Three critical issues in the Town/Village of Harrison were addressed by town board incumbents and hopefuls in front of about 50 residents Wednesday evening at a forum in West Harrison.
The event, organized by the West Harrison Neighborhood Association, was the first public event where candidates were asked to share their views on key topic leading up to the November election. The panel included incumbent supervisor Joan Walsh (D) and challenger Ronald Belmont (R,C,I), as well as each party's candidates for the two open council seats.
Stephen Malfitano and incumbent councilman Fred Sciliano represent the Republicans, while the Democrats have nominated incumbent Pat Vetere along with Howard Hollander.
Each candidate was allowed a two-minute introduction before fielding questions. Candidates were not allowed to interact with each other throughout the course of the evening.
Walsh emphasized her use of "common sense" budget processes during her time in office that have reduced the town's budget deficit. She stressed that the town has cut expenditures significantly under her administration.
Belmont focused on his plans to restore Harrison's prominence among Westchester and New York State communities, a key issue for the Republican Party early in the campaign. The former recreation department supervisor also stressed that he has never been over budget in his 25 years running the department.
The candidates differed in their stance on Harrison's battle with illegal apartments, Walsh said she would focus on increasing fines and that she hopes to change the hours of "sweeps" for illegal apartments to the evening hours, but that it violates the current labor contract with building inspectors.
"Until we make it financially unhealthy for the landlords to rent those apartments they are going to do it," Walsh said.
Belmont said fighting the problem comes down to funding and that he would support paying town workers overtime to do "sweeps" in the evening hours, something Walsh has shied away from. The extra cost of overtime would be paid by the increased amount of fines and money saved in theft of services, Belmont said.
"Would you invest $300 in order to get $5,000 or $6,000 back?" Belmont asked the audience. "I know I would."
Other key differences emerged when the candidates were asked their stance on the structure of town board meetings. Belmont promised reform, saying the board meetings have gotten out of control and that this reflects poorly on the town. The challenger said he would support a more structured meeting style, comparing his vision to corporate board meetings.
"It's not an entertainment section, it's for knowledge of town government," Belmont said.
Walsh was less critical of the current meeting format, saying that it has been a Harrison tradition that people are afforded the right to speak. The incumbent went as far as to say that people she speaks with watch the meetings for entertainment and that the more people that watch the meetings, the better.
"You have the good and the bad," Walsh said. "The more people that watch the town board (meetings), the more people almost by osmosis, by direction, they learn what town government is all about."
Each candidate agreed that a village manager should be considered, but Belmont took things one step further, saying he would support bringing the idea to a vote if elected. It would require a town-wide referendum to create a town/village manager position.
"In my administration, everything will be considered," Belmont said.
Walsh said the town should study the issue, but said she is concerned about the failures of the town manager position in some surrounding communities.
"It could work well, it can be a disaster," she said.
Each candidate was asked one surprise question; Walsh was asked how she plans to fix Harrison's downtown area. She was asked to stay away from the MTA project, but focused on the project anyway, saying the town's hands are tied until the downtown atmosphere changes.
"I don't think anything can be done for the downtown business district," Walsh said flatly. "It is the MTA project that is going to cause the turnaround downtown."
Town Council Race
Council hopefuls were asked the same series of questions Wednesday. Although there was some alignment along party lines, there were a few surprises, especially on the topic of a town/village manager.
Malfitano, who was Harrison's supervisor for six years before the Walsh administration, said he wasn't opposed to a town manager, but that he too has concerns about adding the position. Sciliano called the idea a "double-edged sword" but sided with fellow Republican Belmont in calling for a town referendum.
Democrats shied away from supporting a referendum at this point. Hollander said he is lukewarm to the idea because a new manager would add, in his estimates, $150,000 to $200,000 to the town payroll.
"They don't come cheap, this is not a $5 an hour job," he said. "Can we afford it?"
Vetere, who was the only candidate to read prepared statements throughout the evening, said he isn't against the idea of a manger, but that he thinks Harrison residents like the idea of having a leader they can vote in and out of office every two years.
"If (voters) don't like you, or they don't like your policy, they like the ability to send you home," Vetere said.
Council candidates were somewhat aligned along party lines on the issue of town board meetings, with Republicans pushing more toward reform. Sciliano said he would support moving public comments to the end of the meeting, which he actually proposed earlier this year. Malfitano pointed toward the supervisor position itself, saying the supervisor needs to take better control of town meetings.
"I didn't have those problems when I was in office," Malfitano said. "It can be better and it should be better—we deserve better."
Vetere and Hollander, the Democrats, said there needs to be change in the meeting format, but Hollander was more outspoken. A union leader in the airline industry, Hollander said the town needs more strict rules of order and possible time limits during public participation.
As for individual ideas and platforms, Hollander positioned himself as a political outsider who hopes to bring new ideas to the town board. Vetere emphasized experience, saying he has worked with six administrations and that he has worked with leadership from both parties for the betterment of the town.
Maflitano stressed his commitment to Harrison, saying that he is returning to politics because his "experience, motivation and purpose" can change the negative publicity the town has received recently. Sciliano promoted his engineering and construction experience as a strength he brings to the board.