French legacy: Controversy, financial stability

Republican Mayor Douglas French left office on Dec. 31, 2013, and new Republican Mayor Joe Sack was sworn in to replace him. While French’s term saw some controversy, the former mayor said he left the city in a healthy financial position after steering it through two storms and a recession. File photo

Republican Mayor Douglas French left office on Dec. 31, 2013, and new Republican Mayor Joe Sack was sworn in to replace him. While French’s term saw some controversy, the former mayor said he left the city in a healthy financial position after steering it through two storms and a recession. File photo

By LIZ BUTTON
While former Republican Mayor Douglas French followed through on promises to bring a private sector-like approach to city governance, selling 1037 Boston Post Road and stemming the tide of rising taxes, his legacy may ultimately be intertwined with significant controversy, including the uncovering of the largest financial scandal in city history.

In a December interview, French told the Rye City Review he is not afraid that his legacy will be defined by the Rye Golf Club financial scandal, which he termed the city’s Bernie Madoff moment.

“It was a major problem that came up during my administration and we solved it. That is the nature of the business,” he said. “Even though it took a scandal to get us in the right direction, [the city is going] in the right direction,” French said.

French completed his term on Dec. 31, 2013, four years after he swept into the City of Rye’s highest elected office armed with an ambitious agenda and buoyed by avid supporters from both political parties.

During his term, French led Rye through the chaos of two major storms, in 2011 and 2012, and the fallout of the 2008 economic recession. The city has a 2014 budget surplus of $6.2 million as of press time, and residents enjoyed an approximate 8 percent cumulative property tax rate increase during French’s four years in office.

French, 50, announced in April 2013 that he would not seek another four-year term due to the time demands of his professional career as a marketing executive. Rye’s new mayor, longtime French adversary Republican Councilman Joe Sack, an attorney, was officially sworn in during a private ceremony on Jan. 1.

French’s administration enjoyed initial popularity after he unseated three-term Democratic Mayor Steve Otis in 2009, but, in the latter half of his term, City Council meetings saw an increase in criticism, both external and internal, directed at French and his administration.

French campaigned on a promise to keep property taxes low. This was a welcome message to many of Rye’s wealthy citizens, some of whom were uncertain of their financial futures.

During the 2009 election season, residents struggled through the lowest point of the recession‑which began with a housing market crash in 2008‑and those who never had to worry about job security before were being laid off. Others lost their 401Ks and faced drops in net worth.

“We had everything going against us in this economy,” French said, pointing to higher taxes from dramatically rising labor costs, healthcare and pension costs.

Before French took office, the city was faced with the financial burden of former Mayor Otis’ purchase of the Lester’s building at 1037 Boston Post Road for $6.2 million in 2006. After scrapping Otis’s plans to turn the property into a new police station and court facility due to prohibitive costs, the French administration turned its sights to selling the building and putting it back on the city’s property tax rolls to generate revenue.

As the recession eased, the city was able to sell the Lester’s property to Bill Wolf Petroleum for $5.6 million in March 2013, a sale that helped the city rebuild its reserves.

“Our goal,” French said, “was to put ourselves in the position to then fund [these savings] back into the infrastructure.”

But after two years of relatively smooth sailing in the sea of popular opinion, French’s term became rocky in late 2011 when it was revealed he double-dipped on his STAR tax exemption from 2001 to 2010 for both his primary home at 46 Meadow Place and a rental property he owned at 13 Richard Place.

In 2000, French and his family moved from their 13 Richard Pl. residence, which they continued to rent out.

The STAR, or New York State School Tax Relief program, reimburses districts for a portion of school taxes levied on owner-occupied residences, but exemptions are only available on a primary owner-occupied residence.

French would soon renounce the STAR tax exemption and repay $16,894 to the state.

French ran into further personal turmoil when it was revealed at the end of 2011 that he had been issued building violations for renovations made to his Richard Place property.

The mayor would defend the renovations in question, stating they were done in 1972, 20 years before his family bought the Richard Place property and, while these features may not have been violations at that time, he would complete the legalization process.

The matter was reviewed by the city’s Ethics Board in January 2012 after claims from Ray Tartaglione, a longstanding critic of French’s administration, the mayor received preferential treatment from city staff. The board ultimately ruled the claims were unfounded.

The new year would also set the stage for what was the mayor’s most trying time in office.

On the political side, French’s time in office got bumpier when former Councilwoman Suzanna Keith, a Republican who was elected alongside French in 2009, announced in February 2012, two years into her term, that she was moving to Texas. At that point, French enjoyed a voting bloc with Keith and fellow Republican councilmen Richard Filippi and Peter Jovanovich,, but Keith’s appointed replacement—Councilwoman Julie Killian, a Republican, who recently won re-election—did not always vote with the group.

French said this change in the composition of the council served to complicate matters of city business going forward over the next two years.

Future complications ensued due to, he said, a growing trend of community members attacking individual council people on issues of personal credibility at City Council meetings.

French campaigned on the promise to change the tone and tenor of City Council meetings, but discord rose to new heights during the latter half of his term, prompting calls for civility from the public.

“The first two years it went great. The first two years we ran it more like a corporation, but the last two years it became political.”

Beginning in 2012, City Council meetings saw French routinely spar with Sack about a variety of issues, including City Manager Scott Pickup’s and the mayor’s handling of the financial scandal at Rye Golf Club.Sack and French also butted heads over a controversy that broke in early 2012 in which an employee of Rye TV, Andrew Dapolite, charged he was instructed to lie by City Manager Scott Pickup and Nicole Levitsky, Rye TV access coordinator, to hide the existence of a taped City Council workshop concerning restructuring the hierarchy of the Rye Fire Department.

But the city and the mayor took the most flack from the public for failing to identify earlier that the manager of the city-run Rye Golf Club was allegedly defrauding members for years.

Former club manager Scott Yandrasevich allegedly submitted fraudulent purchase orders to the city through shell staffing companies he created, mainly RM Staffing.

Since becoming city manager in 2010, Pickup signed off on more than half of the approximately $7 million in purchase orders Yandrasevich submitted, although the fraud allegedly started as early as 2006, according to the law firm the city hired to investigate the allegations. As such, Pickup was most criticized since Yandrasevich reported to him. This prompted calls from some in the community for Pickup’s removal and two votes of no confidence, one from the Rye Golf Club Commission.

If the next City Council chooses to remove Pickup from his position, French said, that is its prerogative, but he hopes the council will give the city manager at least another six months to be evaluated. French also campaigned on solidifying the city manager position for the long-term future of Rye. To that end, he promoted Pickup to the position from his assistant city manager role shortly after taking office in 2010.

There were other challenges during French’s tenure.

Adding to the city’s monetary and infrastructure challenges, the east coast was rocked in 2011 by Tropical Storm Irene and again in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy, shedding light on sizeable gaps in the city’s emergency management systems.

Currently, French said, the city is in the process of switching to Code Red smart technology so people get alerts on their smart devices. The city is also working to more closely coordinate city and school emergency protocols.

Toward the latter stages of his tenure, French’s administration also saw the completion of the Bowman Avenue sluice gate, a mechanical gate used to control flooding, as well as the reconstruction of the Central Avenue Bridge and the successful passage of a $1.8 million infrastructure public bond in 2012 to improve city sidewalks, roads, sewers and flood mitigation.

Now that he has stepped away from the political spotlight, French said he will continue to be involved in the community, whether that means joining or leading a local committee on an issue that is meaningful to him, or continuing his 25 years of public service on boards or commissions at the state or county level.

Unlike his mayoral predecessor Otis, who left the spotlight for three years before launching a successful campaign for a seat in the state Assembly in 2012, French has rejected the idea of running for higher office, which he said would make it tough to maintain a healthy balance of work and his personal time. In French’s view, four years was enough.

Contact: liz@hometown.com