By LIZ BUTTON
New Republican Mayor Joe Sack would like his administration to diverge sharply from what he sees as the obstructionist tenure of former Mayor Douglas French, beginning with improving communication within City Hall as well as to the public and furthering accessibility of information for council members.
During his inaugural State of the City address at the Jan. 8, 2014 City Council meeting, Sack laid out the objectives for his four-year term as mayor. The Jan. 8 meeting was the first Sack presided over after defeating fellow Republican Councilman Peter Jovanovich, French’s deputy mayor, in November’s mayoral election. Jovanovich ran for mayor as an independent candidate.
The Sack era will see the council handling issues with more urgency, promoting open communication and asking the critical questions, he said.
“These issues are not new,” Sack said. “These are the same issues that we’ve faced over the past few years. But what we can change is the way that we approach these issues.”
One communication-related issue that frustrated Sack while he was on the City Council, especially before the financial scandal at the city-run Rye Golf Club was exposed last fall, was what he saw as institutional difficulty, as well as pure stonewalling, by the French administration for council members who were interested in obtaining information about city issues.
Sack, in fact, said he had to file a Freedom of Information Law request in September 2012 to obtain information related to RM Staffing, one of the shell companies allegedly created by the club’s former manager to steal money from members. The move was seen as an unprecedented step for a sitting councilman.
Sack said he plans to change the charter so that the city manager is required to give a council member whatever information he or she requests in a timely manner.
He plans to change the section of the city charter that says that a council member may not meet with a department head directly, but must go through the city manager first. Currently, the city manager gets the information needed from department heads and supplies it back to councilpersons. Members of the council are not supposed to meet with department heads at all. Sack said changing the charter is something he would like to do first in order to facilitate all the objectives on which he hopes to make progress during his time as mayor.
“It was not the modus operandi for the past four years,” Sack said, for the French administration to make a great effort to expedite any council members’ requests for information.
Another instance of what he sees as poor communication and follow-up is the city’s discussion of affordable housing during the French administration.
“There had been next to zero communication from the former mayor to the council up until very recently,” he said.
French brought in a representative from the county Planning Department to speak before the City Council in December to speak about the North Street senior housing development in the works since 2005.
This attempt to address the issue and inform the public and the council on the city’s progress was too little, too late for Sack, who called it a “last ditch” effort by French.
In his first public address since his inauguration on Jan. 5, the new mayor said he plans to be more assertive in defining the city’s interests on the proposed senior affordable housing sites for North Street and Theodore Fremd and at 120 Old Post Road
The project is now in front of Rye’s planning commission, but, “Frankly,” Sack said, “it is not the job of the planning commission to build consensus,” but that of the council and the mayor.
To fill the vacuum regarding this issue, Sack said he will convene a special meeting of the City Council to specifically talk about these affordable housing projects.
“Otherwise, people are not going to be engaged and the council is not going to be informed of what the public really thinks,” he said.
The mayor said poor communication also affected the city in terms of the county’s initiative to reinvent Playland Amusement Park, which sits on the edge of a residential neighborhood in Rye.
Sack said the French administration, specifically the mayor and the city manager, failed to ask critical questions of Sustainable Playland, the non-profit the county chose for the project, and information fell through the cracks, specifically regarding the 95,000-square-foot field house to be built on the edge of the Playland parking lot, which abuts Rye homes.
“There is a distinct role for the city to play here. We shouldn’t be unthinking cheerleaders,” Sack said in his inaugural speech. “Nor should we be cantankerous obstructionists. We can and must facilitate the simple asking of questions and the provision of helpful answers.”
However, twice in 2012, Sack himself voted along with the rest of the City Council to pass a resolution of support for SPI, and although during his mayoral campaign, he expressed the need for more discussion and communication between all parties involved, he did not take an obvious stance on the issue.
One of Sack’s first actions as mayor was to reappoint the members of the Playland Advisory Committee and to add two new members who hail from Ryan Park, the neighborhood in question, Ken Ball and Mike Visci.
Re-energizing the committee is paramount to the fate of the Westchester landmark and its consequences to the city, Sack said. During his term, Sack said he will rely on the citizen’s advisory committee to inform the council as the plan passes through approval channels.
Other objectives Sack named in his speech include dealing with personnel issues that include searching for a new police commissioner and a new Rye Golf Club manager, and continuing to review the performance of City Manager Scott Pickup. Sack said it is also important the city move forward with infrastructure projects, including the MTA parking lot and renovations at the courthouse; and police complex the facilitation of a new police union contract this year; and a more aggressive pursuit of the claim the city filed with its insurance carrier to recoup money lost in last year’s financial scandal at the golf club.
“The city could have been more aggressive,” Sack said about pursuing the claim, and this is an initiative that should have come from the mayor.
“I think it is a good thing that we have two more lawyers [Terry McCartney and Richard Slack] on the council,” in addition to himself and Republican Councilwoman Laura Brett, who would have professional experience in expediting legal procedures related to insurance claims, Sack said.
In the end, Sack said he knows this new diverse, good-natured and collegial council will not just work hard, but will work together toward the best interest of Rye citizens, and in that endeavor, communication is key.