NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The short-lived controversy over a proposal for a group home in the East End of New Rochelle had all but extinguished itself after the City of New Rochelle agreed to a request from the neighborhood to file an appeal with the New York State Office of Mental Health. The appeal was filed on June 20, 2014 and a hearing date set by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities on August 5, 2014.
The neighborhood requested the appeal be made because it had been denied the opportunity to make its case to the New Rochelle Site Selection Committee which had ceased to function six years earlier — either, depending on who you believe, because the Mayor and other Council Members allowed the Committee to atrophy and dissolve due to inactivity or because the Mayor had actively eviscerated the Committee as part of a broader effort to eliminate or streamline various municipal committees when he first took office. In either case, there was no Site Selection Committee and thus no opportunity for the neighborhood to be heard on their concerns short of a formal hearing with New York State.
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson had previously and repeatedly stated to impacted residents that such an appeal had no chance of succeeding.
The residents had issued a statement agreeing to abide by the decision of the State.
The City building department had cited the owners of the house for numerous and significant building code violations necessitating the approval of architectural plans requiring many months of work including public hearings before the house could be brought up to code.
In short, filing an appeal to be heard in early August with a decision required no more than 90 days later, and likely much sooner, would have no impact whatsoever on whether the group home could be occupied because it could not be occupied anyway and will not likely receive a Certificate of Occupancy from the Building Department until late fall. And no one was disputing that the appeal was unlikely to succeed.
The matter was on its way to ending as such all controversies do — with the group home proceeding as planned and the neighbors coming to terms with the idea of a group home in their neighborhood.
The matter might have ended there but the Mayor was not content to let sleeping dogs lie.
Mayor Bramson began lobbying the City Manager behind the scenes to withdraw the appeal soon after it was filed. The Mayor called on City Manager Charles B. Strome to poll the City Council on the question of whether the appeal should have been withdrawn.
The Mayor had tried a similar maneuver in 2013 in a dispute with a local veterans group over a historical military flag raised over a former New York State Naval Armory deeded to the City many years before. In that case, the Mayor got his way, resulting in massive negative publicity for the City government which he then dumped in the lap of Strome. The legacy of that fiasco is an ongoing Federal lawsuit which the City’s Corporation Counsel has estimated will cost the City over $500,000 to defend (and which Talk of the Sound expects the City will almost certainly lose).
The City Manager, once-bitten twice shy, refused to accede to the Mayor’s demands so the appeal remained in place and the hearing date was set.
On July 9th, Bramson self-published an article entitled Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience.
Through the article, the Mayor has actively sought to elevate a brief, minor controversy involving a small neighborhood in the East End of New Rochelle into a national issue. In it, the Mayor presents himself as humble and self-effacing, willing to risk a great deal of political capital to stand up for autistic children against a group of self-interested bigots. Naturally, the residents the Mayor is referring to believe the facts do not support the Mayor’s characterization of the issue or them.
They point out that quite a few residents in that area have raised developmentally disabled children of their own and that residents were unaware of the nature of the group home on June 4th when word first went around the neighborhood. New Rochelle has 19 group homes that range from children with behavior disorders, to young adults with cerebral palsy to people with drug and alcohol addictions. Three years ago an administrator at the local middle school was arrested and convicted of repeatedly raping a youngster in his office at the school despite repeated complaints to senior school officials about suspicious behavior by the administrator. Just a few months ago it was revealed that a former Assistant Superintendent was hired by the local school district despite an extensive and recent criminal record including a felony conviction.
These and other experiences have heightened concerns throughout the City, including the East End, as to just who is getting close to their kids. In the Mayor's article, these sorts of concerns are presented as irrational and hateful when they are, unfortunately, grounded in reality.
These concerns have been exacerbated by years of feeling that the East End was not truly represented on City Council. For many years the largest block of Republicans in an overwhelmingly Democrat city has been subject to gerrymandering that for a long time left them without meaningful representation including for many years when their City Council Member was the current Mayor, Noam Bramson.
And then there is the political blood feud related to Echo Bay and the County Executive race described in our previous article.
Many Sun Haven residents complained that the Mayor’s article was an overly emotional and selectively introspective article. In the article, Bramson posits that sharing a lunch with several autistic students caused him to have an epiphany through which he suddenly came to empathize with the parents of developmentally disabled children.
The Mayor admits that to the best of his recollection he has never taken a formal, public position on the dozens of group homes that have opened, closed or moved in and around New Rochelle begging the question “why now?”
There was opposition to the last group home opened in New Rochelle in 2008, in the North End of the City, and the Mayor said nothing about opposition that came from among his political and financial supporters including the head of the Zoning Appeals Board appointed by Bramson.
As Bramson continues in his article, he imagines what it must be like to have such children who later age out of school-age programs and move into a group home setting. He chastises himself for his failure to confront the Sun Haven residents at the meeting with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services at City Hall on June 19th.
The timing may not quite line up — the Mayor says the lunch with the kids took place as the school year was wrapping up which sounds like the last week of school. Sources tell Talk of the Sound it took place weeks earlier. The date of the lunch does matter because the Mayor says the controversy was already underway when he had the lunch and there are three key dates — June 4th when the neighborhood first heard about a group home proposal for 70 Belmont Avenue, June 10th when the Mayor met with the neighborhood in front of 70 Belmont Avenue and June 19th when representatives of Cardinal McCloskey Community Services met with area residents to take questions.
But whether the dates precisely line up or not can be chalked up to poetic license.
Before holding them up for contempt, Bramson first wants to assure the readers his decision to single them out after 19 years of silence on group homes in New Rochelle is not personal or political. Of course it is both.
Bramson airily claims to have known many of the residents of Sun Haven for many years (he represented them as their Council Member) and knows them to be "good people -- generous with friends, kind to strangers, trustworthy in their personal relationships, deeply loyal to their community." He describes them as people who are "volunteers, church-goers, givers to charity" and notes that some "have children or grandchildren with severe disabilities."
Having assured his readers that he holds no animus towards the people of Sun Haven, the Mayor proceeds to paint a grim picture of a public hearing filled with selfish, uninformed bigots more worried about their property values and quality of life than the four autistic adults and their parents as he expresses his regret at not confronting the Sun Haven residents directly.
The Mayor comes from an affluent family which has bankrolled his political career and his lifestyle. He has never worked a full-time job or run a business in his life. In this appraisal of Sun Haven residents he casts himself as indifferent to the concerns of hard-working middle class residents who don't have a Wall Street banker for a brother. Whether he intends it or not, he comes across better able to identify with the feelings of the affluent parents of four autistic young men from other towns than the residents of his own town.
For many East End residents, almost their entire net worth is tied up in their home. In the past decade they have been rocked by a significant downturn in property values and sky high taxes which have more than doubled in the last ten years. Is it really that surprising that these residents would be alarmed by anything that might further negatively impact their property values?
The Mayor dismisses such concerns as a failure to see the "big picture".
The Mayor can afford to focus on the big picture when someone else is paying his bills but most East End residents do not have this luxury.
The "hearing" on June 19th was a meeting involving many of the same people who attended the June 10th meeting where the Mayor did confront Sun Haven residents directly. During that meeting, the Mayor expressed the same thoughts he says he wished he expressed on June 19th. Given this, the Mayor’s regret is not just misplaced but unfounded.
As his self-effacing remarks about being ashamed are derived from this point, the entire rhetorical underpinning of the article falls apart. And that is the problem with the Mayor’s article, it is more a work of romantic fiction than reality.
Bramson leaves out critical facts and context: the lack of a Site Selection Committee and his alleged role in its evisceration, his repeated attempts to deny residents their due process rights under the law and his efforts to discourage their participation in public discussion, a formal statement by residents to abide by the decision of the hearing officer regardless of the outcome, the rearranging and blurring of facts and dates to suit a more compelling but less accurate narrative, the political context which shows that the Mayor risked little by pointing fingers at a neighborhood consisting of many of his biggest political opponents, the errors by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services in making notification and the consequent delays, and, most importantly, that by the time he wrote the article the community had already committed to accept the outcome of a process the Mayor says would have led to the same outcome he claims to seek.
To fully process his article, the reader needs to understand first and foremost that Noam Bramson is a professional speechwriter, having worked for decades for Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) and so familiar with the rules of persuasive writing, the need for appeal and stimulation of emotions. He is also a politician trying to figure out how to restore his image after a crushing loss last fall. If he ever wants to run again for political office he will need to restore his campaign coffers by re-creating a donor base from scratch as many of those who have supported him in the past have walked away from him.
If he were to run again for Mayor — and Talk of the Sound is on record betting he will not — then two of his most challenging prospective opponents would be be Jim Maisano and Albert Tarantino who have both spoken out against the proposed group home location and supported the appeal to select a new location. They are certainly the two most influential Republicans in New Rochelle and so whether they run themselves or not they make inviting targets for the Mayor.
The families of the autistic adults are said to be well-to-do residents of the Rye/Harrison area, one of the most affluent areas in the United States and the group Autism Speaks is run by Liz Feld, the former Mayor of neighboring Larchmont who has a long-standing personal and political relationship with Mayor Bramson. Both the parents and Autism Speaks members would be tempting fund-raising targets.
Finally, the East End neighborhood is one long loathed by the Mayor and a place where the feeling is reciprocated.
Some see the Mayor as a political opportunist seeking to exploit the issue of autism to rehabilitate his political career and refill his bare campaign coffers while others see the article as another chapter in the Mayor’s long history of seeking retribution against his political enemies. That sort of enmity breeds a lack of trust that can appear to be paranoia to those on the other side of the issue.
Throughout the article, Bramson assures the reader he is not singling out this particular neighborhood which is, of course, precisely how it feels to the residents of that neighborhood. They may not know the East End in Oshkosh but everyone in New Rochelle knows it.
As is often the case in these situations, however, there is no clear cut answer.
It would be hard to argue that spending time with a group of autistic children is not a moving experience and one likely to stir strong emotions especially in a parent with two young children of his own.
The neighborhood, in hindsight, might well come to agree with the Mayor that they were overly hostile towards the representatives of Cardinal McCloskey Community Services but that organization did not do itself any favors by making critical errors in their Pavadan Notice and failing to make themselves readily available to the neighborhood after notice was made in May. That Cardinal McCloskey Community Services waited until June 19th to meet with the neighborhood was entirely avoidable and only served to fuel suspicions. The optics of the Mayor appearing to side with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services against the residents was troubling to many East End residents who recall how the Mayor stood with Forest City/Ratner and against them during the Echo Bay controversy.
While area residents were wrong in claiming that there was a disproportionate share of group homes in their part of town, there is another group home just a few blocks away. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s statement that there are group homes "down the street" and "another up the street" is fundamentally misleading as he lives on Pinebrook Boulevard, one of the longest streets in New Rochelle, and the two other group homes do not remotely impact his neighborhood.
The political reality for the Mayor is that he will be hard pressed to gain political and financial support for another run for higher office and so may feel he is no long encumbered with having to watch his words carefully and is now free to say what he really thinks, without political calculation. Having bemoaned the lack of authenticity from our Mayor over the years, Talk of the Sound is hardly going to criticize him now for being authentic, even if he is a bit late to the party.
That said, within the scope of problems in New Rochelle, this is a minor controversy involving a handful of homes and four young adults looking for a place to live.
Whoever was wrong or right — and there is blame enough to go around — what was clearly wrong is the Mayor’s attempt to work behind the scenes to promote the story to local and national media outlets including newspapers, television news programs, radio and online publications all while professing to be “astonished" by the response.
No one has more experience and been more successful at "spinning up" local New Rochelle stories to an audience outside New Rochelle than me, not even close -- the Gadsden Flag story, the "Girl, Interrupted" story, the Jose Martinez case, the Chelsea Clinton for Congress story, and too many fire and police actions and school controversies to count. It's what we do at Talk of the Sound and we are very good at it.
So, trust me when I say that I know it when I see it. Stories do not just magically gain traction. It requires a good story, some luck and timing and a lot of hard work pitching a story.
There is absolutely no question that the Mayor has been working very hard to "spin up" this group home story.
To that extent, the appearance of the Mayor of New Rochelle using a completely one-sided and somewhat fanciful account of events to portray New Rochelle residents as insensitive selfish, bigots to their fellow New Rochelleans as well as a national audience is unbecoming.
The Mayor has, on many occasions, literally screamed at other elected officials for failing to be “good ambassadors” for New Rochelle. And yet he is actively seeking to demonize the people he represents, people of his former Council District?
Many will recall the attempt last year to create the positions of Assistant Police Commissioner, a pension boondoggle that would have allowed the Police Commissioner to bypass Civil Service laws and weaken the Superior Officers union. The measure failed by a 2-5 vote (with Talk of the Sound playing a critical role in its defeat).
Before calling a roll call vote on the council measure, in a room packed with off-duty officers from the New Rochelle Police Department, Bramson took the unusual step of making the vote a referendum on Strome's leadership demanding that the Council accede to the decision of the City Manager.
We have received a clear, unequivocal recommendation from our City Manager, from our Police Commissioner, from our Deputy Police Commissioner... This is precisely the kind of issue on which City Council ought to be most deferential to its management team and then if we're dissatisfied with the outcome we hold them accountable for any kind of failure but I think for us to be engaged in this sort of explanation of minutia is within our legal authority to do that but I think it's overstepping a wise course of action for a city council. And frankly if the recommendation was the reverse of this that we take positions that are not within civil service and put them in civil service I would probably be inclined to defer to you on that as well I don't have a preference for how these positions are categorized but if we're not going to trust the judgement of our city manager in an issue of this kind we should be getting a new city manager but we shouldn't be second guessing choices of these kind I think it is not healthy for the organization and not healthy for the relationship between the council and the staff and to me that's larger than these three positions. I felt I had to say that.
In the Belmont Avenue case the City Manager made a decision to file an appeal because (a) there was no functioning Site Selection Committee; and (b) the residents most directly impacted by the proposed group home requested one through their Council Member. I could add (c) that there was, according to the Mayor, no chance whatsoever that the appeal could succeed (d) there are extensive building code violations that will not be resolved until long after the appeal is decided.
Despite these facts, and the Mayor's previous table-pounding on the proper role of City Council (to defer to the City Manager), the Mayor uses his article to throw the City Manager under the bus by declaring that he disagreed with the City's decision to file an objection and then promoting that claim to every media outlet he can find. This benefits "council/staff relations" how?
If there was ever a case of "no harm, no foul" this was it.
This is an issue normally left to the City Manager and local Council Member to resolve, which they did. Yet, the Mayor went out of his way to involve himself in the issue and his aggressive attempt to generate media coverage for his article may just explain why.
Unaware of the facts, it appears that most readers of the article — and most media outlets — took the Mayor’s account at face value with predictable results. Not knowing (or caring) that Bramson had provided a less than fulsome account or explained his track record or the context of the toxic relationship between the Mayor and the East End of New Rochelle, Bramson was uncritically praised by many for his courage, leadership and moral clarity — words rarely associated with Mayor Bramson in his 19-year career on the New Rochelle City Council.
Now he has to hope that he does not get caught out on this issue.
Through emails and social media, Bramson supporters leapt into action to promote the story:
Mary Jo Jacobs is the former head of SEPTA, the New Rochelle Special Education PTA. She is also a politician, having run for Westchester County Legislator on the same ticket with Bramson in 2013 when he ran for County Executive (both Democrats, both lost).
From: Mary Jo Jacobs
Date: Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 7:43 PM
Subject: A struggle in our hometown regarding autism - a truly compelling and thought provoking read
As many of you know we have children who manage each day through the effects of their autism, ADHD and the various difficulties attached to these diagnoses. At times it's hard - and other times, there's such joy in their small successes and such deep gratitude in the big ones.
It's those big successes that move our children towards independence that allow my husband and me to exhale.
As you read Noam's journey, you would imagine that we'd be upset at the reactions of some of our neighbors. We are...a little.... but, we just can't believe that this is the norm. Everyone we have ever known in New Rochelle has been so very supportive and helpful.
Quentin and I are indebted to Noam for elevating this issue and beautifully articulating why we cannot be complicit in this exclusive way of being.
Please share this link with others - please share it with everyone:
Mary Jo and Quentin
Jacobs was criticized during and after her failed campaign for using SEPTA and the PTA Council, both non-partisan organizations, to further her own political campaign. Not surprisingly, SEPTA was again used to promote a politician, this time Bramson.
Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience http://t.co/zE4dGa98Ei
— Noam Bramson (@NoamBramson) July 9, 2014
— NewRoSEPTA (@Newrosepta) July 11, 2014
Readers from around the county, commented on Bramson's Facebook page:
Jessica Lynn "As an autism mom I can confidently say the world needs more like you, Mr. Bramson. Thank you."
Robynn Leroux Davis "As a parent of a young man with autism, I applaud you Mayor Bramson! Thank you for standing up for your beliefs and for educating your community about the many positive contributions people with disabilities can make."
Lana Panko "Thank you! I just read your column and it brought tears to my eyes."
Bethany Beard "Thank you for standing up when you didn't have to. I'm not in your neighborhood or even your state but we share the same sense of community. It's nice to know there are people like you out there reminding others what humanity means. Keep being a leader."
Tweets offered similar praise of Bramson:
If you find yourself getting cynical about current political leadership, re-read this. Hope percolates up bit by bit. http://t.co/wfB2rzA3bb
— Tami Swenson (@tamiswenson) July 19, 2014
— Ben Lazarus (@BenLaz) July 18, 2014
noam bramson has a heart, and guts http://t.co/OjXDMFfr4S
— the Gardener King (@kaygeecook) July 18, 2014
— Michael Cornfield (@MBCornfield) July 18, 2014
— Tim Krepp (@timkrepp) July 18, 2014
— AccessLivingChicago (@AccessLiving) July 17, 2014
Wish all leaders spoke out with such moral clarity: http://t.co/tg94YChvKQ
— Anne Greenberg (@annesgreenberg) July 17, 2014
A great example of political courage; http://t.co/zzulUEwSND
— Michael Shumaker (@M_Shumaker) July 17, 2014
— Miriam Savad (@mmmsavad) July 18, 2014
Two days after the article ran, on July 11, a letter from Autism Speaks President Liz Feld to Bramson was published on the front page of the organizations web site.
A letter from Autism Speaks President Liz Feld to New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson
Autism Speaks President Liz Feld wrote to Noam Bramson, Mayor of New Rochelle, N.Y., in response to the Mayor's post on his website entitled "Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience." You can read his post here.
As an advocacy organization that has spent many years raising awareness about the needs of the autism community, we are deeply grateful for your leadership on an issue that is so important to us.
Regrettably, there is still discrimination against many in the disability community, from being denied insurance coverage to barriers to employment, housing, and access to services. The current controversy in New Rochelle surrounding a proposed home for adults living with autism is playing out in communities all across the country. As a Mayor, your decision to stand up for the basic rights and needs of the disability community sends a powerful message to elected officials in towns and villages everywhere. Even more importantly, it sets an example for residents everywhere that we need to live with open hearts and open minds. As a former Mayor - and neighbor of yours - I appreciate the pressure you were under in that room. Your courage to step forward after that is so commendable.
On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities in need of housing in this country, thank you for your leadership. Nothing means more than hearing your message, 'You are Welcome Here.'
An article by Elizabeth Ganga, referencing the Autism Speaks letter, ran in the Journal News on July 12:
NEW ROCHELLE – Mayor Noam Bramson is getting attention in the disability community for an essay he posted this week on his website in support of a proposed group home despite opposition from neighbors and other city officials.
The essay has been picked up by the national organization Autism Speaks and posted prominently on its website under the headline "Thank you Mr. Mayor!"
In it, Bramson juxtaposes a visit with a class of special education students in New Rochelle to a community meeting about the controversial proposal. One child, he said, liked horses and Walt Disney World. Others talked with iPads. Some of the kids might need support their whole lives.
At the meeting, residents questioned whether the home planned on Belmont Avenue by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services for four young men with autism would be a threat to the community.
"Much was made of the property's location on a cul de sac, presently used by many children as a play area," Bramson wrote. "The group home, speakers argued, would take away a safe haven that is vital to families. That sounds like a fair point, until you start reflecting on it. Why exactly couldn't children just continue playing on the cul de sac?"
"It was not about NIMBYism, they said, and so they believed," he added later. "But of course it was exactly about NIMBYism. It was only about NIMBYism."
Liz Feld, the president of Autism Speaks and the former mayor of Larchmont, said Bramson's stance showed leadership.
"What he said about the challenges that these families face when they are trying to find residential options for their loved ones, it's going on across the country," she said.
A supporter of the neighbors said it wasn't about stopping group homes in New Rochelle. Instead, they were questioning putting a third in the same neighborhood.
"The people were upset and you can't blame them," said Westchester County Legislator Jim Maisano, R-New Rochelle.
Despite the neighborhood opposition to the home, which would be one of about 20 in the city, it's unlikely to be stopped. State law prevents municipalities from blocking group homes unless an overconcentration of the homes can be proven. The city has sent an objection to the state, over Bramson's opposition, and it will be decided in the next few weeks.
Though groups like Autism Speaks still see a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about group homes, Bramson's letter is also a sign of the changing attitudes around the issue, Feld said.
Dan Lukens, the executive director of Camp Venture, which runs about 25 group homes in Rockland County, said the feelings about group homes and disabled people generally have changed drastically in the past few decades. When the home where his autistic brother lives was proposed, hundreds of people came out to oppose it, he said. And some neighborhoods still are opposed. In others, he has seen the residents bring over treats to welcome their new neighbors.
"Having people live in the community is good for them," he said. "They do better. But it's also good for communities."
When his brother was young, the family had to explain his disability to everyone, Lukens said. Now kids grow up with disabled children in the same classrooms. Young people are used to them, he said.
"That doesn't mean group homes are perfect," Lukens said. "But who would be perfect?"
Bramson said he expected a major backlash to his essay, but much of the reaction has been positive and supportive.
"This is a very raw, honest, direct statement about my feelings on a public issue," he said.
On July 17th, Taegan Goddard's Political Wire wrote a blog post
An Example of Political Courage
Joe Klein's observation that political courage is dead rings true in so many ways. But it's not entirely accurate.
One example that came to my attention this week was from New Rochelle, NY Mayor Noam Bramson who wrote about a controversy that erupted over a proposed group home in in his community.
I urge you to read his essay and share it widely.
Also on July 17th, Taegan Goddard (55,300 Twitter followers) tweeted a link to his own article on the Mayor's article:
Political courage is not dead… A very inspiring, must-read essay by the mayor of New Rochelle, NY http://t.co/g33dE8BdhA
— Taegan Goddard (@politicalwire) July 17, 2014
Also on July 17th, Chris Hayes of MSNBC (351,000 Twitter followers) tweeted a link to the Mayor's article with a h/t to Political Wire.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) July 17, 2014
On July 18th, a podcast interview with the Mayor ran on Taegan Goaddard’s Political Wire
Is political courage dead? (podcast on iTunes)
Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, NY who wrote a remarkable essay that has gone viral across the Internet, joined us on the Political Wire podcast for a discussion of political courage and leadership.
Also, on July 18th Taegan Goddard tweeted a link to the Mayor's article
— Taegan Goddard (@politicalwire) July 18, 2014
Also, on July 18th, Mayor Bramson uploaded his original article to the Huffington Post using his own user account.
Bramson then published an another article on this web site, Group Home Comments Stir Discussion, on July 18th.
Since posting my thoughts last week about a group home controversy in New Rochelle, I’ve been astonished by the response — a huge number of comments from here in our own community and from around the country, many quite personal and moving. My comments were also picked up by Political Wire, which featured this podcast interview with me this morning. If you’re interested, please listen and pass it along.
Also, on July 18th, Zak Failla had an article in the Daily Voice:
New Rochelle Mayor Bramson Laments Opposition To Group Home
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – When New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson wrote a lengthy, thoughtful essay about group homes in the city, he had no idea what type of backlash to expect from the public.
Several days after publishing the piece on his personal website, Bramson is happy to report the public has responded in droves. Most people expressed overwhelming support for the mayor’s stance that a proposed group home could be a potential boon to a disenfranchised group in New Rochelle.
In his essay, Bramson juxtaposed his feeling of benevolence and gratefulness after a recent visit to a special education class with the acrimony and discord over a proposed group home expressed by some speakers at a recent city council meeting.
Despite opposition from neighbors and certain elected officials, Bramson said he has received hundreds of e-mails, most of which expressed support for the mayor’s message.
“I’ve been astonished by the response. We’ve received more comments and e-mail on this than probably anything we’ve posted before,” he said.
“We anticipated both negative and positive backlash, but it has been overwhelmingly positive, so hopefully some goodwill can come out of this.”
The topic of group homes in New Rochelle – which is home to nearly 20 already – became a hotbed issue when Cardinal McCloskey Community Services proposed opening a home in a cul-de-sac that would house four autistic children.
Those who live nearby have argued their children play in the area, the group home would pose a safety risk and the neighborhood would be irrevocably damaged.
However, Bramson contends “group homes are intended to provide a supportive, neighborhood-based living arrangement to adults with disabilities and other challenges.”
The public outcry led to city administrators filing a formal objection with the state Office of Mental Health, a decision Bramson decried.
“Here’s where I make an admission that will get me in trouble: I disagreed with the city’s decision to file an objection and I recommended against submitting it,” he wrote.
“I simply believe that the objections are wrong. Profoundly wrong. And that the objections should not be validated by the city or its leadership.”
Bramson’s essay has drawn national attention, after it was picked up by activist group Autism Speaks, which posted a “Thank You Mr. Mayor” letter on the website.
“As a mayor, your decision to stand up for the basic rights and needs of the disability community sends a powerful message to elected officials in towns and villages everywhere,” President Liz Feld wrote.
“It sets an example for residents everywhere that we need to live with open hearts and open minds.”
Phil Reisman wrote A show of courage from Mayor Bramson, a column on the article on July 22nd
It takes a rare kind of guts to admit cowardice. So here is a reason to admire New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson.
In an eloquent online message posted on his website, noambramson.org, Bramson confessed that he felt "shame" for failing to rebut a highly emotional outcry of opposition that erupted at a public meeting over a proposed, state-run group home.
Nobody spoke in favor of the group home. The arguments ran the usual gamut of fear. The home would bring unwanted traffic. It was too close to other homes. Property values would decline.
It was even suggested by one speaker that the residents of the group home—four young men on the autism spectrum—could potentially be sexual predators. Rather than being censored, the speaker was given a round of applause.
Sitting in the meeting room, Bramson knew these fears were unfounded, though he didn't doubt the opponents' sincerity. Indeed, he knew many of them to be good people—volunteers, churchgoers and generous donors to charity.
Nevertheless, he could see that their objections were mainly steeped in NIMBYism—the idea that it's OK somewhere else but "not in my neighborhood."
Philosophically, Bramson believed that those with developmental disabilities had a right to live in a normal community setting. Besides, it was a state law. It's been the law ever since it became clear decades ago that society's most vulnerable citizens by the thousands were inhumanely being warehoused in institutions, junked and forgotten like defective parts.
And yet he remained silent.
"I was ashamed of myself because I simply sat there quietly without saying a word," he wrote in his July 9 online message. "And I can't imagine a worse display of cowardice."
The deeply introspective piece, which by rough count ran to about 2,000 words, was meant to atone for his initial silence, and to state his firm belief that New Rochelle was imbued with a welcoming spirit. That spirit was reflected in the title, "Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience."
His tone was not scolding, or holier than thou. At one point, he wrote that he couldn't predict how he would react if a group home was installed next door to his house, noting that "I don't pretend to be any more noble than the next person."
"But I want very much to believe that we would not fight, that we would make the best of it, that we would offer whatever good will we could to our new neighbors, and that we would try to set an example for our own two boys by showing them that every person has worth."
New Rochelle can be a tough town politically. Bramson, a Democrat, who was soundly defeated in a bid for county executive last year, has lately taken his share of criticism over a number of issues, from the city's high property taxes to the development of the waterfront. He's taken more than a few hits in this column space.
It would've been easy for him to stay quiet on the group home issue. After all, he's had a hard enough year as it is.
What would be the point in taking more abuse?
Bramson told me on Monday that he fully expected that his online confessional would get him in hot water, "a sort of hostile, negative reaction and beyond that, just indifference."
To his astonishment, the opposite has occurred. Over the nearly two-week period, he has received 1,200 "likes" on Facebook, not to mention an overwhelming amount of email that is running favorable by a rate of about 50 to 1.
"I've gotten more responses to this by far than to anything I've said or written as mayor," Bramson said. "It's not like anything I've experienced before."
One of the common objections to group homes is that because they are state-owned, they are removed from the property tax rolls—though, according to Bramson, that was not raised at the meeting.
A municipality can argue against a group home proposal on the basis that the community is already saturated with residences, but that argument is usually, if not always, rejected by the state Office of Mental Health.
New Rochelle, which has about 20 group homes, is appealing the latest site, which is located in the city's east end, near the Larchmont border. A saturation point is conceivable, Bramson said, "but 20 homes distributed in a community of more than 30,000 households does not begin to reach that level."
A lot of politicians pander to their constituents, Bramson wrote in his message. They pretend to fight for them. Often, they make fake promises "and then faith in public leadership slips just a little lower into the basement."
Bramson seems to have had an epiphany.
"I guess this is my moment," he wrote. "Silence is complicity."
On July 26th, Richard French interviewed Mayor Bramson on FiOS TV:
New Rochelle mayor makes a courageous step. Noam Bramson comes clean on the controversy over a proposed group home there .
To say the "reporting" on the 70 Belmont Avenue issue is a tad one-sided would be an understatement.
Setting aside Talk of the Sound, there is no indication in the reporting that any media outlet made any attempt to verify or independently corroborate any of the facts, there is not a single fact drawn from public records, no effort to fact-check Bramson's article or the statements he had made, no attempt to get an alternative account of what took place at the June 19th meeting, no publication of the neighborhood statement agreeing to abide by the decision in the hearing and but a single quote from one residents from the neighborhood and that from another politician, County Board of Legislators Vice Chairman Jim Maisano.
Knowing how this "spin up" game is played, I know the ultimate goal quite well - to get on national TV. Given the efforts to get on the left-wing political web sites, I would expect his best bet is MSNBC or Fox News.
If he has any further luck promoting the story, we will add them here.
UPDATE: Mayor Bramson published an article concurrently with this one with an update and two additional links to media coverage and a tweet from Chris Hayes of MSNBC. I am adding the additional media coverage above.
On July 29th, Mayor Bramson self-published an update on the media coverage of the group home: Widespread Reaction to Group Home Statement
This especially nice tweet from @chrislhayes is an example of the feedback I have received since posting a statement about a group home for four young men with autism in New Rochelle. My comments have now been viewed more than 10,000 times on my website and many more times on other sites. Having expected a hostile or indifferent reaction, I have been greatly surprised by both the widespread interest and the level of support. Perhaps our experience in New Rochelle will serve as a helpful example to other communities going through similar debates. Here’s a sample of additional coverage:
Journal News – Phil Reisman
RNN – Richard French Live
Episcopal Health Ministries
For some reason, our coverage did not make the list.