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.

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