On Tuesday, September 30th, 2014, the vote on a ballot referendum asking the people of Ramapo to decide on whether a Ward System should be implemented in their town and whether the number of council seats should be increased from four to six will finally have its day in court. This comes after a cowardly effort by the Ramapo Town Council to once again thwart the will of the people by challenging the petition to bring the referendum under the guise of protecting the public interest. While the entire petition process needs total reform, Judge Margaret Garvey ruled in July that Ramapo must schedule the referendum. Once again our strange election laws help to further thwart the will of the people. By failing to hold the vote on Election Day, the specter of a smaller turnout, by those who would ordinarily vote yes on both questions, becomes a real concern.
Now we always hear from some candidate that this is the most important election (ballot referendum) you will ever vote in, and of course, many have farther reaching consequences than others; but this is a vote that will significantly impact the future of the Town of Ramapo. A Ward System was at one time a common component of New York State Government, but over time was phased out by the rise in villages, which to some extent became the new Ward System. Our current structure of government has no real rhyme or reason. Some offices are decided by district voting, others at-large driven. The Town of Ramapo elects via the at-large vote, contrary to the Rockland County Legislature, the New York State Assembly, the New York State Senate and the House of Representatives, all decided by district voting.
This goes to the very heart of the issue. The Electoral College was established at the time to prevent bloc voting from controlling the government, and while maybe a concept on the national level that time has passed-by, changing demographics, economic and social changes have re-energized the Ward System. Residents of a Westchester County Town are closely following the events in Ramapo hoping to maybe eventually emulate it. We all know that history has a way of being circuitous and what became antiquated for one generation becomes the order of the day for another. There was a time the eleven former Confederate States voted Democratic with no exception, and California and New York were solidly Republican.
Those who oppose the Ward System, only the current town council, and those that place their own self existence and survival on them, will trumpet the baseless argument that it is an expansion of government; the “Big Government” catch phrase that angers many. Chris St. Lawrence was quoted in the Journal News as saying, “People can decide if they want to expand the size of the government. People can decide if they want to have a Ward System.”
The statement is a blatant attempt to intellectually manipulate the public with a surface driven argument designed to sway those less engaged. But it crystallizes why the public has utter contempt and disdain for elected officials. Chris St. Lawrence knows full well that expanding government has nothing to do with adding two council seats. The real definition of big government is the implementation of laws and regulations that spawn new agencies and increase personnel, such as the Dodd-Frank Act and its crown jewel, the newly created Consumer Protection Bureau. And let’s not forget the Affordable Care Act. Whether you agree with none, some or all of them, that’s where layers of bureaucracy are created and billions of tax dollars funneled. That’s the definition of big government, not the addition of two council seats. If a new council so desires, I am sure they can vote to spread the aggregate remuneration of the current four seats over six; dare I say a pay cut. After all, it’s a part time job, supposedly done out of love of community.
St. Lawrence’s position is a gossamer attempt to disguise the real reason, which is jeopardizing the future election of the current council members and making future elected officials accountable for tax and dumb policies to those they represent. Some current Ramapo Council members can’t even win their own election district and/or village, yet are elected to office by pandering to districts and villages that ultimately hold these officials hostage.
Moreover, the argument from Ramapo is steeped in hypocrisy and intellectually condescending. It comes from an administration that has bungled millions of dollars over the years, with a Ballpark, the Elm Street Project, asinine pay raises, cronyism, questionable consultants, an endless stream of lawsuits (to prevent this ballot referendum as one example) and violations of the Clean Water Act. An investment in the salaries of adding two new council members in a Ward System would result in savings that dwarf the expense. One could argue that there would be no Ballpark if there were six members independently voting at that time. As Mike Parietti has said repeatedly, it would now take five votes instead of three to override the state mandated tax cap.
Several weeks ago, Ramapo’s most recent action regarding a tax deal on the controversial Orange Avenue Project in the Village of Suffern with the Goldsteins, well known local developers, came as no surprise to anyone. Whether you agree with the project or not, the fact that the Ramapo Town Council, except for one member, Yitzy Ullman, resorted to maneuvering to circumvent the process is the antithesis of what the public is desperately seeking in our elected officials. St. Lawrence’s sudden interest in the well being of Suffern makes most village residents either extremely suspicious, double over with laughter, or both, as Suffern residents have seen firsthand with the former 60 acre Tilcon Quarry what happens when St. Lawrence and the Goldsteins get mixed up in a business deal. The property, which Ramapo purchased for a dollar promising flood relief, has sat idle for seven years because of a quid pro quo built into the contract.
St. Lawrence defended his decision with a sequestered version of the facts claiming property values would plummet because of an 11th hour Brownfield discovered on the site. Ironically, a parcel at the site is owned by the Village of Suffern. In the context of any property’s current existence property values can plummet all they want, but unless the owners file for tax-relief, and are successful in that pursuit, the current tax revenue would remain status quo. A lower market value would also be generally more appealing to a developer, off-setting a portion of any Brownfield remediation.
St. Lawrence also resorted to the repetitive specious claim that the building will revitalize downtown Suffern with more people shopping in the village. While the Suffern Post Office may enjoy some increased activity; shopping for what is the question that begs to be answered. The whole point of re-development is to increase property tax revenue on existing square footage. The resulting trickle-down sales tax revenue, in the case of Suffern, would be a small added bonus. The entire deal has a myriad of interlocking pros and cons, with facts shifting for convenience to put the project in the best light; which has also been troubling. In a perfect world, cost notwithstanding, a ballot referendum for the people of Suffern to decide the outcome would seem fitting.
As for the Brownfield and the purchase of the property by the village, there are still more questions than answers. Several months ago, Suffern Trustee, Jack Meehan, who sometimes sounds more like St. Lawrence than St. Lawrence, reversed his vote on the Village Pilot proposal after it was resubmitted, citing an $800,000.00 Brownfield cleanup? The village paid $322,000.00 for their parcel? Meehan’s personal attorney is also the Goldsteins’ attorney, however, any reasonable person would conclude that the relationship fails to rise to the level of a conflict of interest.
This latest episode just reinforces the need for a Ward System. Perhaps a new council can end the adversarial climate created by the current administration, begin a dialogue to decide what to do with the former Tilcon Quarry; enforce zoning, housing, occupancy and fire code laws; and hire people that can be assured that the only job requirement is doing the right thing. Government can only function properly with an effective system of checks and balances.
Chris St. Lawrence will eventually be gone. Every elected official is, whether it be by defeat, retirement, term limits, resignation, death in office; which rarely occurs, recall; which even if available occurs less than death in office and; indictment and conviction, which is fast becoming the main reason in America. Suffice to say that the legacy of Chris St. Lawrence and all the current and former Ramapo Town Council members is best left to an army of behavioral scientists.
Those who seek to replace St. Lawrence will always have to account for the bloc vote, which makes it imperative to implement a Ward System. So on September 30th, we get that rare opportunity to actually take matters into our own hands and rebuke the status quo. It will not be easy, so keep reminding your neighbors, follow through on those absentee ballots, and give someone a lift to the polling station. Get up a half-hour early, eat dinner a half-hour later and be fashionably late to your favorite weekly activity.
Suffern, in particular, needs a massive turnout. The efforts of Mike Parietti and Robert Romanowski should not be in vain.