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Is Scarsdale's Non-Partisan System Partisan?

cnclogoaThe announcement of the surprising slate of candidates from the Citizens Nominating Committee last week brought back the uneasy feelings I had when I served on the CNC several years ago.

As I had just completed five years of service on the School Board Nominating Committee and as Vice-Chair, I was well versed in the rules of Scarsdale’s non-partisan system. I understood that the role of the nominator was to seek out candidates who:

  • Have demonstrated an ability to work effectively in groups
  • Are critical thinkers and problem solvers – akin to the kind of students Scarsdale seeks to educate today
  • Have no prescribed agenda and were not seeking the position to move forward or halt a specific project or plan
  • Are open-minded and would use their best judgment to do what’s best for Scarsdale

In addition, during the vetting process, the committee was to consider only input that could be attributed to a named source; i.e. committee members could not make comments on a candidate based on hearsay.

Accustomed to the civil and fair-minded proceedings of the SBNC, I was taken aback by my experience on the Citizens Nominating Committee where conversations were rife with rancor and innuendo. Though some of the nominators were new to Village government, there seemed to be a core of longtime cronies who had served on the committee many times or who had taken public positions on issues before the Village government. Included on the committee were former mayors, wives of former mayors and former trustees. Unlike the SBNC, the meetings were not run by elected nominators, but instead chaired by the leadership of the TVCC (now renamed as the Scarsdale Forum) which itself takes positions on issues before the Village Government. I was even more disturbed when I learned that if the CNC could not find enough candidates from each area to run for the nominating committee, the Procedure Committee simply named someone for the seat.

During some of the sessions there were heated arguments; however it was not clear to the “outsiders” like me what was at stake. It was only later that I pieced together the behind the scenes agenda and realized that many in the room had come with the purpose of nominating candidates who would serve their own goals.

As I have now spent the last two years observing Village politics while reporting for Scarsdale10583, I have become familiar with the key players in town. So when I learned whom the committee had selected for Village Mayor and Trustees, I took a look at who was serving on the nominating committee this year and was struck by the list :

Among the nominators were:

  • A husband and wife
  • A former TVCC President who previously chaired the committee
  • Several people who have formed a coalition to vociferously lobby for a neighborhood cause
  • The wife of a current trustee
  • A former trustee
  • Several chairs of TVCC committees who have taken strong positions on village issues

Given the alliances and histories of the members, how could they objectively consider candidates’ fitness for the position of Trustee or Mayor? They are entrenched in Village politics, have longstanding relationships with one another and clear conflicts of interest. Though I am certain that many of the nominators have the right goals the roster includes too many with complex pasts and scores to settle.

In contrast, the School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC) attracts many parents with children in the school and often brings newcomers into the process. It is rare that people choose to serve more than one term. Since the leadership of the SBNC for the following year is taken from the group of representatives who have completed their three-year terms, those who have been elected by Scarsdale residents moderate the meetings.

On the other hand, the CNC is managed by the leadership of the Scarsdale Forum, which has been outspoken in their positions on issues that affect Scarsdale such as village-wide tax revaluation, compensation for teachers, and development. In my view, there is an inherent conflict in a partisan group managing an ostensibly “non-partisan” committee.

According to several reliable sources the process was further compromised this year when a large number of absentee ballots were delivered in a single bag to those counting the votes. In addition, a new rule allowed nominators to make private phone calls to candidates where they asked for their views in off the record conversations. As all CNC deliberations are confidential, the lack of transparency makes it even more difficult to address issues with the nominating process.

What can be done?

Here are a few suggestions for changes that can be made to the Non-Partisan Resolution :

  • Limit service to one three year term, with no “repeat” performances
  • Bar former mayors, trustees and their husbands and wives from serving
  • Bar more than one member of a household from serving at the same time
  • Have the proceedings managed by elected nominators who complete their terms and are selected by the group to lead for the following year
  • Prohibit the Procedure Committee from selecting applicants to fill vacant seats

By restoring the integrity of the process, Village government will attract a wider cross-section of talented and committed citizens and ensure balanced leadership. When the non-partisan system is taken hostage by partisan leadership it is no longer an effective system and cries out for reform.

 

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#9 Scarsdaledinosaur 2011-02-13 22:25
As a long time Scarsdale volunteer on both the school and village scenes, it is not that the nominating process has been a paragon of non political discourse..but that the rules of the committee were devised and strictly adhered to, to restrict the natural inclination of people to fall into an issues driven political process. The overriding philosophy has been that "the position seeks the person, NOT that the person seeks the position". It has also been understood from way back that the best people for these positions are likely not to allow their names to be considered if it involves a rough and tumble political process.

I've been told that in the real old days, nominees did not even know they were being considered...(w ell they probably had an inkling...I was not around then...) but they got a call similar to what happens with the Bowl recipient...the n we evolved to having a system where candidates provided their "resumes" in order for people to ascertain whether the candidate's experience and qualifications made them a good candidate. I was around when the system then considered, and ultimately adopted, the concept of interviewing the candidates in a one time meeting, with three questions allowed, to be addressed by all candidates within a set time limit...all questions were restricted to "experience and qualifications" . No further contact with the candidates was allowed..no subsequent written submissions.

The public debate over interviewing was held in the Little Theatre and it was a packed crowd (hard to believe but true)..and a volitile debate. Since that time I do believe one of the primary concerns expressed at that meeting has come true...since the candidates are now more personally involved and invested in their candidacy ...with a few minor exceptions...mo st candidates only put their names in once. To, in my opinion, the detriment of all of us. In the past (prior to interviewing) a few former well respected members of our School Board were, for example, considered several years in a row before they were chosen. The likelihood of that happening today is remote. Once they've had a face to face meeting and been rejected...why do that again?

I have heard allegations that this year's process moved further away from the long time standards. Not having been in the room, I do not know what is true, but given the tenor of the current discourse we do need to take a close and serious look at how these committees work and ensure that procedures and rules are in place and strictly followed to give us the best hope of attracting the best non-partisan talent.

The TVCC, as stewards of the Resolution, must commit to a review of the rules and procedues in a process that includes those long time members of our community who oversaw the Resolution and procedures decades ago. Those with a long term perspective are sorely needed and must be included. I have great confidence that
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#8 Eric Staffin Volunteer ! 2011-02-10 10:09
I would simply like to extend a note of thanks to the many volunteers in our community who continue to commit extraordinary amounts of time and energy to the various activities, efforts, associations and causes in our village and in our schools. Let me name a few just for fun! … they include (but are not limited to) the Board of Appeals, Board of Architectural Review, Planning and Zoning Boards, Board of Ethics, Cable TV Commission, Committee for Historic Preservation, Advisory Council on Conservation, People with Disabilities, Human Relations, Judicial Qualifications, Parks & Recreation, Scarsdale Senior Citizens, Technology, and Youth … the Town Board of Assessment Review, Library Board, Scarsdale Arts Council, School Board, PTA, PT Council, Special Education PTA, Volunteer Fire Department, Mayor, Trustees, CNC, Procedure Committee, Scarsdale Forum … I’m pretty sure that these are all volunteer jobs!
So … instead of being critical (or at least while we are being critical), perhaps we can acknowledge the tireless and often thankless efforts of the incredible numbers of residents working in these (again) volunteer positions. While we may occasionally disagree on philosophy, on committee composition, on nominations, and potentially on conclusions, we should not forget that every minute spent volunteering is time that would have otherwise spent with our families!
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#7 Lena Crandall 2011-02-10 01:56
I'm looking forward to continuing a dialogue with Dr. Miriam Levitt Flisser regarding village issues once she becomes our next Mayor. Bob Harrisson, soon to be our new Trustee, will most likely surprise us all in one way or another. I hope to learn more about how our Village government works/should work from Bob as he makes the transition from "watchdog" to decision maker and team player. I'm sure both Mr. Harrisson and Dr. Levitt Flisser will make every effort to involve the residents of Scarsdale in key discussions. Over the years, we haven't agreed on everything, but I have always felt that these two individuals truly care about Scarsdale and will go above and beyond the call of duty. I haven't had the pleasure of grilling future Trustee Brodsky on any topic, but I am hopeful that she will help bridge the gap between our School District and village when it comes to matters of common concern.

Is there room for improvement in the CNC? Of course! There always is. Please volunteer to serve next year. If you are a resident, but not a U.S. citizen, join the Scarsdale Forum: we're looking to study the CNC process to make recomendations. Are you interested in some other local topic? Our numerous committees research, debate and report upon a variety of issues. Take a look at www.scarsdaletvcc.org. Not sure? Come say "hello" to the many volunteers referred to in the editorial and commentaries above at the reception following the village elections on Tuesday, March 15th, 8:30pm, at the Scarsdale Woman's Club, Drake Rd., Scarsdale. See you then! Lena Crandall
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#6 wkn1410 2011-02-09 23:11
Wow. Long live the internet. This is fantastic: free speech (and healthy discourse) alive and well and facilitated by the internet and Scarsdale10583.com.

Thanks to Joanne for a thoughtful effort to put in perspective some of the issues potentially emerging in our Village political process. No question, otherwise busy village residents (and citizens) like myself have taken for granted both the fact that our town system works and, more importantly, that it is truly non-partisan. This has been a comforting assumption in a world (the U.S. and beyond) riven with corruption, mindless partisanship and ferocious self-interest. It has been a point of pride to know that we in Scarsdale were “better than that” and more enlightened. The civility and rationality that has been the hallmark of our political system has been an extension of what makes Scarsdale different. Scarsdale is NOT Bell, California.

As a member of various community groups and Boards, I can also say I’m sympathetic to Jim Pullman’s observation that it’s easy to throw peanuts from the gallery. But that’s no replacement for involvement. Of course I now need to put my money where my mouth is and step up.

Am considering.
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#5 Jim Pullman my real name, not a pseudonym 2011-02-05 12:43
As chair of the procedure committee this year and vice chair last year, I can say with authority that it is extremely difficult to get individuals not already involved with Scarsdale politics to run for the CNC. I went out of my way 2 years in a row to do so, and met with limited success. I really wish that people would volunteer to run for the CNC, or get other newcomers to village politics to run when the call for candidates are announced in September, rather than complaining afterwards about the work of the CNC when they don’t like the results.
I would further say that in the past two years, contrary to the impression left in the editorial by Ms. Wallenstein, the rules of the Non-partisan Resolution were followed closely in all aspects in both the choosing of candidates for the CNC election and in the subsequent choosing of village board candidates by the CNC. Also, contrary to the impression left by this editorial, the proceedings were overall remarkably objective, and the proof of this can be seen in the choice of at least one candidate (perhaps some would say more), who is an outsider to the village establishment. I do not claim that bucking the establishment is a necessary or desirable result of CNC proceedings, but the fact that it did happen this year suggests that whoever the duly elected CNC members may be, they demonstrated their ability to resist, rather than to perpetuate cronyism. Again, I wonder if it is the results rather than the process that have apparently displeased some.
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#4 KJRR 2011-02-05 10:33
Because the system is non-partisan - does not mean it is non-political. That being said I have seen the attitudes of partisan politics creep into a system that has, on a whole, worked very well for Scarsdale. What do I mean by that. A 'win at all costs' attitude, a fostering of private agendas and factions, intolerance for different views and the demonization of those that have differing views. The hallmark of the non-partisan system has always been selecting people who have demonstrated an open mind and who have the best interests of the 'whole village' at heart and who work well with others. The author is correct about the qualities that are needed for effective leadership. When involved in a system that is made up entirely of volunteers the Village Board needs people who can work collaberatively - it does not have the time to waste dealing with those have private agendas or who cannot listen. Because of the way in which the board has traditionally worked - working towards concensus - all it takes is one person to be a disruptive force. To work towards concensus - everyone needs to buy in to the model and be willing to listen, learn, and be flexibile, and put the interests of the whole Village first. One also needs to understand the role they are to play, the parameters of that role and have respect for the system - and to understand that they are stewards of the system and respect it.
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#3 mstork 2011-02-05 06:19
It's only gotten worse. It is a non-partisan process in name only, riven by factions and driven by agendas. Essentially, the give and take of a multi-party political process is concentrated within a single room, which leads to a toxic environment and disappointing results.
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#2 fair voter 2011-02-05 05:51
Right on - anyone in Scarsdale who thinks they have a non partisan system of selecting candidates is sadly mistaken. New blood is desperately needed to make this system survive. If we are going to have rancorous, issue driven selections, they should at least be made in the open in the traditional party system with public debate and involvement
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#1 bebop 2011-02-05 05:02
The system has to be re-configured. Right now there is a tremendous amount of 'in breeding" on the CNC that might not reflect the the views of the residents they represent. It is extremely hard to get individuals to run for the CNC. As a result, it is easy to load the committee with individuals who are focused on voting against a mayoral nominee who might have made a hard but unpopular decision and ignore the remainder of that person's overall contribution to Scarsdale.
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