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Suozzi and Meli Head to Head on ‘Big Decisions’

Paul Meli

Question:

There are some major development projects in the City of Glen Cove that are either under way or under review by the city government. The city administration has also been creating new ordinances and departments. What is the process for major decisions within the city - whether building projects or the creation of new ordinances and city charter amendments? What are the key boards or groups within the city who help make the decisions and how are they populated in order to represent voters’ interests? Is the overall process a good one / have the results been positive?

Answer:

There are a number of questions here, proper answers to which could easily consume 10 times the 500 words I have been allotted. Whether we are talking about the way in which we amend our charter, however, or the manner in which members of our agencies and boards are appointed, the fact is that these processes do not always work because they are not completely open, or because our elected officials are often more concerned with maintaining their influence than with complying with the spirit of our laws.

Let me start out by praising those volunteers who have given so many hours of their time in service to our city, sitting on its numerous boards and agencies, their efforts often unknown or unappreciated. I am positive, however, that, if given the opportunity to serve, many more within our community would gladly and ably do so. It is, indeed, the very refusal to open up such opportunities to the broader public to which I have long objected, and which often gives rise to public skepticism as to the work of these bodies.

Of particular note and relevance are our Planning Board (“Board”) and Industrial Development Agency (“IDA”). The Board passes on most major developments, and is also the lead agency for review of the waterfront project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The charter says that the Board’s seven members are to serve no more than two consecutive 3-year terms. Three current members, however, have stayed far longer than permitted, and, thus, serve at the pleasure of the mayor, subject to removal whenever they might displease him, or a developer he might favor.

The mayor has responded to requests to replace these “holdovers,” by saying that he is “pleased” with the work they are doing. The obvious intent of the charter, however, is to ensure that the Board members serve us, rather than worry about making the mayor happy.

The mayor and council have also kept membership in our IDA “close to the vest,” usually filling only four or five of its seven potential seats, refusing to open up vacancies to the public, and summarily removing those who the mayor unilaterally deems to have an “agenda.” This, of course ensures that the mayor is, himself, elected chairman of an agency that will largely determine the size and direction of our waterfront project, and which also grants much sought after tax abatements, or PILOTs, to developers.

When it comes to our city charter, it is clear that amendments thereto are too easily and casually made. It is, after all, the very framework of our city government, and shouldn’t be changed to accommodate particular individuals or political agendas. The present administration, however, has made numerous piecemeal, reactive and expedient changes to the charter, including:

• moving the budget approval date from early to late October (making it less likely that voters will know of tax increases by Election Day);

• creating a Department of Code Enforcement on the eve of the 2009 election, only to leave the director’s position vacant and to not even thereafter fund it; and

• doing away with a cap on the number of police sergeants and lieutenants, enabling numerous promotions, but leaving our police department somewhat top heavy.

It can never be forgotten that a good government serves its citizens, not its officials. It welcomes, embraces and thrives upon the broadest scrutiny and participation of our residents. It is, after all, our city, and our government.

Mayor Ralph V. Suozzi

Question:

There are some major development projects in the City of Glen Cove that are either under way or under review by the city government. The city administration has also been creating new ordinances and departments. What is the process for major decisions within the city - whether building projects or the creation of new ordinances and city charter amendments? What are the key boards or groups within the city who help make the decisions and how are they populated in order to represent voters’ interests? Is the overall process a good one / have the results been positive?

Answer:

The process for any major decision is a public one, much of it mandated by law and during my tenure made more transparent with additional public hearings and input.

Since my administration started in 2006 we’ve held over 509 public meetings, including more than 214 public hearings, giving residents the opportunity to listen, learn, comment on, and participate in the many discussions and decisions of our city.

Ordinances and City Charter amendments, the responsibility of the City Council, are voted on after public comments and questions at City Council meetings. All City Council meetings are preceded by pre-Council meetings – also open to the public — where resolutions are fully discussed and vetted.

Changes to local laws or ordinances are discussed in public hearings, the dates of which are advertised in the local papers as required by NYS Law. Most hearings remain open for discussion for at least two City Council meetings but some, changing a parking sign for example, can be closed in one evening. Since taking office, I’ve worked to ensure the public has ample opportunity to comment and contribute to City decisions. For example, prior to my administration, budgets were discussed and voted on for adoption on the same evening. Since taking office in 2006, I’ve required a minimum of two public hearings prior to a City budget adoption. In 2009, via a series of public hearings and a vote of the City Council, the City Charter was amended to make that practice law. In the five budgets I’ve passed, we’ve held 10 public hearings and four additional public work sessions.

In addition, there are 20 boards and commissions, some of them, such as the Planning and Zoning Boards, are mandated by NYS Law while others, the Beautification Commission for example, are unique to our City. All boards and groups are populated by unpaid community volunteers. Individuals are chosen based on their particular area of interest, experience, or knowledge. They often work many long hours representing the community and public interests.

Boards have to act within strict legal guidelines determined by NYS Law. The Planning and Zoning Boards in particular are assisted by a City Attorney with specific knowledge and expertise in NYS land use regulations including the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR), which discusses potential environmental impacts on any actions before them and encourages communication among government agencies, project sponsors, and the public during the planning process. Boards hire outside consultants— paid for by the project sponsor, not the public — to analyze and review all pertinent data relative to the environment and all technical aspects to assist the boards and the public in its review, fact finding, and decision making process. Combined, these laws and processes protect the public interests and ensure a full, robust, and public review prior to any decisions.

The process for making major decisions is comprehensive, defined by law and regulatory agencies, and transparent to the public. It’s further enhanced by the selection of dedicated, unpaid, qualified volunteers who devote great amounts of personal time and energy and where applicable, guided by able professionals, allowing them to serve their community with positive outcomes.

I invite all Glen Cove residents to come to our public meetings and get involved in shaping the future of our City. Please check our city website and local newspapers for dates, or call City Hall at 676-2000 for further information.