By LIZ BUTTON
The financial scandal at the Rye Golf Club uncovered last year was the presiding theme at Monday night’s mayoral candidates debate at The Osborn. Each candidate discussed the importance of blame versus accountability, trying to establish themselves as the most viable choice to plot a course for the city over the next four years.
But the focus quickly turned to independent Peter
Jovanovich and Republican Joe Sack battling over contrasting visions for a post-Rye Golf Club scandal city.
Joining Sack and Jovanovich in the debate was embattled co-CEO of Archie Comics Nancy Silberkleit, who is running an independent.
The tone of the debate was set early with Jovanovich attacking Sack in his opening remarks for voting down a key city infrastructure initiative. Later, Jovanovich characterized Sack as “Inspector Javert,” a reference to the police officer obsessed with catching convict Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.” Jovanovich went on to mock what he sees as Sack’s unhealthy zeal in investigating potential corruption.
But Sack shot back, portraying Jovanovich as an out-of-touch elitist who was reluctant to even admit there might be suspicious goings-on at the golf club.
Sack and Jovanovich also dueled over the fate of City Manager Scott Pickup, disputing the significance of Pickup’s signature on the majority of fraudulent purchase orders submitted by former golf club manager Scott Yandrasevich through fake staffing companies he created.
For years, Yandrasevich allegedly bilked the golf club out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of member dues. This was allowed to continue due to what some on the City Council and in the community suspect was the city manager’s insufficient scrutiny of purchase orders as well as a lack of action by both the city manager and City Council after a 2010 audit identified discrepancies in the club’s accounts.
Jovanovich, who was elected in 2009 and later appointed deputy mayor by Republican Mayor Douglas French, attributed the key reason for failure to a lack of city staffing, which led to a lapse in oversight.
To cut costs, the city laid off 24 employees during the recession, reducing the staff headcount from 175 to 151. The cuts eliminated the position of assistant city manager in the process. All this contributed to the current barebones nature of staffing in city departments setting the stage for the golf club debacle, according to Jovanovich.
“We need to build up City Hall to make sure something like this never happens again,” he said.
But Sack, a city councilman since 2008, said the problem was not slimmed-down staffing, but a failure of the people, like Pickup, holding key city positions.
“If the people who worked there already did their jobs,” the scandal would not have happened in the first place, he said.
Sack said financial checks and balances at the golf club are absolutely necessary because of a lack of scrutiny by the city manager, allowing for the former club manager to perpetrate alleged fraud right under Pickup’s nose.
“Mismanagement is one thing, telling the truth is where I have to draw the line,” Sack said.
Last fall, Pickup told the golf commission he believed Yandrasevich’s RM Staffing company was vetted and above board, Sack said.
Jovanovich encouraged voters, about 70 of which attended the debate, to examine Sack’s political record. Jovanovich said Sack himself was one of Pickup’s biggest supporters before issues at the golf club surfaced.
According to Jovanovich, Sack only “jumped on the bandwagon” once the scandal came to light in 2012. From the beginning of his tenure as a City Council liaison to the golf commission in 2008, Jovanovich said, Sack shirked his duties and was scarcely seen at commission meetings until 2010 and, when he did show up, he praised Yandrasevich’s work.
But Sack, a practicing attorney, countered that.
He said Jovanovich initially didn’t think the golf club scandal was a scandal at all based on evidence from emails exchanged between Jovanovich, Sack and the rest of the City Council last fall, when information was just beginning to trickle out about the real reason the club was losing money.
Pickup did not respond to that email, Sack said, forcing him to file a Freedom of Information Law request with the city to get access to public records he was seeking, an unprecedented move for a sitting councilman.
In an email at the time, Jovanovich called the golf club matter “a faux cause célèbre” or a fake controversy manufactured to attract public attention.
“[Jovanovich] could not have been more wrong,” Sack said. “The city manager could not have been more wrong. And I’m going to hold people accountable for what they have done.”
In the end, Jovanovich said, “I think the point of all this is none of us is actually going to get off scot-free with this, all of us share some responsibility.”
If elected mayor, Jovanovich said he would focus on what he deems the most important issue of the day in Rye.
“The skyrocketing cost of [city] employee healthcare costs and pension costs,” which are driving taxes up and making it more difficult to provide services. Healthcare costs have gone up 35 percent over the last five years in Rye and increased sharply across the country, according to the deputy mayor.
To this end, Jovanovich also advocated for a fair, yet quick, resolution to the police contract negotiations. The union’s last contract expired in 2008.
Jovanovich, who runs the Alfred Harcourt Foundation, said that, as mayor, he would also champion important infrastructure issues in Rye that need further investment, such as roads and sidewalks. He thanked voters for passing a $1.7 million infrastructure bond in November 2012, which Sack voted down.
In his closing statement, Sack accused Jovanovich of disseminating misleading half-truths about him in order “to distract from his own record, which may be lacking.” He pointed out that he too has pushed for a fair police contract, but Jovanovich is unwilling to work with the other side.
All the while, Silberkleit was largely left uninvolved in the back-and-forth between the sitting councilmen.
Silberkleit, at one time a registered Democrat who said she has voted for Republican candidates, emphasized she would bring a set of “fresh eyes” to the position due to her lack of political experience.
Silberkleit said that she has many creative ideas for generating more revenue for the city, like a fundraiser that would allow residents to buy and personalize bricks to be placed in a brick walkway in town. She also said she has listened to residents about the 95,000-square foot fieldhouse proposed by Sustainable Playland that would abut a residential neighborhood, and, she said, if elected, she would work to come to a resolution on that.
Regarding the ongoing issues at the golf club, Silberkleit said she is ready to work with the golf commission, which represents the members, as well as with the City Council, to figure out the best path forward.
“We have to move on, but make sure we are going to always move on in a transparent way so that the people of Rye are not guessing what’s happening, why did this happen,” she said.
The mayoral candidates will debate one final time at Rye Middle School on Wednesday, Oct. 30.