Written by Katie Piacentini Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00
The Port Washington/Manhasset Chapter of the League of Women Voters held a Meet the Candidates forum on Oct. 11, which provided an opportunity for community members to ask questions to the Town Council, 6th District candidates, who are Democratic incumbent Fred Pollack and Republican challenger Dina DeGiorgio. Mary Ann Fleming, a member of the League of Women Voters from an outside chapter who was the moderator of the forum, told the many attendees in the packed auditorium that they could ask questions after the candidates provided their opening statements.
In her opening statement, Dina DeGiorgio said, “Our beautiful, diverse, perfectly-located town is broken. As proof, take a walk down Main Street and count the empty storefronts. Watch the trash swirl in the breeze. Note the cracked sidewalks. Try to get approval for even the tiniest building project. Ask for information that the Town of North Hempstead doesn’t want to give you. Ask yourself why you learn about important issues only after a few insiders decide on them.” She continued to say that the people of Port Washington deserve a better government, which is why she is running for town council. She continued to say, “It is so hard to get things done, that businesses think twice before trying to open up here. And without their taxes, our taxes have to increase, or our services must be compromised. I want to help fix the town, along with my fellow Republican candidates.”
In Fred Pollack’s opening statement, he noted that local government is the most important level of government to affect the quality of our lives on a daily basis. He said that he has helped to develop the town financial policies, and the town was recently given the highest bond rating in its history, which enables the town to do more things for town residents at a lower cost. He noted improvements to the parks in the 6th District and environmental accomplishments. Pollack also described meeting a senior citizen years ago who said, “I don’t want to move to Arizona – I want to stay in North Hempstead with my family.” He said that community input like this led to the creation of Project Independence, which provides free, helpful services to seniors. Pollack said, “People can stand up and criticize, but when you look at the record and the things that the Town of North Hempstead has accomplished over the past few years, it is clear that we are making progress, and we are doing things to make everybody’s life better.” He added, “We need to move forward, we need to work together, and we need to look for ways to build a better community, a better town.”
Wandell Thomas, president of the Hands of Change Civic Association, asked Councilman Pollack what he was planning on doing to help Alvan Petrus Park.
Pollack said, “I believe that this park should be redeveloped as a public park, and I’ve said so many times. There is a state law right now that prohibits that – it was adopted in 1995 as the one that allowed the Housing Authority to transfer the property to the private not-for-profit housing development corporation.” Pollack added that he has been speaking with State Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and State Senator Jack Martins about changing this state law. He continued to say that there has been a lot of disputing about what was there or what was not there, but it doesn’t matter: the real question is what will happen to make this a part of the park system in the future.
DeGiorgio said, “I have been involved with the Hands of Change Civic Association since they formed, and I am very glad to hear Councilman Pollack say that he thinks the Alvan Petrus Park is a park – because that’s the first time I ever heard him say that, and that he thinks it should be redeveloped.” She added, “Mr. Pollack voted yes on the zoning change that allowed the developer to come in and propose the project in the first place. I sat at every meeting when the Hands of Change Civic Association and members of the community were pleading with the town board not to create that project and not to deprive them of the park, and I never heard Pollack once support them or go along with them. So I applaud his change of heart, and I will definitely make Alvan O. Petrus Park a reality if I am elected.”
Josh Hoffman mentioned the national political discussion about reducing taxes and asked, “Which programs are worthwhile and which ones would you cut?”
DeGiorgio said, “My goal would be not to raise taxes, but find other ways to increase efficiency of government through eliminating unnecessary positions, working more productively, introducing technology into the government to facilitate information delivery to the public, and hopefully, not eliminate any programs. I honestly cannot think of a program right now in the town that I would eliminate.” She added that she does not think the town is run very efficiently, and that there are a lot of recently created positions that are unnecessary. “I would try to focus on streamlining government and working more productively without eliminating any necessary programs,” DeGiorgio said.
Pollack said, “Everybody tries to figure out how to cut taxes, reduce spending, how to get the most bang for the dollar. But programs have to be paid for – you can’t say we are going to not eliminate any program but we are somehow going to reduce spending.” He added that in terms of eliminating positions, 42 percent of the payroll was already cut a few years ago, although a few of these positions have been added back over the years. “Government is not a business – you can’t add a new product, we either have to stop providing services and reduce our expenses, or we have to find new revenue. We have worked very hard over the years to get as many grants from state and federal government to provide services so we don’t have to use tax money,” Pollack said.
One person who said he was a resident of Port Washington for 14 years and a professional engineer said that the building department has gone from being corrupt to dysfunctional. He asked what each candidate would do to make the building department more functional.
Pollack responded, “You said there have been some problems over the years with the building department and we have taken the necessary steps to correct them. You can’t make the change happen overnight. The building department works better today than it did two years ago. If we continue on the path we’re on it will work better two years from now than it does today.” He added that the town is in the process of getting national accreditation for the building department, and they are working hard to make it possible for people to get things in a shorter period of time. Pollack added that it is important for people to comply with the code.
DeGiorgio said that she thinks the building department is the biggest problem right now in the town. She said, “It is affecting every resident in the unincorporated areas, and it is hampering business development, which causes problems with the economy, reduces our tax base, and pushes more of the tax burden on residents and existing businesses.” She noted that the biggest problem she perceives is “The people that work at the building department and the Town of North Hempstead thinks it’s great or it works effectively, and the public doesn’t. So I would try to first bridge the disconnect between what the public has experienced and what the building department personnel and the government perceive as effective.” DeGiorgio said that she would then try to look into what the building department is doing, whether the people who are there are competent, and whether they are using effective methodologies and procedures.
One person referenced the criminal investigations in the building department, and said that the person Pollack mentioned who did not want to move to Arizona might have to if she needs a bigger bedroom, because it takes 15 months to get a building permit. He then asked Councilman Pollack, “What have you done in the past?”
Pollack said, “The criminal investigation that you are referring to happened to be initiated by the town. We worked very hard to put new systems in place to make sure that A) that wouldn’t happen again and B) that every procedure is followed properly.” He added that the town recently adopted new manuals that have a procedure for every application and permit. Pollack also said that the town has worked closely with the commissioners to make sure that this department functions in a way that people will benefit from. “We made significant changes, we’ve improved it, and we’re continuing to make more changes,” Pollack said, and added, “I think the disconnect is between the reality and the perception, and I think the perception will be catching up shortly and people will see that the building department is in fact functioning far better than it was.”
An 18-year resident asked Councilman Pollack, “Why did you not look to less expensive alternative modes to improve traffic flow on lower Main Street?”
Pollack explained that the town looked into this issue for 20 years, and they have tried timing, signage, and just about anything to address “what was really the worst intersection in terms of traffic flow and safety.” He said, “We finally hired a traffic engineering firm that came up with this proposal that’s been put in place and we’re now getting another traffic engineering firm to evaluate it and see whether or not it can be changed, or if it needs to be changed, or if it could be made safer or easier.” Pollack added that he believes the intersection is working better than it was before.
“The intersection that Mr. Pollack is referring to on lower Main Street and Shore Road is a disaster,” DeGiorgio said. She added that the most significant issue for her, other than safety, “is that the town spent over $1.3 million on a parking lot to allegedly alleviate the traffic congestion, and they made it worse. They simply could have tried retiming the traffic light. It would have been far less expensive, less drastic, and it probably would have worked much better. At this point, the town is out $1.3 million and I think everyone that uses that intersection or works down near that intersection agrees that the decisions the town made were not wise.”
Diana Rice asked the candidates about their opinions on the Roslyn Country Club.
DeGiorgio said, “I think in these economic times we do not need to spend money, as of yet an untold amount, for purchasing a country club, a pool and tennis facility. The town has consistently said that it’s not going to cost the town any money, yet they haven’t published any figures, so I am not sure how they can make that assessment without providing the necessary data. If the Roslyn Country Club area feels that they would like to take over that particular pool and tennis club, I think that they should create a special district and they should pay for it…. The rest of the residents in the town should not have to pay even $1 more in their tax bill for that facility.”
Pollack said that he can only make a decision as to whether or not it is fiscally responsible when there is a final proposal. “The numbers that people have thrown out have absolutely no relation to reality, because there is no final proposal yet – we don’t know what the negotiations are going to be. I would say, and people who have heard me talk about this issue in reference to other properties, I have a very narrow view with respect to when the power of eminent domain should be used to take a private business. And if we get past the financials, I am hoping we are going to work something out that is negotiated, because I think it is a steep uphill battle, for me at least, to find a way take the power to have eminent domain,” he said.
In Pollack’s closing statement, he said that instead of tearing things down and criticizing, he prefers to make solutions. “My record of this administration is we have delivered services in a cost effective manner, we have done it in a way that provides many services that most towns on Long Island do not,” Pollack said, and added, “The best way to get better government and to improve our community and our lives is to listen to the people we represent. I appreciate you being here tonight, and I look forward to serving you again.”
In her closing statement, DeGiorgio said, “In the 11 years that [Pollack] has been in office, I unfortunately have not seen Port Washington improve…. In all that time, don’t you think there’s been one incident where what was good for the town wasn’t good for Port Washington? When somebody was getting a sweet deal they didn’t deserve or someone was getting a bad deal that they didn’t deserve? Port Washington needs stronger, more independent representation in the town, which is why I am running for town council.” She went on to say, “I know I can do a better a job, because my training as an attorney has given me the skills to navigate town laws, rules, and regulations, and because my passion for making our great town better will drive me to challenge and question the way things are run.” DeGiorgio added, “I invite you to learn more about me and let me earn your vote.”