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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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