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Challenge to the Non-Partisan System Increases Civic Engagement at Candidates' Forum

trusteesAt the end of the League of Women Voters of Scardale Candidates' Forum on Tuesday, moderator Karen Schatzel paid Scarsdale a big compliment, saying, "The level of civility tonight has restored my faith in the American system."

This year, a test of Scarsdale's Non-Partisan system has increased voter awareness and engagement. A new political party dubbed "The Scarsdale Voters' Choice Party" is running a full slate of candidates for Mayor and Village Trustees to challenge the four candidates vetted and selected by the Citizens Nominating Committee. There was fear that rancor would result from a full-blown political campaign in a Village election that usually only draws about 300 voters.

But on Tuesday night March 7, everyone behaved.berg hochvert

The LWVS Candidates' Forum is not a traditional debate. Participants make opening statements, respond to questions and end with closing statements. There are no direct attacks or rebuttals. The format worked well this year and allowed all eight candidates to present their credentials and their views.

The Citizens Non-Partisan Party ticket is led by Dan Hochvert for Mayor, with Matt Callaghan, Carl Finger and Seth Ross for Village Trustees. Hochvert is a former Village Trustee who remained active in Village affairs since his 4-year term ended in 2010. Callaghan and Finger are both currently serving as Village Trustees and running for second terms in office. Seth Ross served and chaired on both the Zoning and Planning Boards for ten years and has many other volunteer activities on his resume. All were vetted and selected by the 36 members of the Citizens Nominating Committee who themselves were elected in a general election in Scarsdale Village.

The newly formed Scarsdale Voters' Choice Party was created inbrice the wake of Scarsdale's 2016 tax revaluation when a group of residents questioned the validity of the revaluation, the competency of the vendor who conducted it and the oversight by the Village Assessor, Village Managers and Trustees. These residents called for the Village to void the revaluation and return to a prior tax roll. When the Village failed to do so - for a host of reasons – 151 petitioners named the Scarsdale Committee for Fair Assessments sued the Village. Two people who signed the petition for the Article 78 are among the four candidates running on the Voters' Choice Party ticket. That ticket includes Robert Berg for Mayor, with Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez, Carlos Ramirez and Robert Selvaggio for Village Trustees. Both Kirkendall-Rodriguez and Selvaggio signed the suit that contends that the Village bungled the revaluation and is poorly managed.

Among the themes that emerged from Tuesday night's forum were the value of experience, the fiscal health of the Village, government transparency, the merits of partisan and non-partisan systems, the role of the mayor and trustees in Village management, sustainability, roads and taxes.

baylormorelDuring the trustee candidate's discussion, the Non-Partisan Party candidates emphasized their experience in Village management and their ability to make the best decisions for Scarsdale based on input from residents and qualitative and quantitative information. Trustee Finger said, "If I had made campaign promises I would not have had the freedom to make the best decision based on the information I received."

The three trustees from the Scarsdale Voters' Choice Party had less experience with volunteerism in Scarsdale so they emphasized their professional credentials and willingness to serve. Selvaggio touted his skills in finance and modeling and credited Mayoral candidate Robert Berg with bringing 'fiscal discipline" to the school budget by organizing a successful campaign to vote down the first school budget in Scarsdale in 49 years.

In terms of the current state of the Village, the candidates differed. Trustee Callaghan credited the Village with a triple AAA rating from Moody's, low debt, a wealthy tax base and healthy reserves. However Brice Kirkendall Rodriguez pointed out, "It's important to understand economic issues. 40% of Scarsdale residents have a household income of under $200,000. There has been a 4% decline in household income over the last two years. Budgets exceed the rate of inflation. I have served on community boards in other locales. My understanding and compassion will help." Selvaggio added, "Village taxes have risen 69% over the last 12 years. Our residents' earnings have not kept pace with inflation. We must reduce the rate of tax increases."

According to Village Manager Steve Pappalardo, the projected Village budget for 2017-18 calls for a tax levy increase of 2.19%, all of which is due to a 12% increase in health care costs for Village employees. He says that if health care costs had not risen, the Village budget would be flat. This budget will mean, on average, a $223 increase per household.

In discussions about the 2016 revaluation. Selvaggio called it the Ryan-gate affair and said, "It was recognized to be faulty." He continued, "I joined the Article 78 and this issue of a conflict is going to come up. I will consult with my fellow trustees about recusal from that issue." He later said, "We're going to undue that damage and get it right." Answering a question about the revaluation, Finger said, "The 2016 revaluation has been statistically confirmed to being close to actual sales. We need to look at the true situation. We are governed by what we can legally do. We can look at the process and look at how we got to a point where people felt disenfranchised. We want a community that is satisfied with the process and understands that we did the right thing."

The Voters' Choice Party has complained that the Village government lacks transparency and that it is undemocratic in that residents have no choice on candidates for trustee and cannot vote on the Village budget. Seth Ross answered those claims, saying, "I would like to see more people take advantage of the opportunities to engage. The Village Staff and trustees are happy to engage... Meetings are open and televised. If you're frustrated – get your voice out there and it will be heard." Kirkendall Rodriguez said, "I don't want to do away with the system....I prefer a system where the voters can determine who has merit. ... More people will come to the polls. When you see your school taxes and county taxes you will see the increase. The civic mindedness of the Voters Choice Party will have a place as well as the opportunity for choice.

The two candidates for Mayor, Robert Berg and Dan Hochvert were asked similar questions.. Berg credited his party with the large audience, saying, "We have accomplished a lot. There's lots of interest and people who want to hear our views."

Hochvert introduced himself as "a doer," who changed Village code, walked the watercourses and made decisions that benefitted Scarsdale.

Both candidates agreed that the Mayor's role was to lead and keep an eye on Village staff – without meddling in the day-to-day work.

When asked for priorities, Berg said "Roads, roads, roads. The state of the roads is atrocious!" He advocated the purchase of 10-year bonds at low interest rates to repair all of Scarsdale's roadways. To that, Hochvert responded, "We have plans to bond the library, and a bridge over the Heathcote Bypass. Bonding roads would make it "interesting" to stay under the cap. Our debt service rises from all the projects that we will bond. We can't just focus on bonding for roads. We can't ruin our rating by exceeding debt service targets by spending $28 million on road repair."

In response to a question about the trade-off between tax rates and Village services, Berg said, "Taxes in the village are going up twice as fast as inflation. It is morally wrong that people can't afford to stay here. We have to get our tax rate under control. If not, we'll go into a death spiral. Too many empty nesters will move out and we have to build more schools. We have to stop hiring consultants. We have to cut programs like the Teen Center." (Note – school district enrollment in the Scarsdale Schools has been almost flat for the last ten years. Demographers do not anticipate a surge in the school population.)

Hochvert explained the use of consultants, saying "The Village has decreased its staff since I left a few years ago. You hire consultants because it's more economical for a temporary study. You don't have to pay benefits."

Both candidates appreciated the way public comments are handled at Village meetings. Though the official time limit is 5 minutes, the Mayor often lets residents speak at length and answers their concerns. Hochvert said, "When I was on the board, the 3 minute limit was observed. Now the mayor and board has some dialogue with the speaker. It builds trust! I would not limit speakers' time – I think the dialogue is good."

Berg who is a frequent speaker at Village Hall meetings, agreed, saying, "I am a veteran of public comments. I usually cannot restrain myself. I get cut off after 3 minutes at the school board. At the village, they listen and don't limit speech. It's the right policy. People want to vent and you need to hear your comments."

Concerning the Village in a Park, preservation of trees and homes, Berg said, "There is a certain character that needs to be preserved. I used to like trees before two fell on my house. Now I am concerned with trees that are close to houses. We need to preserve the trees to the extent that we can. We need to make sure that the developers preserve trees. We need to look at the FAR (floor area ratio code) and eliminate FAR loopholes that allow big houses on small lots."

Hochvert added, "When I was on the planning board we convinced developers to save trees. I am not sure that FAR is the best way to limit development. We should also look at lot coverage to prevent homes from covering almost the entire lot." At another point in the discussion, Hochvert said, "We need to maintain the tree canopy that absorbs much of the water. I made code changes that have been effective in preventing flooding and planted hundreds of trees in Harwood Park."

Summing up, Hochvert said, "I believe that working with the board and staff cooperatively is the best way to ensure the best decisions. Experience and knowledge counts."

Berg told the audience, "Your attendance here shows that you want choice. You can have a choice and make your village your village. If you're happy with the status quo, vote for the CNC candidates. My slate is skilled in finance, technology and law. We recognize the problems. I have the leadership skills – I know this village intimately and we would love to serve you."

You can watch the Candidates' Forum on Scarsdale Public Television here.

The Village election will be held on Tuesday March 21st at Scarsdale Library from 6 am to 9 am and from 12 noon to 9 pm. The last day to register to vote in the election is Friday March 10.

In order to register with the Westchester County Board of Elections to vote you must:

  • Be a U.S. Citizen
  • Be 18 years of age by the date of the election
  • Live at your present address for at least 30 days before the election
  • Not be in jail or on parole for a felony conviction; and
  • Not claim the right to vote elsewhere.

For more information, click here

Comments   

+6 #14 resident 2017-03-13 10:36
I would like to hear from both candidates for mayor and the trustees how they will address to vacancies in Scarsdale village. Bronxville, Rye and Larchmont all have thriving downtowns while Scarsdale can only seem to support nail salons, real estate office and jewelry stores.

This impacts property values by making our community less desirable to potential new residents.
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+8 #13 Good point 2017-03-10 09:43
Dear Not All Or None,

I hadn't thought about it that way, but you are totally right. You don't need to vote for all candidates in one party or another. For example, I might vote for Matt Callahan instead of Brice Kirkendall-Rodr iguez - or mix and match in another way based on experience and *demeanor*. (If you think that Mayra's posts are appropriate, calling people "trolls," then you can vote for Brice too.)

I think choice is great - but it doesn't have to be the choice of one PARTY vs another - it can be choice of INDIVIDUALS to enrich the overall debate and conversation. I hope that residents look at each candidate individually and make whatever choice they feel is best.

I'd love to see some trustees from each party carry the day!
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+5 #12 Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez 2017-03-10 09:22
Joanne,

You told Bob Berg that you would not allow anonymous people to post negative remarks. Why have you not kept up that promise? I urge readers to go to the voters Choice Party website and read about all that Brice has done in the education, municipality, assessment, and Revitalizing commitees of the Scarsdale Forum. He also leads the Tiger Den troop here.He has spent hundreds of hours analyzing the numerous quantitative flaws in the Ryan model; this is something that the village should have done, not residents. Brice also has been on two different apartment boards for 15 years where did a lot of work on financial issues. He also volunteered reading for the visually impaired. Brice has done all of this volunteer work while having a demanding profession in technology and media. I sure would like to know what this anonymous troll has ever done for Scarsdale or anyone for that matter. Quoting Not all or none:
I support Bob Berg but was startled by Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez's lack of Scarsdale experience. I bring this up to remind people that they don't need to vote strictly for one party or the other - they can vote for the individuals they think would serve the village best.
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+2 #11 Not all or none 2017-03-10 04:16
I support Bob Berg but was startled by Brice Kirkendall-Rodr iguez's lack of Scarsdale experience. I bring this up to remind people that they don't need to vote strictly for one party or the other - they can vote for the individuals they think would serve the village best.
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+15 #10 Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez 2017-03-10 01:46
Brian,

Did you go to the great League of Women Voters candidate forum? I was referring to what Finger said about Ryan and sales. If you want to discuss, you can email me. You and I are in the Assessment Committee of the Scarsdale Forum, so you can find me throught that. Regards


Quoting Brian Nottage:
I literally have no idea what point the last sentence in Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez’s comment is meant to make when she says, "How is it possible that Trustee Finger does not understand that the Ryan model is not a predictive on but a snapshot in time?" Her group is asking for an extraordinary remedy: roll back the current roll to a previous roll. If one grants fully that Tyler's "snapshot" over their sample was better than Ryan's "snapshot" over his sample, the real estate economist (me) and the taxpayer(also me) asks "who cares?" It is an elementary statistical testing process to see how well a model works out-of-sample. If two years after its created, the predictive stats look as weak as Tyler's (the average absolute errors by price tier are really telling) , one has to question their model. Moreover, we're paying taxes today on a roll that is meant to be fair. It would beggar belief that someone would say with a straight face say "even if the current roll is more accurate, we must revert to a prior roll that was procedurally better and had (some) in-sample properties that looked better".

To be clear, I have no dog in this fight. I publicly wrote about the flaws in the Tyler revaluation (I sent it to the trustees and it's online). In the Scarsdale Forum Revaluation Committee I have also indicated I will not support a one-sided history that lionizes Tyler (I also find the "drive-by" critique to be nonsense). But I also think Ryan's public presentation was an epic embarrassment and that he had flaws that the Article 78 folks have been right to note. But I also am devoted to following the data where it leads. And no amount of overwrought appeals to expertise can overcome what any normal person can observe from the scatter charts. Going back to the 2015 roll is hard to justify, which is why the arguments for it from people who were all into data and charts have suddenly shifted to "I'm an expert and you're not"
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+28 #9 Bob Selvaggio 2017-03-09 19:46
Dr. Nottage,

I'm don't think that either model was designed to generate a multi-year forecast, and if they were we might naturally expect a larger error cone around the older Tyler forecast, but your skilled eye sees flaws in the Tyler approach and you recognize that Ryan's public presentation was an epic embarrassment and that he had flaws that the Article 78 folks have been right to note.

I am sorry that your advice was not sought and your skills not applied to decision-making before either revaluation was rolled out. I'm with you -- let's just take the quantitative analysis as far as our science can take it, supplement with human expertise in residential real estate valuation to get it right and then move on.

If you are willing, we will look forward to working with you!
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-22 #8 Brian Nottage 2017-03-09 17:51
I literally have no idea what point the last sentence in Mayra Kirkendall-Rodr iguez’s comment is meant to make when she says, "How is it possible that Trustee Finger does not understand that the Ryan model is not a predictive on but a snapshot in time?" Her group is asking for an extraordinary remedy: roll back the current roll to a previous roll. If one grants fully that Tyler's "snapshot" over their sample was better than Ryan's "snapshot" over his sample, the real estate economist (me) and the taxpayer(also me) asks "who cares?" It is an elementary statistical testing process to see how well a model works out-of-sample. If two years after its created, the predictive stats look as weak as Tyler's (the average absolute errors by price tier are really telling) , one has to question their model. Moreover, we're paying taxes today on a roll that is meant to be fair. It would beggar belief that someone would say with a straight face say "even if the current roll is more accurate, we must revert to a prior roll that was procedurally better and had (some) in-sample properties that looked better".

To be clear, I have no dog in this fight. I publicly wrote about the flaws in the Tyler revaluation (I sent it to the trustees and it's online). In the Scarsdale Forum Revaluation Committee I have also indicated I will not support a one-sided history that lionizes Tyler (I also find the "drive-by" critique to be nonsense). But I also think Ryan's public presentation was an epic embarrassment and that he had flaws that the Article 78 folks have been right to note. But I also am devoted to following the data where it leads. And no amount of overwrought appeals to expertise can overcome what any normal person can observe from the scatter charts. Going back to the 2015 roll is hard to justify, which is why the arguments for it from people who were all into data and charts have suddenly shifted to "I'm an expert and you're not"
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+19 #7 Carlos Ramirez 2017-03-09 16:25
I want to thank all for your comments, those in favor and those also not in favor of the contested race in our Village of Scarsdale. We can learn from everyone, that is democracy and civics. However, I am not a man of too many words and therefore, I just want to make a point on the use of the buzzword “Experience” which is not necessarily the best ally in terms of public service especially if it is not linked to Resolution of Issues affecting our village. Experience is important for sure, but I think it needs to be linked to doing and getting results, good results and common sense which is more appropriate for public service. I am proud to be running for Trustee with the Voters Choice Party Slate led by Robert Berg, a good listener and a leader with ideas and proposals that make sense.
Therefore, Robert Berg, Brice Kirkendall-Rodr iguez, Carlos Ramirez, and Robert Selvaggio are the candidates with a commitment to change and to do and resolve the issues of our village. Very important to remember: Candidates committed to do for the people and to change the status quo. All residents can see the value on a proposal for change, good results, and excellence in public service. I believe in democracy and I don’t take it for granted, I humbly urge all my neighbors and residents in the Village of Scarsdale to inform yourselves of our platform in detail and to exercise your right to vote and choose.
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+36 #6 Bob Selvaggio 2017-03-09 08:53
Bob Berg, Brice, Carlos and I owe the Scarsdale League of Women Voters (and to be sure, Scarsdale10583) a debt of gratitude for helping our grassroots campaign gain traction despite our shoestring budget. No one could have left the forum doubting that our expertise, experience and qualifications to serve are not at least equal to those of the candidates of the old guard. And clearly, many at the event hadn’t known that the diversity of talents we bring to the Board of Trustees include tax and accounting, communications and information technology, and municipal finance and econometric expertise. Bob Berg showed that he is unequaled in both his command of Village issues and love for Scarsdale – some say he bleeds Scarsdale maroon. I particularly enjoyed getting into the statistical weeds with our neighbors on the Tyler reval and Ryan-gate model in the post-event conversations in the library.

Scarsdale is indeed having an open and competitive election this year, and the LWV event went a long way in helping our citizens with the important choice they will make as old man winter gives way to the warmth and sunlight of spring in two weeks. If the standing-room attendance at the library is any indication, voter participation will be terrific. And more choice and more voter participation are good things.

I missed Mr. Pappalardo’s comment about the Village tax rate at the event that Joanne reports above, but if he is correct, then the Board of Trustees has reduced our impending tax increase from a level of 2% in excess of the NYS cap reported in the January 27 Scarsdale Inquirer to a more reasonable 0.80% excess tax. I had heard rumblings of this in a meeting two weeks ago. I’d bet my doctorate in economics that our platform and the specter of a competitive election provided strong incentive for the old guard to come to this happy outcome. Competitive elections foster accountability, responsiveness, honesty and promise-keeping.

Let’s keep the conversation going, and let’s keep it as friendly and respectful as it surely was Tuesday night.
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+38 #5 Jack Greenspan 2017-03-08 21:40
Quoting Resident:
What I find concerning about the Voters Choice Party is that they are acting like a voting bloc. I think it is important to have 7 individuals on the board. If they win, Bob Berg will be able to act a dictator with no system of check and balances.


What makes you say this? The Non-Partisan Party is no better. Under the current Non-Partisan administration, many controversial votes have been decided 6-0. The current trustees aren't acting as individuals, but I would expect that a 3-3 divide on the Board of Trustees would put lots of pressure on Berg and the VCP to compromise and make better choices.
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