UPDATE (See Below): New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson regrets word choice, explains his intended purpose.
I have attended many State of the City addresses by New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. For the first time in recent memory, the Mayor’s unrestrained boosterism matched the reality, at least as far as real estate development is concerned. Despite the Mayor’s treacly rhetoric, the City does have an undeniable positive momentum.
There were many good points made and just as many reasons to celebrate actual progress on efforts to develop the downtown business district.
As the speech progressed, the Mayor extended a discussion into steps the municipal government is about to undertake to promote development in New Rochelle into the role citizens have to play.
“Telling our story well isn’t just a governmental or institutional responsibility; we all have a role to play. Every time you introduce yourself as a resident of New Rochelle, every time you describe your hometown to a friend – whether you’re commenting online through social media, or chatting on line at the supermarket – you shape how people look at our city. So talk us up. Be a good will ambassador. Express the confidence you want others to feel.”
Had he left it at that, the speech would have been, arguably, one of the finest of the Mayor’s long tenure.
Unfortunately, Bramson confused his obligation as a leader to build consensus around what he believes to in the best interest of New Rochelle through a free and frank exchange of ideas with a barely contained autocratic instinct which leads him to aim low, settling for the mere appearance of consensus achieved by suppressing democratic dissent.
Were this just a matter of the Mayor's emotions getting the better of him that might be one thing but the trend in New Rochelle over the past few years has been to limit citizen participation in public meetings an effort where Bramson has been at the forefront.
In 2012, the Mayor sought to push regular speakers at Citizens to be Heard to the back of the line. The New Rochelle Board of Education eliminated more than a dozen public comment periods each year and reduced the time allotted to speak from five minutes to three, citing the City Council under Bramson as their model. The school board then went further by eliminating the right of speakers to address the board unless they signed up in advance. Even more recently, the board combined public comment periods on a proposed school bond and a proposed school budget, effectively cutting the time allotted for both in half.
The common thread in these efforts to limit or control public speech has been the claim that the sole purpose is to make public meetings more efficient.
The real purpose is clear: restrict the First Amendment rights of citizens to petition their government with their grievances and to express those grievances as they wish. Now the Mayor wants to extend those limitations beyond City Council Chambers and into the homes, businesses and pockets of residents who might use a personal computer or smartphone to express opposition to the Mayor's plans for New Rochelle.
In his speech, Bramson compared New Rochelle to a family. He then personalized the metaphor in a weak attempt at humor before extending the metaphor to conclude that the best way to resolve issues and complaints is to “Keep it in the family”.
“People who share a community can be a little like a family. And nobody knows your flaws better than your own family. (Jeremy and Owen could describe my flaws for you in excruciating detail – hopefully, not right now!) So sometimes we say things out loud – in company – that are better kept amongst ourselves.”
This is the sort of language used by the heads of dysfunctional families to hide abuse and addiction from neighbors to create the illusion of a happy home. It's unhealthy.
The biggest problem with Bramson's metaphor is that New Rochelle is not a “family”, or even like a family, it is a municipality of about 80,000 people compromised of American citizens who have certain inalienable rights.
The Mayor continued,
“Look, I know that New Rochelle has its share of real problems that should never be swept under the rug.”
As a resident who is as responsible as any for exposing “real problems” in New Rochelle I would raise two objections to this particular line from the speech.
First, the Mayor is not only an active participant in efforts to sweep “real problems” under the rug he is, quite often, the ringleader in this activity.
Second, the use of the word “real” leaves it to the Mayor to define what is a “real” problem. If we accept his construct then by his logic the Mayor can define other problems as “unreal”. It's a another way in which the Mayor seeks to stifle dissent, by de-legitimizing speech with which he does not agree.
“And I think lots of folks in town feel like the best way to get a problem solved is to post it on Facebook or announce it at a public hearing. But this is a moment when our city really needs to put its best foot forward. So, let’s do ourselves a favor. If you’ve got an issue or complaint, write me an email, call your Council Member, come by the City Manager’s office – we’ll respond. Keep it in the family. You don’t have to shout it from the rooftops.
Speaking as someone who many New Rochelle residents view as a last resort when trying to solve a problem in this City, the publisher of Talk of the Sound, I can say this: that when I get a call from a resident about a problem I always ask what steps they took prior to calling me. Almost all who contact me about a city government issue say they are calling only because they reached out to the Mayor, the City Manager or members of City Council and were either dissatisfied with the response or there was no response at all. So, the idea that sending an email to Noam or Chuck or a Council Member will result in a concern being addressed or a problem being solved is not the experience of the residents who contact me about such issues.
When I get calls with concerns or complaints related to city government I reach out to the City Manager or, with his OK, the department head directly. I can say that quite often Chuck or the department head is responsive and quite often the problem is addressed and promptly. Reaching out to a member of City Council including the Mayor is another way of reaching out to the City Manager and his staff because members of Council including the Mayor have no authority to fix a pot hole or plow a street - they simply forward all complaints to Chuck. He addresses the complaint and the Mayor or Council Member takes credit for the work of the City Manager. I am well aware, as is the administration, that Noam fosters an image of himself as the guy who solves problems for residents when the reality is the resident would get the same result simply calling the City Manager directly, likely faster by cutting out the middle man.
All that said, there are problems that arise in New Rochelle that are not resolved by the City Manager (a recent minor example is the often out-of-service elevator at the New Rochelle train station).
Beyond that there are many issues in New Rochelle that are not operational issues like a pot hole or broken elevator but rather political issues like whether to fund a certain project, whether to support a development deal or approve a proposed budget. Often hearings are required for these sorts of issues so public comment is not only appropriate but an expected part of the decision-making process. Those public comments may include expressions of support or opposition.
There are issues with elected and appointed officials themselves where the only avenue for raising a concern is through public speech.
Then there are issues that have nothing to do with the city government at all. Should residents write or call city officials about issues with the school district, the housing authority, or the county, state or federal government operating in New Rochelle? What about regulated utilities like Con Ed, Suez Water or private businesses?
Here are a few ieeues that concern me. Perhaps the Mayor can address them:
Replace Dominic Procopio: Dominic Procopio is utterly unqualified for the position of Civil Service Commissioner, as he cannot read English he cannot read the many legal documents that the CSC acts upon. The CSC is not known for integrity.
Fire Pat Carroll: Police Commissioner Carroll sits for hours, almost every day, at Posto 22, drinking while on duty. He set up and runs a police foundation that is a major source of corruption and cronyism in New Rochelle.
Terminates the Aramark contract: the Mayor has no control over this issue.
Cut $20 Million a year from the School Budget: cut security budget, conduct a residency audit, etc. Mayor has no control over the school budget.
Get Rid of Panhandlers in downtown New Rochelle: courts have ruled against the City so the police hands our tied.
Toxic materials in Echo Bay: admit there is a problem, turn over all records, come up with a viable plan for the area.
City Yard: come up with a viable plan for building a new city yard.
End practice of allowing car carriers to unload on city streets, this ties directly to Pat Carroll and police foundation.
Feel free to add your own...
UPDATE: Reached for comment, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson explained that his intention in this portion of the speech was different from the message some received. He said he was responding to recent complaints about concerns such as those expressed about snow removal operations, posted online but not previously reported to City officials. He wished residents would report those issues to City Hall so they can be addressed promptly. He said he was not seeking to discourage public comment.
"My choice of words was poor," said Bramson. "I would state things differently if given another opportunity."