By LIZ BUTTON
More than 100 people filled the Rye Middle School multi-purpose room Wednesday night to watch the candidates for Rye City Council debate for the final time prior to Election Day.
After a relatively peaceful campaign spanning the last few months, the six hopefuls vying for three council spots had an hour to answer questions that covered such topics as the fate of Rye Golf Club, Sustainable Playland’s proposal to revamp the amusement park and the ongoing police union contract dispute with the city.
The theme of civility formed the basis of one of the night’s first questions; the topic has been a concern pervading Rye politics in recent years, most notably during the tenure of outgoing Republican Mayor Douglas French.
During the four years of the French administration, contentious City Council meetings have featured residents trading barbs with council members from the podium and elected officials sniping at each other on the dais.
The six council candidates, five of whom are newcomers to politics, have run a campaign that casts in sharp contrast to the spirited and occasionally nasty bouts of political bickering that have characterized the race between the two current councilmen vying for mayor.
Republican Councilman Joe Sack and Councilman Peter Jovanovich, a Republican running as an independent, have been at odds with each other over various issues during the last four years, and that longstanding animosity has spilled over into the campaign arena.
Sack has accused Jovanovich of ignoring potential embezzlement at the Rye Golf Club in the scandal’s early days, while Jovanovich has accused Sack of voting in an inexplicably contrarian fashion on basic city
issues like infrastructure and the library.
The only current council member running in this year’s City Council race is Julie Killian, a Republican who expressed disappointment in the conduct that has been displayed at council meetings.
Killian, who was appointed last June to fill the council position vacated by Suzanna Keith, and re-elected last November in an uncontested race, attributed her accomplishments over the last year in part to a respectful attitude toward her fellow council members.
“I feel like I have been very collegial among my council members and I have enjoyed meeting all my fellow friends that are running here,” Killian said. “I feel like I have gotten things done on council because of the way I am there.”
Killian, who is running on Sack’s Rye United ticket, was joined on the dais by Democrats Meg Cameron and Shari Punyon—the Democrats chose not to run a mayoral candidate this year.
Killian said she hopes Sack will not be afraid to use the gavel as mayor because those who approach the podium at meetings should be held to the regulation five minutes of speaking time and to a high standard of conduct.
“If someone does make a personal attack they should be stopped, whether that is a person on council or someone coming there to speak,” she said.
Also running on the Republican Rye United ticket are Terry McCartney and Kirstin Bucci, a registered Democrat.
Bucci said that, when it comes to the City Council, the important issue really comes down to respect.
“I think that we have all sat in rooms where people disagree with us, and I think sometimes the best ideas are born of disagreement. It is just a matter of how you handle the disagreement,” she said.
In his closing statement, non-affiliated candidate Jason Mehler, who is running on the Independence line, thanked his fellow candidates for running a civil campaign and for the night’s debate.
“I would like to thank all the candidates here tonight for running a respectful and positive campaign. It means a lot to me that that’s been done,” Mehler said.
The theme of respect was also reflected in a wide variety of topics, including a question about Sustainable Playland’s proposal that includes a controversial 95,000 square foot fieldhouse in the parking lot there, which abuts a residential area.
When candidates were asked whether they supported the non-profit’s plan, Punyon said the original picture that citizens and council people were presented with was not what the city now seemed to be in for, which is a greatly expanded plan that incldues a gigantic fieldhouse.
In the end, however, the real issue was that the current City Council did not pay adequate attention to the concerns of the smaller contingent of vocal citizens who first approached them with concerns about the SPI plan, Punyon said. Only after they were bombarded at the last council meeting on Oct. 23 by a swarm of residents who spoke out sharply against the proposal did they pledge their action and support.
“When those [first] citizens brought it forward, the City Council dismissed them,” she said. “The issue is that the City Council was not looking carefully enough to protect the citizens’ rights. Every backyard should be the City Council’s backyard. Every person in Rye deserves to have their interests paid attention to by the City Council. And that didn’t happen.”