Column: City Council’s responsibility to protect

carey“Now is the winter of our discontent.” Shakespeare, Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 1.

My own discontent comes from doubt that the city is fulfilling its responsibility to protect.

For Snowbound Elderly and Infirm in Suburbs, This Winter Is a Season of Isolation, warned the New York Times in a headline on Feb. 15. And who in Rye has a list of names and addresses of the elderly and infirm? And who knows where you can go to get warm if your heat goes off, or where to get some bread and soup if you are out of food? Who knows where to get electricity if you need to plug-in some device in order to keep you going?

During one of the recent snowstorms, I looked at the city’s new red alert and elsewhere on the city’s web site, trying to find answers to some of these questions. I inquired of a high-ranking city official and was simply told we are lucky there have been no power outages.

Yes we are lucky, so far at least. But are we going to trust to luck, or will we take realistic precautions to be ready for emergencies?

If the city is not up to shouldering its responsibility to protect in emergencies, then private citizens will have to fill the gap. Fortunately, there is an organization, the Citizens Emergency Response Team—described in this paper a week ago—but it is just getting started and needs a lot of help.

While the city should not attempt to take over CERT, it might be a good idea for one member of the City Council to join the CERT board to assure liaison.

The City Council clearly bears a responsibility to protect towards its residents, but it also is responsible for protecting members of the city staff from errors that could harm them personally.

An instance of this came up at the council meeting of Feb. 5.

There was an agenda item on surplus city property. It is important to keep in mind city property belongs to the taxpayers and cannot be given away by city staff if it has any value.

If an item of city property is no longer needed, of course it can be disposed of. But it cannot validly be given away if it has any value, any more than money in a city bank account can be given away. This is most obvious when a recipient is an individual, but even if it is a municipality, a gift costs the taxpayers money. Surplus city property must be evaluated and full market value received for it. Or it can be sold at a duly advertised auction.

All this must be clearly understood by all members of the City Council, especially those who are lawyers. When they see a city staff member about to commit a questionable act, they should step in and look into it, protecting the staffer from the consequences of a costly mistake.

Misuse of public property for private parties must be avoided by the council, which is the highest level of the city government. There is public property at the corner of the Post Road and Central Avenue. Previous City Councils referred to it as a park, but now we find that it is to be used by a private party as a staging area during nearby construction.

The City Council has a responsibility to protect the environment. If one small piece of open land can be despoiled without regard to the environmental impacts, then larger and larger public parcels can also be lost as open space committed to the enjoyment of future generations. And entirely apart from the failure to assess the environmental impacts of the radical change of use from a park to a parking lot, there is the issue of public property being turned over to
private use.

It may be that city staff involved in such maneuvers fails to grasp the gravity of what is proposed or its
possible consequences for themselves. If so, they need the help of the City Council in order to see the situation more clearly. The Council has a responsibility to protect in this as in other situations. If the council sees city staff about to do something that could get them into trouble, it is up to the council to step in and help staff understand that we want our city, and all who act in its name, to play by the rules and stay out of trouble.

Let this “winter of our discontent” be blessed with the comforting warmth of compliance with the rule of law.