Last night was our first Village Board meeting of 2020. I shared the below remarks. Click here to view the meeting video.
It’s been over a month since I publicly announced I would not seek another term as mayor. My decision is guided by the needs of my family at this time. My sons will be headed to college before I know it, and I need to help prepare for that financially. I also need to be present in their lives in a different way during adolescence than when they were little kids.
If you imagined that I would be taking it easy during this lame duck year of my service as Mayor—let me dispel you of that misconception. There is important work to do. And more than any other time during my tenure in elected office, we have a team of local and appointed officials who are ready and willing to do great things together.
The turning of the calendar to a new year often inspires reflection. When I ran for mayor in 2014, I had three key goals:
- Improve the functionality of village government;
- Strengthen code enforcement, particularly to address unsafe overcrowded housing; and
- Re-image the heart of our downtown.
I am very pleased to report that we have made progress on each of these goals. Let’s review where we are, and where we are going.
We get a big check mark for improving the functionality of village government. Some of the evidence of that is seated right here. There are three positions that the BOT hires directly. Chief Sylvester, Corporation Counsel Kahan, and Manager D’Attore are a team of appointed officials who are dedicated to accomplishing their work with pride, dignity, competence, and vision worthy of the people of Ossining. It is largely because of this team’s ability to implement the big picture visions of the Board, that I am so confident in our ability to accomplish great things in 2020.
The other tremendous improvement in government function is in communication. Initiatives like weekly Open Office Hours with the Mayor, and the Monday Mayor’s Message email have been valuable tools in strengthening community connections. It’s hard to imagine that when I began as Mayor, we didn’t have a Constant Contact account. In fact, I was once told by a member of a previous village management team that we shouldn’t post on social media or email residents too often because then folks will come to expect you to communicate all the time. We have adopted a very different mindset since those days. And I want to give a shout out to Jaimie Hoffman who has been instrumental in creating our new website. Jaimie is also responsible for our new and improved Weekly WebBlast, and much of the email communication that comes from the village.
The progress we have made in our elected and appointed leadership impacts our ability to engender confidence beyond village borders. For years we have applied for grants, and all too often come up short. The grant money we sought is coming from taxes collected from residents across NYS and the US. The $3.69M we were awarded in December has come back to our community thanks to years of making the case that Ossining is a worthy and capable recipient that will make good use of funds for local infrastructure and economic development investment.
On the code enforcement front, we have made progress, but not nearly enough. Yet. When I began in elected office, village officials acknowledged only that there was “alleged” overcrowded housing in Ossining. By the time I ran for mayor and made it an issue, we were told, “Overcrowded housing is not unique to Ossining.” But there was still little action to address it. Trustee Quezada was one person who proposed recommendations for how to combat this challenge—and we have made progress in implementing them.
We have made updates to our local laws to give more tools to our code enforcement officers and building inspectors. We have hired more staff to be out in the field. This year, with the implementation of new software, I am optimistic that we will establish a landlord registry that will provide a foundation for improving our ability to enforce building codes. And we will accomplish it in a way that is not overly onerous to law abiding landlords. Manager D’Attore has also connected us with an individual who we are looking to bring to Ossining to help us turn our well-intentioned laws and policies, into effective action.
Re-imaging the heart of our downtown is the most exciting and highly visible of the goals. The tiniest grant award we received last month will be instrumental in facilitating this goal. One of the greatest obstacles to moving forward with a transformative plan for the five corners area is the need to provide parking for the businesses and residents who depend on the surface lots that resulted from the demolition of buildings during Urban Renewal over 40 years ago. A significant component of the Parking Feasibility and Planning Study will be to understand how best to create additional parking in the village lots that are bordered by Brandreth Street and Broadway, and bisected by the Aqueduct Trail. Expanding parking in this area will accommodate the current usage from the lots across the street. Shifting parking away from the surface lots will enable Ossining to reimagine the heart of our downtown, create a truly welcoming community gathering space, and restore the missing side of our Main Street.
Lastly, I’d like to speak about the job of being a local elected official. This is my eighth year in village government. Serving as Mayor is the most fulfilling and meaningful work I’ve ever experienced. Local government does important work that impacts the daily lives of our community, and sets the stage for generations to come.
I am excited for great things to happen in 2020. I have spoken with each Trustee. We are all the same page. I predict that 2020 will be a very productive year for village government. We have all that terrific staff in place that I referenced earlier. And we have five members of this Board who are excited to accomplish good things for Ossining.
Trustee Levin, thank you for being the hardest working trustee I have ever served with. Our weekly phone call has been a good way to strengthen our ability to work as a team. In a few moments I will reappoint Rika to serve as Deputy Mayor, extending our record as the only all-female mayor/deputy mayor team in Ossining history.
Trustee Quezada, you are also beginning your eighth year in elected office. Our professional relationship definitely wins the prize for greatest evolution. It wasn’t until you left the BOT for a year in 2018, that I realized how much I had come to appreciate working with you. Since your return two years ago I have been grateful again and again for your thoughtfulness, dedication and good humor.
Trustee Fritsche, our political careers are inextricably linked. I met you when you first ran for mayor in 2011. You ran on another party line, and thankfully Manny edged out a win. The next year you made a half-hearted effort to get the Democratic endorsement. Thankfully you didn’t try harder, and I got the nod that year. Since then you have been a regular presence in village meetings, and served on our ZBA. It is fitting that my last year on the Board is your first.
Trustee Lopez, how fortunate that the New York Times chose you and your lovely wife as the subject of a story highlighting people moving out of the city. Our connection began when I reached out to you via Facebook message, and you responded by joining me on one of my Weekly Walks in 2017. You have jumped into your new community with two feet. And I’m looking forward to seeing all that you will contribute.
And most importantly, though we will not agree on every issue, all five of us recognize that our top priority as elected officials is to serve the best interests of the people of Ossining. None of us gets paid a living wage to do this work. We get a stipend. We do this job because we want to serve our community. I have experienced my whole tenure as Mayor in the Facebook age. Like any powerful force—with great power comes great responsibility. Social media can be a tremendous tool for democracy when it is used to share valuable information, connect people, and organize constructive action.
Unfortunately, social media can also foster anger, and rampant misinformation enabled by the phenomenon known as keyboard courage. Combine this with a national atmosphere of unbridled disrespect for government, and we have a culture that undermines the wellbeing of the whole community. Even in a community with residents as generous and engaged as Ossining, it is difficult to find candidates who are willing to subject themselves to the frequent nastiness on Facebook and angry in-person statements that malign and disparage the personal character of village officials.
I have two asks of you, the people of Ossining.
- Get involved in the community off-line.
- Treat village officials as you wish to be treated.
If you are not already serving on a village board or committee, I encourage you to visit our website and click on the “Get Involved” icon. We are announcing and voting on several appointments tonight, but there are still some openings where we need volunteers—particularly on the Ossining Arts Project and on the Landlord Tenant Relations Council where we are looking for at least one tenant representative and one person who is neither a tenant nor landlord.
I can say confidently, every member of this Board, as well as village staff, wants to do our best to serve you. So when you express you concerns, I ask that you begin with an assumption of our best intentions. In an era where keyboard courage can rouse online ire, a legitimate concern can be overshadowed by other agendas. I realize I am asking the people of Ossining to conduct themselves with greater civility and kindness than has become the norm in much of our culture. And I do so, knowing that we are up to the task. Adopting a mindset that assumes the best intention of the person you are addressing, even if they appear to be your adversary, will result in a community where more people will be willing and eager to serve in elected office.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your Mayor. I am excited for all that we will accomplish together in 2020.