In May 2014, Cardinal McCloskey Community Services sent a letter to the City of New Rochelle setting off a chain of events that continues to spur a great deal of unnecessary confusion, confrontation, recriminations and hard feelings all around.
The letter, a “Pavadan Notice”, was sent under Section 41.34 of the Mental Hygiene Law of the State of New York by which Cardinal McCloskey Community Services was attempting to make a required formal notification of the intent of Cardinal McCloskey Community Services to establish a community residential home to be located at 70 Belmont Avenue in New Rochelle, NY.
The house is located in the Sun Haven neighborhood in what is often referred to as the East End of New Rochelle near the city’s border with Larchmont, NY.
The Padavan Law went into effect in 1978 after New York State came under intense pressure to reform housing situations for developmentally disabled persons and mentally ill patients who had previously been warehoused at state facilities. The law allows group homes to bypass local zoning as long as the home meets state codes. Under the law, neighborhoods can protest but on specific, limited grounds — that an area was over-saturated with group homes or if a better site could be found.
Under the Padavan Law, authored by State Senator Frank Padavan, a Republican from Queens from 1973 and 2010, a neighborhood has 40 days to file a protest. A commissioner then has 90 days to rule on the appeal. A neighborhood can go to the courts, but in the meantime the home is permitted to open.
The Pavadan Notice sent to New Rochelle this spring by the Cardinal McCloskey Community Services was improper in two ways.
First, the letter is not dated correctly; the exact date matters because the law has a 40 day window to file an appeal.
In this case, the letter was dated "May 5, 2013”. In a copy of the letter obtained by Talk of the Sound under a Freedom of Information Law request, the “5" is crossed out and a “13” added so the date appears as “May 13, 2013”. The changed date is initialed and appears to be “BF” which would likely be “Beth Finnerty”, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Cardinal McCloskey Community Services and the author of the letter. Finnerty did not respond to repeated telephone messages and emails seeking clarification.
In a subsequent letter to the New York State Office of Mental Health, the City of New Rochelle notes the error but incorrectly states the letter was dated “May 1, 2013” and says, without explanation, the date should have been “May 13, 2014”.
So, there are four different notification dates — “May 1, 2013”, "May 5, 2013”, “May 13, 2013”, and “May 13, 2014”.
Second, the letter was not addressed correctly; this error may have been the source of some of the delay in notifying the neighborhood that a group home was planned for 70 Belmont Avenue.
Section 41.34 of the Mental Hygiene Law, a copy of which was included in the Pavadan Notice. states “when a site has been selected by the sponsoring agency, it shall notify the chief executive officer of the municipality in writing…”
The City of New Rochelle has a weak-Mayor form of government where the City Manager is the Chief Executive Officer and the Mayor is a ceremonial title designation for an at-large member of City Council.
Instead of sending notice to the City Manager, the Pavadan Notice sent by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services was addressed to "The Honorable Noam Bramson, Mayor of New Rochelle, Members of the New Rochelle City Council” at City Hall, 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10801”
The letter was copied to each of the City Council Members (Louis Trangucci, Albert Tarantino, Jared Rice, Ivar Hyden, Barry Fertel, Shari Rackman), the former lawyer for the City of New Rochelle (Corporation Counsel Kathleen Gill), the two members of the State legislature for the neighborhood (New York State Senator George Latimer, New York State Assemblyman Steven Otis), Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino and three officials from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (Director Region 3 Joan Volpe, Deputy Director Region 3 Mary Newhard, Team Leader, Region 3, Hudson Valley DDRO Ira Rothenstein).
Noticeably absent from the list of over a dozen names is the only person required to receive the Pavadan Notice, the Chief Executive Officer of the City of New Rochelle, City Manager Charles B. Strome.
Many in the Sun Haven neighborhood, suspicious of the Mayor, believe that had the letter been sent to the City Manager, the information would have been communicated to the neighborhood more quickly. In a recent article published on Talk of the Sound, the group claimed the Mayor “pocketed” the letter in the hopes of running out the clock on the appeals process.
Asked about this claim, the Mayor told Talk of the Sound it is simply not the case that there was any undue delay in notification.
"I received an official notice from Cardinal McCloskey Community Services in mid-May. This notice was also cc'ed to every member of the City Council, to State legislators, and to various other State officials,” said Bramson.
Records obtained by Talk of the Sound under a Freedom of Information request support the Mayor’s contention. That an appeal was eventually filed demonstrates that there was no attempt to run out the clock on the appeals process.
Bramson says he did not realize that Tarantino had already been copied and so passed a message to Tarantino through the City Manager.
"Immediately upon receiving the letter, I provided it to the City Manager, with a hand-written note on the first page reading "Please also share with CM Tarantino.”
The copy of the letter obtained by Talk of the Sound did not contain any hand-written note. In a pending follow up request, Talk of the Sound has requested a copy of the letter the Mayor provided to the City Manager.
Council Member Albert Tarantino whose Council District includes Sun Haven says he cannot recall the exact date but believes he was first made aware of the proposed group home during the week after the Memorial Day Weekend - two weeks after the letter was sent.
The discrepancy between when Bramson received the Pavadan Notice and when Tarantino saw the Pavadan Notice may be less of a conspiracy involving the Mayor and more a function of the Mayor’s role. His sole job is that of Mayor whereas other members of City Council each run their own businesses or law practices. The Mayor is typically in City Hall on a daily basis and treats his position as a full-time job. Other members of Council are not in City Hall on a daily basis, for them it is a part-time job, and so their mail is collected each week and forwarded to them as part of their "weekly packet”.
Under these circumstances, a letter sent on Tuesday May 13th might well not arrive until after the weekly packet was sent that Friday, in this case on May 16th and so might not be sent to a Council Member until the following Friday, May 23rd. That later date happened to be the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, possibly resulting in additional delay.
This sequence of events would then explain why a letter sent on May 13, 2014 might work its way through the normal process and still not be received by a City Council member until as late as May 27th.
The copy of the Pavadan Notice obtained by Talk of the Sound is not stamped "received" and there is no "received by" date as one might expect given that the letter is a legal document, required under New York State law, and associated with a definite time line for appeals.
However it happened, Tarantino says that upon reading the Pavadan Notice, he immediately contacted City Manager Charles Strome and to set up a meeting with Strome and Youth Bureau Director Kelly Johnson. In addition to his responsibilities with the Youth Bureau, Johnson is the sole remaining "member" of the now defunct Group Home Site Selection Committee for the City of New Rochelle.
In the meeting with Strome and Johnson, Tarantino says he requested a meeting between Sun Haven residents and Cardinal McCloskey Community Services at the earliest possible date. After some delay in getting a commitment from Cardinal McCloskey Community Services, that meeting was scheduled for June 19th.
Sun Haven residents have complained that they did not receive any formal notification of a group home going into their neighborhood until a letter dated June 13th was sent by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services to some residents of the Sun Haven neighborhood.
The June 13th letter was received on June 17th, informing residents of an information session scheduled for June 19th which, depending on the date of the Pavadan Notice, was either after the deadline for any appeal or just three days before the deadline for an appeal, further fueling speculation among Sun Haven residents that the Mayor was conspiring with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services to run out the clock on an appeal.
Joseph Cinquemani, an attorney and unofficial spokesperson for the neighborhood, lives in the Sun Haven neighborhood. He says rumors of a group home first began to circulate the week of June 4th.
At first, he says, word had excitedly gone around the neighborhood of a bidding war that had erupted for 70 Belmont Avenue, that the house sold for $60,000 above the asking price. The neighbors were initially encouraged by the prospect that their home values might finally be bouncing back from the Great Recession.
One Sun Haven resident, a relative of Council Member Tarantino mentioned the bidding war for a house in Sun Haven. Tarantino, putting two and two together, confirmed the bidding war was for 70 Belmont Avenue and told his relative about the group home. Word spread quickly and, as often happens, the details became muddled, causing fear and confusion as to what precisely was planned for the neighborhood.
Cinquemani and his wife reached out to the Mayor to express concerns about a group home going into their neighborhood, including the lack of notification and due process. A meeting was scheduled for the following week.
"The meeting with the Mayor was on Tuesday, June 10 at about 8:15 a.m., in the cul-da-sac, in front of 70 Belmont,” said Cinquemani. "It was at this first meeting that Mayor Bramson told us that we were wasting our time opposing a group home, that we should not object and should not even go to the Citizens to be Heard forum that was scheduled later that day to express our concerns.”
In that meeting the Mayor listened to a number of concerns - the impact on property values, public safety issues with the group home residents, traffic issues and more -- basically the same set of concerns that every other neighborhood in New Rochelle has expressed over the years each time a group home has been proposed for a particular neighborhood. In this case, there was an additional concern that there was already another group home a few blocks away on Spencer Drive.
According to residents, the Mayor listened and then explained how the law gave the State of New York a great deal of power with regard to group homes and that an appeal was destined to fail. The Mayor advised the residents to accept the situation and make the best of it.
This approach backfired. In particular, the Mayor’s efforts to discourage the neighborhood from exercising its due process rights under the Section 41.34 of the Mental Hygiene Law and from speaking out at the City Council Meeting only further heightened the sense of concern as a perception developed that Bramson was somehow “in cahoots”, as one resident put it, with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services and did not have their best interests at heart.
Council Member Tarantino was at the early morning meeting as well. He countered some of what the Mayor was saying and explained that under the law the City could file an appeal. Tarantino stated that if the Mayor was unwilling to do so, he would ask the City Manager to make the appeal. Tarantino also notified the group that he was seeking to hold a town hall meeting with representatives from Cardinal McCloskey Community Services.
Tarantino says the Mayor begrudgingly acquiesced to the filing of an appeal under a long-standing tradition in New Rochelle that the City Manager gives strong consideration to requests impacting a particular neighborhood from that area's City Council Member and this was Tarantino's District.
Later that night, roughly three dozen Sun Haven residents attended the City Council Meeting. A handful spoke at the monthly Citizens to be Heard forum to express concerns about over-saturation, the impact on quality of life, the impact on property values of a group home in their neighborhood and the lack of notification.
On the day of June 19th, a building inspector for the City of New Rochelle determined that the house had extensive building code violations. The inspector found that multiple alterations to the dwelling were completed without first obtaining building permits for the work, including:
- The garage area, a wall was constructed to create an exercise room with sliding glass doors and new windows and a workshop area in the front half.
- One of the two overhead doors has been blocked from the interior preventing any vehicles from entering either side of the 2 car garage.
- In the basement level a kitchen was installed including a gas stove.
- On the first floor the kitchen has been renovated and the wall between the kitchen and dining room removed.
- The hall bathroom has been completely renovated and a shower added.
- The exterior deck has been renovated, the stairs removed and an additional elevated deck behind the garage has been added.
- A free standing wood shed was installed in the rear yard.
Under City Code, the building cannot be occupied until permits are obtained, plans drawn up and approved and the work done in accordance with those permits then certified by a Building Official as being in compliance. In New Rochelle this process takes months so even without an appeal to the state, no group home resident could move into the home until the end of the year.
Later that night, June 19th, several dozen residents showed up at City Hall for the information session with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services requested by Tarantino.
Although the meeting was held at City Hall, it was not an official hearing. The meeting was originally planned for Halligan Hall at Holy Name Church located near the Sun Haven neighborhood but was relocated to the City Council chambers as a courtesy to Kelly Johnson, the sole member of the Site Selection Committee, who is wheel-chair enabled.
After a month of rumors and speculation, the meeting was the first real opportunity for residents to hear first-hand about the plans for the group home proposed for 70 Belmont Avenue. At this point, the residents were anxious, aware that the building had numerous code violations and concerned that the deadline to file an appeal might have already passed.
Depending on the date on which the City was to be considered to have been given the Padavan Notice the deadline to file an appeal had either already passed or would in a few days. A letter dated May 5, 2014 had been sent 45 days prior to June 19th, well past the appeals deadline. A letter dated May 13, 2014 had been sent 37 days prior to June 19th leaving just one day to file an appeal.
Compounding the ill will in the room was the Mayor’s decision not to sit alongside Council Member Tarantino and Paul Vacca, the City Building Department Director on the City Council Dais but rather to sit in the audience in close proximity to the representatives from Cardinal McCloskey Community Services and away from the Sun Haven residents thereby further heightening the perception that Bramson was working with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services against the residents.
Tensions were high but those tensions had been building for years.
The tone of the questions to the representatives from Cardinal McCloskey Community Services were often angry and accusatory but the anger was not driven by animosity towards Cardinal McCloskey Community Services (recall that much of the neighborhood is Catholic and have funded the organization, directly or indirectly, over the years), nor any animosity towards the proposed residents (they were and are unknown to the neighborhood), nor any animosity towards people with developmental disabilities, in particular autism (a number of the residents were or had raised children with disabilities themselves).
The tension was a result of a long-standing political dynamic of animosity between residents of the Sun Haven neighborhood, specifically, and the East End, generally, and Mayor Bramson.
The Sun Haven neighborhood lies in New Rochelle’s East End, a small island of Republicans in a sea of Democrats where Dems outnumber the GOP by three to one, city-wide. Many residents are middle-class Catholics, most of those parishioners at nearby Holy Name Church, and include Leonard Paduano the last Republican Mayor of New Rochelle and James Maisano, who as the Vice Chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, is the highest ranking elected Republican in Westchester County. Many of the most active critics of the Mayor in the city are from the East End of New Rochelle, often appearing at community meetings and at Citizens to be Heard forums, typically railing against Bramson and his fellow Democrats.
Mayor Bramson, a Democrat, is from New Rochelle’s North End, a stronghold for Democrats not just in New Rochelle but county-wide. The area is predominately affluent and Jewish.
Since 1995, when Bramson was first elected to City Council, the Democrats have extended their control throughout the City of New Rochelle and today dominate every aspect of public life -- City Council, Civil Service Commission, IDA, Planning, Zoning and every other appointed committee, as well as the local School Board and the Municipal Housing Authority.
This has bred a good deal of resentment towards the Mayor who is perceived by residents from the East End (as well as South End and West End) to be a Machiavellian character intent on shifting everything loud, dirty, noisy or otherwise unwelcome away from the North End where his support is based and into other neighborhoods to the South. The facts support this perception.
In the case of the proposed group home, Sun Haven residents initially contended that a disproportionate number of groups homes were placed in the East End, some said there were three group homes. In fact, there is just one group home, on Spencer Drive, a street in a non-contiguous neighborhood nearby.
There are currently 19 group homes in New Rochelle. An analysis of the group home date shows that a majority of group homes are located in the two North End Council Districts (5 in District 6 and 6 in District 5, Bramson’s home district). Not only is their not a preponderance of groups homes in the East End but District 2, represented by Tarantino and which includes the East End, has the least amount of group homes in New Rochelle.
Bramson was asked about Talk of the Sound's analysis of group home distribution in New Rochelle.
"As the statistics you cite illustrate, group homes are distributed fairly evenly across the city,” said Bramson.
As to charges that he has sought to influence the location of a group home during his nearly two decades on City Council, Bramson says it never happened.
"I have never attempted to ‘push' a group home either toward or away from any particular neighborhood, and my response to this particular group home proposal would be the same regardless of the council district in which it was located," said Bramson.
"I do not remember formally opposing any prior group home proposal, but have not reviewed the nineteen year record to be certain.”
As Mayor in a weak-Mayor form of government, Bramson would play no role in formally opposing to a proposed group home. That is a ministerial decision left to the discretion of the City Manager after vetting by the City's Site Selection Committee.
Preceding this particular case, the passive dissolution or intentional evisceration of the Site Selection Committee going back to 2008, depending on who you believe, resulted in an inactive committee with one remaining member, Kelly Johnson of the Youth Bureau.
The New Rochelle Site Selection Committee was created not long after the Padavan Law was passed during the administration of Mayor Leonard Paduano.
According to a discussion that took place at the City Council Meeting on July 15th, the Site Selection Committee perviously included one community representative from each City Council District and Johnson for a total of 7 members. It remains unclear precisely what happened with the Site Selection Committee.
Johnson was asked about this at the City Council meeting on July 15th. He said the committee was last active in 2008, the last time a group home was proposed for New Rochelle. As the committee had but the one function, it had not met since then, said Johnson. He said the appointed members were not re-appointed over the last 6 years. In this version of events, the Site Selection Committee passively dissolved due to inactivity.
There is some speculation that the Site Selection Committee was one of many committees that were targeted by the Mayor shortly after he was appointed Mayor by the City Council in January 2006 to complete the unexpired term of former Mayor Timothy C. Idoni. At the time, the Mayor worked to reduce, streamline or repurpose various committees such as the Waterfront Committee and the Traffic Committee.
The Mayor addressed the issue of the defunct Site Selection Committee prior to the July 15th meeting in an email to Talk of the Sound.
"The terms of most members of the Site Selection Committee had lapsed without reappointments. Neither I nor other members of the City Council were aware of this fact, and by the time it came to light, it was too late to appoint new members to address this proposal,” said Bramson.
Bramson said he does not believe that having a fully-constituted Site Selection Committee would have made any material difference in the matter of the group home at 70 Belmont Avenue but agrees that the fact that the Committee's membership had lapsed was "a real problem”.
"We should implement a process going forward to ensure that no such lapse occurs in the future and possibly to update the Committee's responsibilities,” said the Mayor.
During a discussion of the Site Selection Committee during the July 15th City Council meeting, City Manager Strome, noted that the Site Selection Committee does not, despite its name, select sites for group homes but rather passes judgement on sites that have already been selected by the group home operator consistent with the Pavadan Law and could potentially make recommendations for alternative locations.
Albert Tarantino has requested Corporation Counsel to provide City Council with a history of how the Site Selection Committee was reduced over the past decade.
The group home proposed in 2008 to which Johnson referred is now the Hanson Home located at 70 Hanson Lane off Wilmot Road in the North End of New Rochelle. It is a home for young adults, males in their mid-twenties, owned and operated by Cerebral Palsy of Westchester.
At the time the neighborhood opposed the group home and organized against it. They sought and obtained the support of Council Member Barry Fertel, a Democrat representing District 5, one of the two North End Council Districts and the District where Bramson resides and formerly represented before becoming Mayor. The home eventually opened despite neighborhood opposition.
Some feel that a major factor at play in the Mayor's decision to insert himself in a process that would typically involve just the Council Member for the District and the City Manager goes back to the Mayor's defeat in his race for Westchester County Executive.
Six months prior to the Padavan Notice sent by Cardinal McCloskey Community Services, Bramson was handed a bruising defeat by Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, currently the Republican nominee for governor seeking to unseat incumbent Andrew Cuomo.
Even the one prominent Democrat from the East End, former New York State Assemblyman Ronald C. Tocci, backed Astorino, founding the group “Democrats of Astorino”.
It was Tocci who lost to Bramson in a Democratic Party Primary in 2002 but switched parties, ran on the Republican line, defeated Bramson and then switched back to the Democratic Party, something Tocci believes Bramson has never gotten over.
The Mayor has for years privately derided East End residents as “CAVE People” or “citizens against virtually everything” for their ardent opposition to various development plans endorsed by the Mayor.
Put simply, the Mayor has no love for the East End of New Rochelle and the feeling is mutual.
That animosity was cemented once and for all in the fall of 2013.
A key factor in Bramson's defeat in the 2013 County Executive race was local opposition to a development project by Forest City/Ratner known as "Echo Bay", a proposed residential development along the Long Island Sound in the East End of New Rochelle.
When the Mayor agreed to appear at a town hall meeting at Holy Name Church during his County Executive campaign he vowed to the assembled crowd of hundreds that he would “answer every question, no matter how long it takes”.
Bramson lasted until 11 p.m. when, facing an ever-growing forest of outstretched hands waiting patiently to ask yet another round of questions, he capitulated and went home.
The Echo Bay issue, generally, and that evening, in particular, catalyzed local opposition to Bramson. "No Echo Bay" signs sprung up all over New Rochelle including the North End. As a result, having won re-election as Mayor in 2011 by an astounding 60 point margin (80-20), Bramson barely squeaked by in his own City with a 4 point margin (52-48), a stunning drop in support in just two years.
A week after his defeat in the County Executive race, Bramson had to be escorted to his home by New Rochelle Police after mayhem broke out at a City Council meeting, a meeting which City Manager Chuck Strome later called the worst City Council meeting he had ever seen.
One Council Member walked out on Bramson, another accused Bramson of "water-boarding" a third member of Council and a fourth accused Bramson of bullying members of Council. Outside, a fifth Council Member nearly came to blows with two New Rochelle residents in the parking lot.
The Mayor was angry because earlier in the day, a majority of Council Members including two Democrats voted to support a motion by Council Member Tarantino to table all discussion and votes on Echo Bay until January. After the vote, Bramson took fellow Democrat Shari Rackman into a side room and, over the next several hours during meeting breaks, was heard by many to be loudly berating her, what Tarantino later referred to as “water-boarding”. When the Council returned to session later that night, Bramson had engineered a "motion to reconsider" during which Rackman switched her vote causing Council Members and residents to explode in anger. There was screaming, shouts and threats and then someone turned out the lights in the chambers -- the police intervened in an attempt to restore order.
The backlash against the Mayor was swift, intense and bi-partisan. The Mayor apologized for his conduct at the next City Council but the damage was done. Rackman changed her vote back to her original position, suspending discussion of the project and on November 26th, after seven years of effort by the Mayor to promote the project, the Council voted 6-1, to kill the Echo Bay deal, with Bramson as the sole remaining vote in favor of the project.
The town hall meeting on June 19th took place in the same room where that deal went down to defeat.
The following day, on June 20th, City Manager Charles Strome filed a formal objection to the group home proposed for 70 Belmont Avenue with the New York State Office of Mental Health. The residents of Sun Haven, satisfied that their due process rights had been protected, resolved to let the process play out. They later issued the following statement:
The residents of the Sun Haven neighborhood of New Rochelle are committed to following the site selection process delineated under New York State's Padavan Law. Our due process rights have been preserved by the correspondence from the City of New Rochelle to New York State, dated June 20, 2014. We will abide by the decision of the State commissioner, pursuant to the terms of the statute.
At that point, the matter largely receded as a contentious public issue.
It was in this context that, for reasons not fully explained, the Mayor decided to toss gasoline on the smoldering embers of a long extinguished fire.
More than two weeks after all sides had agreed to stand down, on July 9th, the Mayor self-published an article on his personal web site, Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience.
He has spent the last two weeks actively promoting the article to the media in an effort to garner national attention for the controversy.
We will have a follow up piece on that in the coming days.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A great deal of effort went into gathering records and conducting interviews to create as complete a picture as possible of the timeline of these events. If there is information missing or a different perspective not reflected in this article please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to hear from you. Please note that Talk of the Sound has submitted various Freedom of Information requests to the City of New Rochelle. We received responses to some but not all of our requests, others are pending including files related to the changes to various City committees between 2006 and 2008 and to review all files related to group homes in New Rochelle. As we get this information we will continue to update our reporting.