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AhujaSummer Ahuja is running for his first term as Scarsdale Village TrusteeSameer Ahuja grew up in Scarsdale and returned 22 years after high school to raise his own family here. He graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1992 and moved back with his family in 2014. He currently serves on the Village Advisory Council on Communications. Professionally, Sameer has been an entrepreneur for nearly 20 years; he currently works as the COO (GM) of GameChanger Media Inc., a NY-based sports technology company owned by DICK’S Sporting Goods.

Ahuja is running for his first term on the Scarsdale Board of Trustees on the Scarsdale Citizens Non-Partisan Party slate. Here are his thoughts on Scarsdale and the challenges he will face as Village Trustee. Remember to vote on Tuesday March 16.

-As someone with career experience in technology, how do you envision that the Village might use technology to better serve residents?

There are opportunities, but I would caution that technology isn’t always a panacea. I have found it effective to take an iterative approach, making small incremental changes versus transformational projects that can often fall short of expectations. Can we easily implement software tools to help the staff deliver the same or better level of services to residents? What about widely used communication tools to assist in engaging a broader swath of the community? I would suggest that we test some things out, learn from these tests, and iterate. If a tool helps, let’s keep using it. If not, let’s find that out quickly.

-What aspects of the job of Village Trustee are of most interest to you?

Three areas in particular.

First, outreach and communications with residents. I personally derive a lot of energy from interactions with others and would be excited to draw in the views of a larger segment of the village population. Perhaps some communications tools can help. However, I often like to say at work when we are trying to light a spark with our customer community that you need to “do things that don’t scale”. In this case, that means investing the time to simply reach out and talk to more people. Let them know you want to hear them out and that you are here to help.

Second, I view the increasing diversity of the Village as a great strength for the community and would be proud to bring a new voice to the Board.

Finally, thinking to the future, echoing what Jane Veron hopes to bring as our Mayor - I am excited to contribute to a vision, a long-term strategic framework for Scarsdale that can continue across multiple boards and years.

-What are the biggest challenges facing Scarsdale today – and how do you believe you can contribute to the solutions?

Short-term, is of course the budget. But a bit further out, I believe we are facing a generational shift. I expect remote work to be a lasting trend which will impact how companies work and where people work and live. We need to be preparing the Village for these changes and ensure that Scarsdale remains a community where those of the highest character, integrity, intellect, and achievement want to live.

-Given the fall off in revenues and the budget gap, do you think residents might be willing to pay a bit more in taxes or fees to maintain services?

I want to commend the Village staff for maintaining, during the pandemic, the quality of service that our Residents have come to expect. We need to continue our conversations with residents to understand what they truly value and what they view to be key differentiators for Scarsdale. These conversations will hopefully lead us to the lowest possible tax increase consistent with what our Residents expect from life in Scarsdale.

-The Village pursued a public-private partnership to raise the funds to renovate and expand the library. Can you envision other ways that the Village might work with private individuals, businesses or foundations to finance infrastructure or programming needs?

I am passionate about public-private partnerships; my first entrepreneurial venture was exactly that, working with NY State and City to bring a tourist attraction to post-9/11 Lower Manhattan. There are some very intriguing success stories in other communities. This is actually an area where technology offers more transformational opportunities. I think we can start quite easily - simply by saying clearly and openly that we are excited to do more of this, that we are here to work in partnership with the private sector. This is where Jane Veron’s vision is so exciting. She has proposed four pillars for the work of the Village Board and with it three areas that we need to make progress in

Communications
Sustainability
Technology

I would start to consider public-private partnerships that elevate and accelerate our community’s progress in these three areas.

I also want to say that for me any public-private partnership rests on three guiding principles. 1) A sense of equal and true partnership between parties; 2), Complete transparency from beginning to end; and 3) Clear and comprehensive documentation of the specifics of the partnerships. Only with these can Residents be sure the partnership is in the best interests of the community.

-At times it feels like a few very vocal residents are the only ones giving input to the Village Board. Do you believe that the Village hears from a representative swath of residents? How can you know if you’re voting in the interest of the majority if so many are disengaged?

I want to commend those residents who make the time to analyze the issues facing the Village and speak up. In talking to friends and neighbors, I know that a larger swath of the population has viewpoints they would like to share. I am ready and excited to do the work to bring these new voices into the process. And that is my message to our Residents - get involved!

-What was your role as part of the Village’s Advisory Council on Communications? Tell us about the work of that committee and what it accomplished. What work is still to be done?

I feel privileged to be part of the ACC. It is composed of some of our most dedicated residents and I have made good friendships while serving the community. Chair Dara Gruenberg has established a clear and exciting vision for the council. The committee has created video content about the Village, has implemented strategies to increase and diversify volunteer participation on Village Boards and Councils, and has advanced the redesign of the website in conjunction and coordination with Village Staff. This work will continue and the council has some exciting ideas for communications protocols, the Village’s visual identity/branding, and social media.

I am leading the council’s work on the website redesign. It is a multi-month endeavor, working closely with Village staff and CivicPlus (third-party design firm) on rewriting dozens of pages of site content and revamping the site’s design and look and feel. I am particularly excited about the part of the process when we reach out to residents for feedback on the proposed enhancements, as this input will be crucial to having a site that represents Scarsdale well.

-Anything else?

To conclude, I have seen for nearly four decades how Scarsdale has been so welcoming to so many wonderful people. No different than a business where customers have choices, folks have a choice of where to live. We need to always be working to ensure that the best people come here. The opportunity to live in a place as special as Scarsdale is not something I ever take for granted. That is why I want to work to support and build this community as a Village Trustee. And I could not be more excited to be able to do that with my fellow candidates, who bring so much experience, intellect, and commitment to the table.

COVID commemorationThe downward trend in the numbers of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued this week with County Executive George Latimer reporting that the count of active cases fell to 5,893 on Monday March 1, down from a high of 11,494 cases in January 2021. Take a look at the situation in Westchester County here.

He said, “this is a steady downward trend,” and “there was not uptick from Super Bowl Sunday.”

In terms of hospitalizations, there are 340 COVID inpatients today, down from 562 hospitalizations five weeks ago. A total of 2,097 Westchester residents have passed away from COVID since the onset of the crisis a year ago.

Vaccinations are proceeding at a steady pace. To date, at the Westchester County Center, 74,757 first and second doses have been administered, with an additional 13,906 at the two county health clinics for a total of 88,000 doses from the County. Including other sites, such as pharmacies and pop-ups, a total of 120,000 doses have been given in Westchester.

Latimer is encouraged that the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine will soon be available and said this should speed the process of vaccinating the population.

Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins said that the new vaccination site in Yonkers will be open to all eligible Westchester residents as of Wednesday March 3.

He advised, as demand exceeds supply, anyone who is eligible but having difficulty scheduling an appointment should call the NYS vaccine hotline at 1-833-697-4829 or 1-833-NYS-4-VAX.

In terms of supply, Westchester County is getting 2,500 doses a week, as well as a supplement of 900 this week, for a total of 3,400 doses. Other smaller sites, such as pharmacies are receiving about 100 per week.

Last, the county will hold a COVID Commemoration day on Wednesday March 3. The day will begin with an interfaith prayer vigil at 11 am, a moment of silence at noon, the ringing of church-bells county wide and applause for first responders at 7 pm. Flags will be flown at half staff.

Latimer ended with a story about his father. As a boy, Latimer remembered struggling with math and complained bitterly to his father that he had to take a math test every week, with the score either zero or 100 for a perfect test. His father reacted by slamming his hands on the kitchen table and said, “You’re complaining that you’re tested once a week! As a man you will be tested daily!”

Latimer reminded residents that every day is a test, so we have to keep on trying.

PathWhat measures can be taken to address race-based policing and the disproportionate harm inflicted upon communities of color by law enforcement agencies? In the wake of the death of a long list of unarmed people of color, killed in New York State and around the country, in June 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order #203 titled the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. This order is intended to address the race-based policing practices engrained in our law enforcement agencies. As part of the order, all local New York State governments were asked to review the needs of their community with respect to policing, examine current policing policies and practices, and develop recommendations based on current needs and best-practices.

The order cites eight New Yorkers and 12 individuals from out-of-state, all of whom were unarmed civilians of color who were killed during interactions with law enforcement. These New Yorkers including Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zango, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Patrick Dorismond, Akai Gurley, and Eric Garner, and the out-of-state individuals included Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Antwon Rose Jr., Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

To comply, the Village of Scarsdale created the Police Reform and Reinvention Committee, which is chaired by Scarsdale resident Robert Tucker. After reviewing the current state of the Scarsdale Police Department and speaking with participants, officers, key stakeholders, and community members, the committee created a report that can be found in full HERE.

The report was put together by Scarsdale Village Deputy Manager Robert Cole. On February 9, 2021, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees held a meeting via Zoom to review the key takeaways and highlights from the report.

The following are the recommendations in the report made by the committee. They were reviewed by Scarsdale Police Chief Andrew Matturro.

1. Routinely publish police data to increase transparency
a. Reinforce trust, and promote police personnel awareness of the need to support established goals and objectives intended to ensure policing that is fair, safe, and effective for all, the Police Reform and Reinvention Committee recommends increased sharing of information relative to police-citizen encounters, activities, public relation information, arrests and accompanying data, e.g., implementation of a web-based dashboard or similar approach to providing community access to the Department's performance.

2. Support training and advocate for county social services unit
a. To provide the specialized skills necessary to engage persons experiencing a mental health crisis, the Committee recommends that Scarsdale PD continue to receive appropriate in-service training, including necessary de-escalation methods. Of equal importance, the Committee suggests advocating for Westchester County to activate a specialized mental health intervention unit that can be called upon 24/7 for mental health emergencies. The unit should be adequately staffed to provide response times commensurate with the need to respond under emergency circumstances.

3. Seek governmental and public consensus regarding police in schools
a. As noted, the question of shifting to a more robust police presence in local public schools is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this Committee’s charge. There are significant budgetary and operational implications; the merits and drawbacks must be adequately understood and publicly vetted.

4. Validate community policing best management practices (BMPs) and educate the public
a. Community Policing principles are integrated into Scarsdale PD's policies, training, and protocols. However, there appears to be an opportunity for further progress in formalizing the Department's commitment, particularly in the area of educating the public about its efforts. Doing so could enhance an already outstanding reputation within the community for policing excellence.

5. Update training program to recognize and avoid racism and bias in policing
a. While the Scarsdale Police Department maintains rigorous standards and protocols to reduce the likelihood of racism and/or bias in policing, new police training opportunities have arisen in the wake of recurring incidents involving the death or murder of persons of color during interactions with police officers. Scarsdale PD should aggressively pursue training in topics such as Implicit Bias, Micro-Aggressions, Racial Profiling, and Procedural Justice.
b. On this point, Police Chief Matturro specifically mentioned groups such as the Westchester-Rockland Guardians Association and the Westchester Hispanic Law Enforcement Association as organizations that the police department would like to receive input from. The Westchester-Rockland Guardians Association is an organization that provides a base for minority officers to address their needs, the needs of the community, and have representation in all ranks of law enforcement. The Westchester Hispanic Law Enforcement Association is an organization dedicated to inspiring, instructing, and creating the future leaders of law enforcement throughout Westchester County.

6. Increase and broaden de-escalation training
a. Traditionally, police departments have focused on Use of Force and when to escalate to secure the safety of the officer and individual being engaged. Such training is necessary, of course, but in some ways minimizes the importance of de-escalation strategies in resolving problems without the use of force. To better balance the two approaches and highlight the inherent value of de-escalation as a pre-cursor to use of force, the Committee recommends increasing the quality and amount of De-Escalation training.
b. On this point, Police Chief Matturro highlighted that committee members expressed a strong desire for these trainings to receive the same emphasis and urgency as firearms training, and that the police department supports this notion.

7. Strengthen and expand faith-based community relationships
a. Consider strengthening and expanding relationships with the faith-based community, which can be instrumental in cultivating even higher levels of community trust, cooperation, and support.
b. When speaking to this recommendation, Police Chief Matturro noted that the department has already begun working with various community Rabbis and Reverends in the hopes of building a strong Hope Not Handcuffs program. This program targets people suffering from substance abuse and hopes to divert them from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

8. Consider creating an independent use of force review board
a. Consider creation of an independent review board that examines occurrences of Use of Force and or misconduct. If feasible, other officers should be involved in the process as a way to heighten awareness of the process and administrative implications of Use of Force. DCJS conducts such reviews and may be a resource for this need.

9. Purchase and deploy body cameras
a. It was noted that the Scarsdale Police Department is committed to continuous learning and adaptation to evolving regulatory requirements, policing best practices, and community needs. To that end, and as body-worn cameras have proven to be valuable tools supporting ethical, equitable law enforcement, the Committee recommended that the Scarsdale Police Department purchase and deploy body cameras. In follow-up, Scarsdale PD has already requested FY 2021-22 funding to equip all sworn officers with bodyworn cameras. To ensure their proper deployment and effective utilization, SPD is in the process of developing the appropriate G.O. and supporting program implementation and oversight

After Police Chief Matturro presented each of the committee’s recommendations, Board members had an opportunity to ask questions and make comments about the report. Trustee Lena Crandall followed up on Recommendation #2 and suggested that the Board of Trustees consider a resolution to support the creation of a mental health intervention unit. She also mentioned that the request to purchase and deploy body cameras was “favorably considered by the Village Board and will likely be included in the final budget.”

Trustee Jonathan Lewis asked Police Chief Matturro specifically about the resources that might exist within the village to support the idea of having a county social services unit. Chief Matturro responded that although Westchester used to have crisis response teams that deployed in various situations, funding for the program ran out several years ago. As a result, this responsibility fell on police officers, who are not trained mental health professionals. Chief Matturro mentioned that a similar system could be reinstated. Additionally, within the police department, he mentioned that officers should continue to receive up-to-date and intensive training. This training will ensure that officers understand a situation before going into it to minimize the possibility of an officer overreacting or taking a situation out of context.

Trustee Seth Ross pointed out an inconsistency in the report regarding the use of chokeholds. On page 11, the report states that chokeholds are prohibited except in situations of deadly force, while on page 28 it states that the use of chokeholds is strictly prohibited by law and officers have not been trained in their use. Ross asked if there would ever be a situation with the Scarsdale Police where this technique would be employed. Chief Matturro said the department is not trained in the use of the chokehold, and that in a situation where either an officer or a third-party civilian was about to be killed, any technique that would prevent this death would be permitted. He emphasized however, that the department is not trained in chokeholds, and that he believes that the training, equipment, and tactics available to the Scarsdale Police are sufficient to prevent officers from ever employing the chokehold technique.

Trustee Justin Arest worried about privacy concerns related to body cameras and asked Chief Matturro how these concerns would be addressed. Chief Matturro responded that he too struggled with this question and noted that for this to work effectively without invading privacy, proper procedures, follow-up responses, and disciplinary actions must be instated. Chief Matturro also noted that there are best practices available for police departments and that in certain situations, if you can document a valid legal reason why it was done, officers can turn off cameras to ensure the public’s privacy. He added that there are several departments in Westchester that are now turning to body cameras, and that the governor is mandating State police to wear them as well. Finally, Chief Matturro stated that these cameras are a good tool in terms of holding officers accountable and being transparent to the public.

Finally, Trustee Randall Whitestone asked Police Chief Matturro about where he will turn for de-escalation and anti-racism training. Chief Matturro stated that the department will primarily be looking to New York State for guidance, as well as for recommendations from CALEA (the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), the Westchester Guardians, the Hispanic Law Enforcement Association, and other Westchester-based organizations that focus on de-escalation and anti-racism in law enforcement.

Chief Matturro closed his remarks saying he would like to see this conversation continue and that it cannot be a "one and done thing." He also said that "what is important is the time in between the pendulum swing – we don't want to let one event drive us, but rather work in the in-between moments… this committee was amazing, and I want to see an advisory council of this type looking at police encounters before they become a problem so we can avoid these issues.”

vaccineupdateDiminishing infection rates, active cases and hospitalizations are all good news for Westchester County where the virus is on the decline and vaccinations are on the rise. At his briefing on Monday February 22, 2021 County Executive George Latimer provided statistics on COVID-19 and the progress of the vaccination effort in Westchester.

Here are the latest numbers as of February 24, 2021: You can see the daily counts here.

-Active Cases in Scarsdale: 60

-Active Cases in Westchester: 5,997 – down from 10,500 in January

-Positive Rate: On Monday 2/22, 410 people tested positive, a 4.2% infection rate, which is a big improvement over prior months.

-Hospitalizations are down to 403 this week from 507 two weeks ago, also a dramatic decrease.

-Deaths: This past week 33 people passed away, down from 50 deaths the prior week and 77 two weeks before that.

Vaccinations

Latimer reported the results of a major effort to vaccinate Westchester residents. To date, 60,731 vaccines have been administered at the Westchester County Center. This includes both first and second doses. In total, 70,438 vaccines have been given county wide to date. He cautioned that there is not yet sufficient supply to meet the demand from all eligible people.

He also explained that appointments were cancelled due to snow that prevented the arrival of the vaccines and the opening of the site. The priority for rescheduling will be given to those who need a second dose, as these have to be timed.

If your appointment was cancelled and you have been unable to reschedule, call 914-995-7425 for help. Anyone who is trying to schedule a first appointment should visit https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/ or call the vaccine hotline at 1-833-NYS-4-VAX, (1-833-697-4829). The line is open from 7 am to 10 pm, seven days a week.

New Vaccination Site

Another large vaccination center will open on February 24 in Yonkers at the armory at 2 Quincy Place on North Broadway just south of Ashburton Avenue. This site is expected to administer 1,000 doses a day. For the first week appointments will be limited to those in specific zip codes in Mt. Vernon and Yonkers, but beginning March 3, anyone in the county can use this site.

Vaccination Supply

For week 11, the Westchester County Department of Health will receive 2500 doses, and other sites around the county will also receive vaccines. See the entire list here

COVID Commemoration

COVID commemoration

Last, on March 3, the county will hold a ceremony to remember those lost to COVID in the year since the virus claimed the first life in Westchester. At11 am an interfaith prayer vigil will be held, at noon there will be a county-wide moment of silence and at 7 pm there will be county-wide applause for healthcare workers.

You can view the event on facebook.com/westchestergov.

countycenterAt a briefing on Monday February 8, County Executive called the county’s COVID-19 efforts a “footrace between the disease and the vaccines.” As of Tuesday February 9, the number of active cases in Westchester has fallen to 8014, down from 11,500 just two weeks ago and the positive rate for the county remains at 5.3%. In Scarsdale, the count is 63. The county is administering vaccines in multiple locations hoping to stem the tide of hospitalizations and deaths.

Sadly, Latimer reported that 59 people died from COVID in the past week, and 491 people were hospitalized. In total, the county expects to hit 100,000 positive cases in the next few weeks, which means that 10% of the county’s population will have been infected.

He reported the following number of vaccines administered by the county to date:

-6,344 at the Court Street Department of Health
-38,688 at the Westchester County Center
-560 at the newly opened Westchester County Center

Concerning the vaccine supply, Latimer said, “there is a dearth of vaccines.” The county expects to get 1,110 doses this week, along with a bonus of 20% more doses. He explained that the Governor has now further opened the list of those eligible to people who have co-morbidities and underlying conditions. However, these people, if they are under 65, will not be available to sign up until February 14, 2021. He also assured those who received a first shot that their second shot would be available.

Latimer discussed complaints about long lines for the vaccine at the County Center on Sunday morning February 7, 2021. As the County Center was closed on Monday and Tuesday due to snow, 2,400 people had to be rescheduled. And with more snow forecasted that day, some showed up early. He said, “it is not a first come, first serve situation.” He said people should go to their appointments at the scheduled time. On Sunday, the County Center did remain open until 7 pm and gave out all the scheduled doses. If the County Center has to close again due to snow, a message will be posted on the Westchester County Government Facebook Page here.

High School Sports

After the Governor gave the go ahead to allow high risk sports like basketball and hockey, the county gave permission to the school to work out their protocols. He said that these decisions are now in the hands of school administrators and coaches.

Schools

Similarly, Latimer said, “Our position is we would like to open schools for in school learning,” but the guidelines are established by the state. The county is helping by trying to get vaccines for teachers and school staff and also try to get COVID test kits. He said, “The decision to open is not up to the county.”

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