By PHIL NOBILE
A recent review of Democratic mayoral candidate Joan Walsh’s campaign practices found multiple instances of her campaign’s literature to be unfair. The report by the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee was released publicly on Oct. 23.
The investigation into Walsh’s campaign practices came after incumbent Mayor Ron Belmont, a Republican, filed grievances against Walsh and the Joan Walsh Team. The county committee, which is based in Larchmont and consists of community leaders who serve as unpaid volunteers, came to a decision regarding four complaints filed on behalf of Belmont, finding three-out-of-four to be “unfair.”
“The stuff that was coming out was untrue and misleading,” Belmont told The Harrison Review this week.
In the official filing, Belmont complained of the wording in Walsh’s campaign literature given out to the public dealing with the MTA project, which has been a hot-button issue in town during the campaign season.
The Walsh literature that was ruled unfair states, “…what happened to the proposed MTA development in the Halstead Avenue commuter lots? The proposal went out to bid in fall 2011. Builders sent in bids. Who won the bid? What modifications were agreed to? When will construction start? When will the tax dollars start coming in?….Why haven’t there been updates by the town board?”
Due to a confidentiality agreement between the town and MTA, Belmont argued that both himself and the Town Council were unable to update the public about the progress being made on the project. The committee agreed and stated that Walsh, a former town mayor, was aware of the confidentiality agreement restricting the mayor and the Town Council from discussing updates. The ruling concluded Walsh knew this because of her status as a signatory to the same agreement during her years in office prior to Belmont.
“Anyone that’s asked me, I’ve said more than I was supposed to,” Belmont said. “I’ve told business owners in town and I’ve told them we’re moving in the right direction and it looks good, and that’s all I can say. It’s just a matter of time.”
When asked if she would change her campaign literature as a result of the report, Walsh said no and expressed complete disagreement with the committee’s findings. Walsh said her literature was used to notify people of the project who may not have known about it.
“Many people in town don’t know what the project is, because it’s been going on for seven years,” Walsh said. “The reason for the questions was so people would know what we were talking about.”
Walsh expressed further frustration regarding the handling of the MTA project by the Belmont administration.
“The developer for the project was chosen in fall 2011,” Walsh said. “How many projects really take this long from where you get the bids back and there is some decision? I think you owe the town an update as it makes a major difference in the downtown area. The committee decided that confidentiality trumped that.”
The committee has no power to stop or discipline candidates and their potential falsehoods, but instead “encourages candidates to conduct campaigns openly and fairly, to discuss issues, to refrain from dishonest and defamatory attacks, and not to use campaign materials that distort the facts.”
The only actions the committee takes are releasing their findings to the public.
Suzan Schwarz, chairwoman of the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee, said unfairness is determined on the basis of misleading or misinformation, and that the committee hopes all practices deemed so will be changed.
“We ask that it be corrected,” Schwarz said. “All we have is the press and the backing of the parties and we hope they’ll spread the word about what makes a good campaign.”
Another complaint filed by Belmont against Walsh ultimately deemed unfair was regarding new bonds purchased by the town. Walsh’s campaign literature states “new bonds mean increasing interest payments and increased taxes,” which the committee declared unfair because “new bonds do not necessarily mean higher taxes, particularly in a case such as this that includes opportunities to refinance existing bonds with overall lower interest rates,” according to the report.
Not all of Belmont’s grievances were successful, though.
Belmont’s claim that Walsh exaggerated the town’s debt figures was deemed inconclusive by the committee.
Belmont complained that the number thrown out in Walsh’s literature, $71.3 million to describe the debt the town has acrued, differs from the actual number of $64.7 million which the town owes in outstanding debt. The committee ultimately said that the figures from both parties did not prove fair or unfair because it wasn’t “false or misleading enough to make a finding,” according to Schwarz. “You can crunch numbers in different ways,” the committee chairwoman said. “It wasn’t up to the level of fair or unfair that we demand.”
According to Walsh, her numbers took into account increased interest and taxes accrued over time, while Mayor Belmont said he didn’t think the committee “understood exactly where we were trying to go” with the complaint.
Walsh planned to submit her own complaint to the committee regarding tactics used by the Belmont campaign concerning billboard signage conflicts in downtown Harrison and the Silver Lake area but decided against doing so because the committee only accepts complaints pertaining to mailings and advertisements.