All three candidates for the Great Neck Park District Board of Commissioners agreed to sit down separately and in person to talk with the Record in an open-ended, unstructured conversation with no advance questions or restraints. We started all the interviews with a query about what would propel an individual to endure the vicissitudes of a campaign to attain a position that while vitally important to the greater community is fraught with challenges aplenty.
Ivar Segalowitz welcomed this reporter into his orderly home office that is reflective of his organizational methods and analytical mind. If one were playing What's My Line? with these visual clues one might guess that Mr. Segalowitz has been trained as an engineer. Neat stacks of papers are lined up on working surfaces so that his many ongoing projects are visible to him and easily accessible. He had prepared for my visit thoroughly and by anticipating potential areas of questioning was able to refer to back-up documents without hesitation. With two years as commissioner under his belt, Mr. Segalowitz is in the middle of a number of projects that he wants to see to completion; he has ideas for the future of the parks; an athletic man, he has hit his stride.
Shelia Penn joined the reporter at the Seven Seas Diner, a place where diners can dawdle over breakfast with unlimited refills of coffee supplied by a patient wait staff. Ms. Penn, generally unruffled in demeanor, was after the initial pleasantries, quite upset about an anonymous letter she had just received in which the writer had urged her to withdraw from the race, essentially claiming that she would be a spoiler, taking votes from Mr. Segalowitz, and referring to the third candidate, Mr. Plakstis, as an anti-Semite. But whoever sent that letter to Ms. Penn evidently does not know her very well as such tactics only added starch to her resolve to move forward with her low-key, dignified campaign. When asked about why she was running, Ms. Penn, a great admirer of the parks, said that she had given thought to running in the past, but one morning "just woke up with the firm decision to run." Despite some original misgivings from her husband, Murray, she has garnered his full support.
Ray Plakstis, Jr. along with his wife, Donna, met this reporter in the home of one of his supporters on the late side one evening. With two young sons and an assortment of pets at the Plakstis home, it was decided that perhaps it might be easier to hold a conversation in another household with fewer distractions. Mr. Plakstis had spent most of the day doing all the prep work necessary to have Santa and his sleigh in its usual spot on the Village Green. He wanted to pay homage to the man who worked every year to get Santa in place, the well-known and liked Alexander Wesey who had just died and whose funeral procession would be passing by the park. "I just thought it would be a nice tribute for Santa to be there when the hearse went by," he said. Mr. Plakstis says that he got concerned about the changes at the park district when he learned that a horticulturist was being hired. He said, "We've had beautiful parks for almost 100 years with employees doing the plantings...then I started to look into more situations that bothered me...finally I decided to run." From his years of owning a business on Steamboat Road, having lived in Great Neck most of his life and from being a volunteer firefighter, Mr. Plakstis says that he knows most of the park district employees and sees the behind-the-scenes workings up close and has a practical knowledge of the parks.
Ms. Penn has not been critical of the park district and its management. She says, "I know it's a big job and I'm not so great at budgets, but I'm a good learner. I love the parks and think that they're wonderful. I'm not putting Ivar down, but I do think it would be nice to have two women on the board for a change." Ms. Penn believes in constructive criticism and she would like to see more programs run jointly by the park district and the senior center.
She is well-known for her unflagging devotion to the support and training for people with developmental disabilities. Ms. Penn is justifiably proud of her grown son, Steven who, in spite of his disabilities, holds down two jobs, one with Great Neck Plaza and another at the Squire movie theatre. She was insistent that when he was in high school that he learn a trade, which resulted in his learning horticulture at BOCES. Smiling she says, "He is the most dependable employee anyone could want to have. He never misses work."
Ms. Penn thinks there is a need for the park district to provide more activities and programs for developmentally disabled people as they age. If elected commissioner she says, "I would work really hard."
She attended the recent lengthy and at times clamorous public hearings on the park district budget and concluded, "What's the commotion all about? I thought the commissioners explained everything very well."
Since there was much criticism directed during the budget hearings about the number of people working in the "finance" category, we questioned Mr. Segalowitz about those nine people. According to Mr. Segalowitz, there is a full-time finance director; one person who comes in for a few hours a week to handle the paperwork involved with the benefits packages; a principal account clerk who is full-time; an accounts payable person who oversees and checks the flow of work associated with bill paying from reviewing requisition orders to obtaining sign-offs from supervisors that invoices are in order, to superintendent review to cutting the check and the final signing which is done by two commissioners; before the new money management computer program was in place, summer interns were hired to generate special financial reports, such as the tax history, appropriations history and mandated cost increases; at times account temps; an office assistant and an independent auditor who usually comes in once a year to review the books. Mr. Segalowitz says that during the busy summer season when there are more seasonal employees, the park district may have had as many as 4.5 positions filled, but that with better computerization, the goal is to have 3.5 employees fulfilling the business transactions for the district.
One of Mr. Segalowitz's last campaign promises was to work on cutting electric costs through the installation of a cogeneration system at Parkwood. He explained that although it is counterintuitive, an ice rink needs heat to function properly. Excess heat from the generator is used to dehumidify the rink, which can become quite foggy. The rink, which is not heated, gets bitterly cold for spectators and the new system is expected to heat the air just enough so that it will be more comfortable for people on the bleachers. The Zamboni uses hot water on the rink that melts the thin upper level of ice so that it will be smooth enough for skating; it will receive its hot water from the generator. The plant and absorption chillers will run on natural gas. As an added bonus, the pool could be heated by this system and it might be possible to extend the season. The projected cost for electricity in the 2006 budget is $64,700 less than the cost in 2005; it is expected that in the 17th year of the low-interest guaranteed loan, the district will be in the black and the savings will more than offset the cost of the plant and the upgraded equipment. The savings are supposed to remain constant at $114,000 a year.
Mr. Plakstis is skeptical of the long-run-projected costs of the cogeneration installation at Parkwood because he thinks that the conversion to natural gas may prove to be just as costly as electricity. He thinks that the size of the project is too small to produce much savings. While he agrees that alternatives to electricity should be explored, he thinks that the roof at Parkwood might be ideal for solar panels. From his experience as a service station owner, he is also familiar with the possibility of grants from the Department of Energy/Clean Cities program. He is also critical of the work being done at the installation site saying that due to an engineering error, a trench had to be re-dug and that as a result, sand has been tracked and embedded onto the ice from outside.
Mr. Segalowitz points to the improvements that have already been made through the repair bond such as restoring and making Great Neck House handicapped accessible and the improvements in the drainage/watering system at the Allenwood Park. Mr. Plakstis counters that the district has too many projects going on at one time and that the supervision is stretched too thin. He thinks that too much focus is going toward making the system top heavy with management. He says, "It's not run like a park anymore ... it's run like a business."
Mr. Segalowitz says that the district reaches out to include the public in the decision-making process and notes all of the public meetings that have been held just in relation to the pool. Mr. Plakstis says that when the district holds budget-work-session meetings at 9 a.m. that excludes people who are not retired or who do not have flexible schedules.
On the matter of the proposed Master Plan for the Village Green, there has been sharp disagreement between these two candidates. Mr. Segalowitz says that there are no plans to destroy the war memorial, but rather to move the viewing stand and alter the memorial to make it more prominent. He says that Commissioner Bob Lincoln is working with veteran groups to come up with an acceptable plan. Mr. Segalowitz, a Korean vet, is quite indignant that anyone would believe that the park district wants to make any alternations that would dishonor the vets.
The consulting firm, Andropogon Associates, that drew up the Master Plan did suggest relocating the rose bushes currently in the Rose Garden and restoring the garden to the original plan devised by Beatrix Farrand, but again, the commissioners are conferring with the Great Neck Garden Club members, some of whom were a bit perturbed by the consultants' suggestion.
Mr. Plakstis says that once there was a fountain where the circular flowerbed is located and that he believes that the piping is still there and could be reclaimed for much less money than the $100,000 the consultants estimated.
In Mr. Plakstis's statement in the Nov. 24 issue in the Record, he stated that the district has paid "$500,000 to consultants." Mr. Segalowitz says that in over a three-year period, the district paid out $350,000 to consultants. Further, he noted that consultants are used to provide expertise in exploratory situations such as surveying the community about needs and wants, the concept of winterizing the breezeway at Parkwood or looking at the alternatives for the pool. Another category of consultants are the professional engineers who design projects, draw up engineering plans and develop bid documents for jobs such as the Allenwood Park restoration project.
Due to a story circulating in the community in the past weeks about Mr. Plakstis, the Record spoke with an official of the 8th Battalion who said that we could ask five questions. The official stated that Mr. Plakstis served as treasurer for the battalion at the time when he was chief of the Alert Fire Department. The official stated that Mr. Plakstis "took over $5,000 from the treasury...that because of a system of checks and balances, it was discovered within a five-day period of time...that no charges were brought...he was asked to leave...that the money was repaid by a consortium of individuals." However, the official was not sure of the dates and would give no further information.
We asked Mr. Plakstis about the charges and he responded that he was a "ceremonial treasurer" who was not authorized to sign checks and had no control over funds. He did not specifically dispute the charge otherwise except to say that he decided it was "in my best interest to leave and so I resigned..." There was a long pause and he continued, "I put myself into a program appropriate for my needs." In a letter to the editor this week, his wife Donna writes that he was in "crisis" and that he conquered his "demons."
In the months after 9-11, Mr. Plakstis would work until 6 p.m., go home to eat and see his family briefly and then lead a team of volunteers into the Pile at first digging with their hands and later gingerly with tools. Often he would not come home until 3 a.m. This went on until May of 2002. Although Mr. Plakstis does not say it, it is well documented from the Oklahoma disaster that first responders and emergency workers suffered post-traumatic stress with alarmingly high rates of suicide, divorce, spousal abuse, drug and alcohol addictions. He is grateful that he has recovered his life and says he has learned to "Let go and let God."
Each one of these candidates has what comes across as a sincere love for the parks, a desire to give something back to the community and unique backgrounds and perspectives. Which one can do the best job?
It is now up to you to exercise your good judgment and your right to vote on Dec. 13.