Written by Katie Piacentini Friday, 21 October 2011 00:00
Many people attended the Port Washington/Manhasset Chapter of the League of Women Voters Meet the Candidates forum on Oct. 11 in order to get a better sense of the North Hempstead Town Supervisor candidates, Incumbent Jon Kaiman (D) and Challenger Lee Tu (R). Mary Ann Fleming, a member of the League of Women Voters from an outside chapter, was the moderator of the forum. While she asked the crowd at the beginning of the debate to not applaud until the end, many people were so enthused by the lively debate that they could not contain their applause and were clapping for both candidates.
Jon Kaiman noted in his opening statement that during his past eight years as town supervisor, he has worked towards making the government more accountable and more responsive to people, and he has brought it into the modern era through implementing new technology, such as the 311 system. He also noted the cooperative work with other districts within the town, and that they have figured out ways to share services through consolidation to save taxpayers’ money. Finally, Kaiman said that the finances have been secure under his leadership, and the town recently received the highest credit rating in its history.
In Lee Tu’s opening statement, he said that he became more active in the community about two and a half years ago, and that his main objective is meeting people face-to-face. Tu said that taxes have gone up 40 percent in the last eight years, and that the current proposed budget plans another 4.75 percent spending increase. He noted that his team is independent minded, and he welcomes people to challenge his opinion to work through issues.
Attendees were given the opportunity to ask the candidates one question after the opening statements. The first questioner referred to problems in the building department, and also the arrests and indictments of people who worked in the building department a few years ago. He asked Kaiman, “What did you know and when did you know it?”
Kaiman responded, “I knew that when I came to town government it needed to be reformed. I knew that we needed to bring in responsible professionals.” He further explained that he instituted new technology in 2006 to monitor how the inspectors work. “Because of that technology, we found problems with the building department and we exposed it in 2006-2007,” he said, adding, “We led the investigation and we turned that building department around. What did we know and when did we know it? We knew something was broken, and we took the challenge and we faced it.”
In addition, Kaiman said that the people who say the building department is broken are the developers and people who are lying and cheating. He noted that he hired more building inspectors to make sure that people would not get away with illegal housing. “I’m proud of what we’ve done and we’re going to continue to hold people to the law and to the code to make this government the responsible, professional government that it is,” he said.
Tu said, “Five people were arrested – the building commissioner, the deputy commissioner, and three inspectors – for taking bribes and campaign contributions for permits.” He added, “The building department is broken. I know that it takes a year, more than that at times, to get a permit.” Tu said that to keep residents living in this town, there should be a more expeditious process to allow people to improve their homes. He added that if commercial properties could be improved in order to get tenants, the residential tax roll would be reduced. “We need a town government that’s working for our residents, and if you’ve been hearing about a problem year after year, then maybe there is a problem. Let’s try to stop it,” Tu said.
Frank Russo, of Port Washington, asked what they could do to keep the costs of public employees down, and whether they would support employees paying more towards healthcare costs.
Kaiman noted that a sizeable portion of the town budget goes to salaries, pensions and medical benefits, and that the town has negotiated contracts over the last several years where newer employees pay more towards their medical benefits. He said that the town just completed a contract negotiation with their CSEA employees, and that contract was for a 0 percent increase one year and a 2 percent increase for the following year. During these negotiations, Kaiman said that the idea of employees paying more towards medical benefits came up, but it was a big deal for the employees to take the 0 percent raise, so it would have to be addressed in a future contract. “Public employees work very hard, they do a great job, and I think they make a great difference in people’s lives,” he said. “But ultimately, benefit packages need to include more payments by employees.”
Tu agreed with Kaiman. He said, “I think we have to work with our town employees in civil unions…. It is the higher-ups that make the $100,000 salaries – those are the ones that we’re going to cut out of government. Those are the ones that we cannot afford.” He added that town employees need better management in order to be more productive.
Dr. Stephen Morris, of North Hills, spoke about the possible purchase of the Roslyn Country Club. He asked, is it really the time, in this difficult economy, to provide a pool club for 1,000 or 2,000 people?
Kaiman explained that the Roslyn Country Club is not actually a country club – it is a 10.5-acre parcel of land situated in Roslyn Heights. He further explained that this piece of land was purchased by a developer who wants to redevelop it as commercial property, and many people in the town think that losing this open space would be unfortunate. “If it could be preserved, we would like to preserve it…. If we can do it the way where the user fees pay for the cost of operations, taxpayer dollars are free to pay nothing, and those that use it pay it all,” he said.
Tu said this situation was funny, because, “There seems to be a lot of red tape when it comes to preserving Alvan Petrus Park in Port Washington, but we can build the eminent domain route when it comes to the Roslyn Country Club.” He continued to say, “If the residents over there would like to use a high-end pool that would cost residents up to $2,000 a year to use, then they’re more than welcome to create a special district that they can run themselves, and that none of us in the rest of the areas of the town have to pay for. This is not the right time, the right economy, to bring about a project like this. We have two, as the town has said many times, great pools at Tully Park and Manorhaven Park, and they are much cheaper to use.”
A resident from Manhasset spoke about the “pay for play” tradition in Long Island politics, and questioned whether the candidates would refuse any donations.
Tu responded by saying that he has not taken any money for his campaign, and he does not believe a candidate should accept money if there is a conflict of interest. He added, “I don’t have a machine behind me. It takes weight off of me, and that is a great feeling. We have an independent team of great people who are running with me in the town, and we are just trying to do what is best for the community.”
Kaiman said, “When you live in a community you want the elected officials that you believe in to represent you. People who live and work in a community are the people that make the donations. I am proud of all the people who made donations to me.” Kaiman said that he has rejected donations from people who have done things he does not agree with, and said to Tu, “Some of your running mates have donated to my campaign and we rejected their applications.” Kaiman also stated that he follows the public process of campaign donations. “I operate within the rule, and when people make donations… we disclose them. My opponent, by the way, Lee has got to get his disclosure up – it is five days overdue.”
Fran Reid, of Great Neck, said that she votes for a candidate based on their record. “We all know Kaiman’s record, but I am not familiar with Mr. Tu’s record,” she said, and asked Tu what he has done for any community within the town.
Tu gave a few examples of helping in the community. He said that last year, there were a lot of break-ins in Great Neck, Manhasset Hills, Herricks, and Albertson, and that he reached out to the police commissioner and asked to have this issue addressed with residents, which led to a public event with the police. Tu also stated that he worked with SNAPP (Skateboarders Need A Park in Port) to help them gain traction on building a Skate Park.
In response, Kaiman said, “With all due respect, you can’t say you want the sun to come up and when it comes up take credit for it.” In regard to the break-ins and public meeting with the police, Kaiman noted that there were a lot of community organizations involved with setting up these meetings. Kaiman also stated that while community activism is an integral part of the success of the town, it does not necessarily give someone the authority to run the government.
A resident of North Hills spoke about his concerns over the possible closing of the 6th Precinct. Speaking directly to Tu, he said, “I’m glad you raised the police issue because tomorrow, the leader of your party, County Executive Ed Mangano, is going to propose closing the 6th Precinct on Community Drive…. Who is going to take care of us, since that precinct protects two-thirds of North Hempstead?”
Tu said, “I am one million percent against the closing of the 6th Precinct – any precinct within the Town of North Hempstead.” He continued to say, “[Mangano] is not my leader. I am dealing with the issues of the town and I will fight for the people of the town.”
Kaiman said that he is against closing the precincts and has organized all of the mayors and special district commissioners in the town to challenge the county on this issue. He added, “Those that think like the Tea Party, the Tax Revolt Party, think that we need to defund government, stop the programs, stop the financing of the things that we require.” Addressing Tu, he said, “It’s one thing to say that you support it, but you also say that we should cut everything. We shouldn’t have the managers [who make $100,000] – you don’t want to hire professionals to run your departments?” Kaiman continued to say, “When you’re a challenger, you can challenge everything that we do, but at the end of the day, North Hempstead runs properly and efficiently. We have the dollars in the bank and in the reserves to make sure that we can continue providing public safety, and we can continue doing the things that are necessary to give people the high quality of life that we have achieved in the town.”
Lisa Saltzman of Great Neck asked her question directly to Tu. “You’ve told us for the last two and half years you have been out in the streets talking to people, but leading a town of over 200,000 people requires more than just that. I have yet to hear tonight what it is you bring to the table other than a career in the private sector,” she said, and asked Tu what he would bring to the table that would give voters confidence in him as a leader.
Tu said that he was offered a commissioner level position with the county after the last election. “I rejected it, but maybe I should have taken it to have a record to say I was a commissioner for two years – but that’s not what I’m about,” he said. Tu explained that he handles the pensions and healthcare of the employees at the company where he is the manager. “Healthcare costs have gone up 30 percent over the last two years. We cut our operating costs, and we didn’t pass any of those increases onto our employees. I think that those are the type of things that I am going to fix. It’s about compassion, listening, leadership, and management…. That is part of what I will bring,” he said.
Kaiman said, “The fact that the county offered you a job and you turned it down is a credit to you, because they offered you a job that you might not have been qualified for.” He added that the town’s commissioners are some of the most highly qualified people in the state. Addressing Tu’s previous comments that these people are not professionals or are paid too much, Kaiman said, “You refer to them and diminish them because they took a job in government, and yet you’re seeking a job in government, and you’re not going to work for free.” He added, in the Town of North Hempstead, none of the commissioners or deputies is a political party leader, while in other areas, such as the county, “You have to be a party leader to be a commissioner to be in charge. And [Lee Tu] is a party leader! He is the president of the Albertson Republican Club. So that’s what it takes in [Lee Tu’s] world. Well, we don’t operate that way – we operate under the light of day, and we are transparent.” Kaiman continued to say, “It is with great irony that we are here defending ourselves, and that people are challenging our credentials, integrity, and ability, when all the independent entities that evaluate governments – GFOA, ICMA – rate and judge us as being among the most professional, the most talented, and the most effective.”
Carmine Festa, of Mineola, said that his village utilizes a public access television station to broadcast public meetings. He asked the candidates if they would support this idea for the town. Kaiman said that he would certainly consider this idea. Tu said that government should be more open, and town hall meetings should be televised and streamed online to make it more interactive where people could ask questions from home.
Wandell Thomas, of Port Washington, asked why there was a delay on the analysis for Alvan Petrus Park.
Kaiman explained that Alvan Petrus Park is a housing authority property that is actually owned through a private corporation that acquired that property in an agreement where they would get millions of dollars to restore Harbor Homes. “The notion that the housing authority and this corporation has control is real,” he said, and explained that the town is looking to a legal entity and an engineering entity to research this issue and they are working through their analysis. “The analysis from the engineering point is whether or not this area could be used for public in ways that would be safe, etc. and the legal analysis is to figure out how to deal with particular restrictions that are on the land,” he said, noting that state law currently says this land can only be used for housing authority purposes. “Whether or not that law can be changed remains to be seen, but certainly that will have to happen,” Kaiman said.
Tu said, “Let’s work with our state officials and let’s get this park done.”
In closing, Kaiman said that it is important to understand how government works before deciding to run the government. “There is a lot at stake when you’re dealing with the millions to sustain the infrastructure,” he said, and added, “When you do it wrong, you end up getting nowhere.” Kaiman said, “We’re working with the local people who are making the decisions. We understand who they are, we understand how it works – experience matters.”
Lee Tu said in his closing statement, “This election comes down to you. It’s about your pockets, your taxes, your requests, and your needs in your community…. You have a voice – don’t be afraid. I will not yell at you. I may disagree with you from time to time, but we’ll talk it through, and we’ll do it the right way.” He added, “You know if our town is working, and on November 8, you have that choice to bring in a new set of people who are going to listen to you, who are not part of a machine.”