Wells' comments as sincere, they are fundamentally off base and i can prove it. First, he is advocating we maintain a secretive electoral process and claims that it is producing an excellent result. How do we know it is producing an excellent result. Second, it still doesn't address the most basic objectives of a representative democracy which are the voters selecting their representatives and the voters being allowed to know where their elected officials stand.

So, again, I would ask the following questions:
What are the major issues confronting the Village?
Where do each of the candidates both selected and rejected by the CNC stand on these issues?
For those standing for reelection what are their accomplishments in their most recent term?

Perhaps, but I won't hold my breath, the CNC could publish the answers to these questions.

I was one of the individuals involved in fighting for a change in the parking policy in Freightway. In truth, initially the Board was against what the citizens were after and if not for a series of statements that even the inquirer labeled as imbicilic I have doubts as to whether change would have occurred.

Finally, how can one claim that our local government has been a raging success when over the last ten years our taxes have increased by over twice the rate of inflation. In real terms have the services provided the citizenry improved? One look at the deterioration in our roads will tell you they haven't. So we spend more to get less. This does not define success in any system I am aware.

Again it is time to bring openness to our electoral system and allow the voters to express their voice. Why are the insiders on the CNC so afraid of this?
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#6 Thalia Meyer 2012-02-28 03:16
Isn't it Ironic that David Brodsky, Vice Chair of the Procedure Committee, which recommends the rules for this idiotic CNC and whose wife was the successful CNC candidate for Village Trustee last year, asserts simultaneously that this organization has produced 100 years of the best and the brightest selfless public servants in Scarsdale while recognizing that for three decades (30s, 40s and 50s), this same organization excluded Jews, blacks, and other undesirables from the public life in Scarsdale. (And you can bet that it did so in the 00s, 10s, and 20s as well). Maybe he supports the CNC because he and his wife are now members of this "club" instead of being excluded as in the recent historical past. Simply put, as others have well said, the CNC fosters an oligarchy rather than representative democracy. It is remarkable to me that "good government" clubs like the LWV play along.
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#5 Bruce Wells 2012-02-27 12:37
Scarsdale has an extremely responsive Non-Partisan representative democracy (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-partisan_democracy) Look what happened recently with back in parking at Freightway. Residents complained, things changed, and fast! I served on the CNC for three years, then observed it for three more. I can tell every Scarsdale voter that the CNC is extremely concerned with getting Trustees and Mayor who listen to the residents. Back in parking is concrete proof the CNC got it right!

There are very few direct democracies around where individuals vote on every law passed. Pure New England town meetings with one person one vote are pretty much dead, so the best we have is a representative we elect to cast an educated vote for us. This is what we have in Scarsdale, like the rest of Westchester, but we take it a step further. We get rid of money and career politicians (just look at neighboring Greenburg to see this in action, not pretty), and instead ask qualified people to serve. The CNC then picks the cream of the crop to be Trustee. We are not subject to whackos and nut jobs serving like you get in national races (just look at this year's crop of GOP Presidential contenders if you doubt me). All our candidates have been vetted and want to serve Scarsdale for the right reasons.

Instead of railing against the perceived lack of choice in the general election, relax knowing that the CNC choose the best candidates that wanted to do the job. If you don't believe me, then run for the CNC. I did, and I found out the system works extremely well. But don't believe me, see for yourself and volunteer rather than complain about a perceived lack of choice. There was a choice, and the 30 member CNC researched and picked the best of the bunch.
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#4 Bob Selvaggio 2012-02-26 06:43
As usual, Mike Weinstein says it best.

Simply put, the curtain we draw at the voting booth should not be a veil of ignorance. I will not vote for a candidate that refuses to state his or her positions on key issues of importance to Scarsdale, and I have too many demands on my time from useful pursuits to vote in an uncontested election. The advertisement run by "scarsdalecitiz ensPARTY.com" in the banner above reminds us that the system is not nonpartisan, but is rather single-party. It is indeed time to sweep that system into the dust bin of history. However, this is not a call to end the Scarsdale Citizen's Party (there are many good people working in secret within it) -- that party simply needs some competition to encourage it to come into the sunshine.

So far only Harry Reynolds seems willing to discuss issues openly -- and his platform of providing full information about candidates' backgrounds and views to our citizens recognizes that we voters are sufficiently intelligent to be trusted to vote directly for trustees who represent our interests best.

I'm voting this year, and I am voting for Harry Reynolds.
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#3 Scott 2012-02-24 05:43
Why don't we just print the candidates names on red and blue paper then we could all just vote for the color we like!
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#2 Mike Weinstein 2012-02-24 04:58
This letter is staggering in its misunderstandin g of what a representative democracy is. The current system is closer to the Russian Politboro than an open democracy. If it is fair and open can anyone either voting or on the CNC answer any of the following questions:

What objectives do the anointed "candidates" have for the Village?
For "candidates" running for reelection what were their prior accomplishments?
Where do the "candidates" on the major issues facing our community?

These are at the core of a properly functioning democracy.

Why are the defenders of a system that is inherently secretive and that breeds suspicions of an insider game and morally corrupt so afraid to allow the citizens of Scarsdale to actually have a choice and vote for our elected officials?

We need electoral reform and competitive elections now. This archaic closed system should be sent to the dustbin of history where it belongs.
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#1 Lee Berke 2012-02-24 00:26
I've worked alongside David on the CNC over the past three years. As he eloquently noted, everyone in the community has the right to run as a member of the Committee or as a Trustee, or to help develop and vote on the procedures governing the elections. You also have the right not to participate, but you can't then claim that you were prevented from doing so.
Also, Trustees grapple with a wide range of substantive issues, from budgets and staffing through facilities. Mr. Reynolds' campaign seems to be solely based on a misreading of the Non-Partisan System, which the Trustees rightfully don't control, and on parking meters, which is a very limited scope for so important a position.
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