The Trust Deficit That Defines New Rochelle's Municipal Government and School District

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NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- In order to function effectively, the City of New Rochelle needs for its residents to trust its public agencies -- the City School District of New Rochelle, the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority, the City of New Rochelle Municipal government, the New Rochelle Police Department, the New Rochelle City Court, the Municipal Civil Service Commission and all branches of our local public sector agencies.

Over the years, that trust has been broken.

The New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority has been caught up in various federal investigations over the years, the Municipal Civil Service Commission has been exposed as a farce under the leadership of a man unable to even read the documents placed in front of him during a meeting let alone understand them, the New Rochelle Police Department is led by a Commissioner who has been giving and getting favors from questionable characters, the New Rochelle City Court is often a justice-free zone where knowing Jimmy Generoso is more important than the law, and much more.

There are some who believe that Talk of the Sound runs every "bad" story we can on public corruption in New Rochelle. The exact opposite is the case, what we actually publish is what we can verify through highly credible sources with direct knowledge, backed up by surveillance photos and video and public records. In other words, we are presenting the tip of a very large iceberg. We have information and records on hundreds of instances of public corruption involving the vast majority of public officials in the City but have published just a small percentage of what we know.

Regular readers of Talk of the Sound know all this so our stating this now is hardly news but two recent events have brought the issue to the surface again: the "falling fence" incident at New Rochelle High School on Saturday and a 2004 letter between the City of New Rochelle and the Army Corps of Engineers recently obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

There has been significant progress in the City School District of New Rochelle under the leadership of Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff. Unfortunately, he is interim and the board is hard at work seeking to replace him. That would be a shame. The school district would benefit greatly from at least one more year under Korostoff, a man who has made abundantly clear he does not want to be the Superintendent.

Falling Fence 1263Last Saturday, five students at New Rochelle High School were injured when a fence fell on them during the New Rochelle Invitational track meet.

The City School District has initiated an internal investigation into the fence collapse. John Gallagher, Director of Buildings & Grounds, and Steve Young, the Athletic Director, have been directed by Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff to investigate what happened and present a written report to Korostoff by the end of the week.

It might serve some purpose to ask bank robbers for their version of how the cash ended up in the bags found in their getaway car, if only for the entertainment value, but other than that it is not clear how a report from Gallagher and Young can be expected to be reliable. These are the two people most directly responsible for the disastrous decision to move the fence from the McKenna Field in back of the high school to the turf field in front of the high school. Given the potential litigation the district is now facing, this report and any discussion of it by the New Rochelle Board of Education will likely occur behind closed doors so the public will never know what is in the report. Let's hope not.

The initial indications of how the District intends to handle disclosure in this matter is not promising.

On Sunday, I asked Allison Gilbert, a spokesperson for the District, for a statement on the falling fence incident and received the following (emphasis added):

During the discus event a gust of wind blew part of the fence over. Five of our students were injured and 4 were taken to Sound Shore (sic, Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital) for treatment.

All parents were either at the meet or were called and met the girls at the hospital. Natalia Brown, assistant coach, left the meet and stayed with the athletes at the hospital. Our athletic director also went to the hospital is following up all weekend.

The fence was assembled at the beginning of the track season and has been upright at McKenna Field without incident.

Our Athletic Trainer and coaches and several security and custodial personnel were on the scene immediately to lend their help.

To which I responded:

I will run this as is if you like but…

I do not believe you were on scene (I was) so perhaps you do not know the “fence”, really more like a "batting cage", was not at McKenna Field when it fell over so I not clear on this point "The fence was assembled at the beginning of the track season and has been upright at McKenna Field without incident.”

How did the fence get from McKenna Field to the turf field in the front of the school where it was located when the incident occurred? I was told it was disassembled, moved and then reassembled.

I received the following amendment to the original statement via text message (emphasis added):

More:

We decided before the meet to have the discus and shot put events on the practice field (near House 4) as we felt that having these events on McKenna Field might be hazardous -- there were too many people in that area. We moved the fence to the practice field and reassembled it there. It was part of that fence that blew over because of high winds.

The fence was assembled at the beginning of the track season and had been upright at McKenna Field without incident. The fire department disassembled the remainder of the fence so that all pieces are flat on the ground.

This expanded statement addressed my concern about the mention of the McKenna field and the absence of any reference to the turf field, and I certainly credit Allison Gilbert for being responsive to my information requests and more so that it was a Sunday, but her statement added a new problem.

Falling Fence 1262

As it happened, I received this message at the time I was walking near the scene of the falling fence incident the day before and found that while the statement as amended was now accurate regarding the fence being disassembled, moved from the back field and reassembled on the front field, it was not accurate that "all pieces are flat on the ground".

I sent Gilbert back a text message with a photo of the fences:

They are currently unsecured, leaning against a fence, there is a soccer game on the field. FYI. I am at field now.

In other words, the pieces are not all flat on the ground. My point is just that I know you want to make sure the statement is accurate and it is contradicted by what I just observed.

Gilbert responded:

Maybe they were moved? I'll dig and get back to you as soon as I can.

I did not hear back from her until today when I contacted her after seeing the original, misleading statement about McKenna Field in a story by Randi Weiner in the Journal News (emphasis added).

New Rochelle schools investigate downed fence

Observers were horrified after a piece of the fence, which had been assembled at the beginning of the track season and remained upright at McKenna Field without incident since then, blew down during a wind gust. Five New Rochelle discus throwers were caught under the heavy metal mesh when it toppled.

I first spoke with Weiner, who was not on scene the day the fence fell, who says she asked many questions of the District spokesperson, including one about the fence being moved, but did not get an answer to that particular question. She did get the statement I received, "The fence was assembled at the beginning of the track season and has been upright at McKenna Field without incident". That statement is in her story.

When asked about Weiner's article which included the statement about the fence remaining upright at McKenna field and whether that sentence included in the original statement was misleading, Gilbert said that she was not responsible for Weiner's reporting and declined to answer when asked if she thought the original statement was misleading.

Of course, Gilbert is not responsible for Weiner's reporting but reporters tend to accept official statements as being accurate. As readers know, I do not. I tend to disbelieve everything I am told, especially when it comes to official statements from the City or School District, unless it can be proven to my satisfaction. This skepticism is often warranted as the full facts come out.

At this point, the District is taking the position that they will not make any statements about what happened until they have the Gallagher-Young Report.

That has not stopped them from issuing a statement as to why the fence fell -- attributing the fence falling to a gust of wind.

It may well be that the wind caused the fence to fall over. It was windy that day. It could also be that the fence fell over because it was not assembled correctly, not properly secured, that people were leaning on it, pushing it or pulling it or some combination.

The question remains -- what was the intention of issuing a press statement which only references McKenna field. What difference does it make if the fence was set up on McKenna field since the beginning of the track season and had not fallen while it was set up there?

The issue is what happened after it was moved away from McKenna Field, the day before it fell and what happened at the front field the day it fell. That the fence did not fall at its previous location at some point before this weekend is entirely irrelevant.

Until someone proves otherwise, it is my belief based on past experience that the original misleading statement was another David Lacher - Jeff Kehl production. Trying to be clever by half, constructing a series of factually accurate sentences in such a way so as to appear to be responsive while being fundamentally misleading. This was done with the asbestos exposure incident at Davis School, the fire at New Rochelle High School where wheel-chair bound students were not evacuated, and more.

Like the school district, the City government has a habit of seeking to mislead the public.

A 2004 letter from the City to the Army Corps of Engineers, recently obtained under a Freedom of Information Request filed with the U.S. Army, raises new questions in what has been an ongoing cover-up of an Army Corps report on Echo Bay which found the area contains high levels of toxic metals including mercury, barium and lead.

It has now been 9 months since I first requested public records from the City of New Rochelle. I have received not a single document.

At issues is a study on a proposed aquatic restoration effort at Echo Bay which was requested by Rep. Nita Lowey and undertaken in 2005. The final report was issued in March 2006. The corps found large amounts of Mercury, Lead and Barium in the soil in and around Echo Bay along with other toxic metals and oil. That damming report never saw the light of day until Talk of the Sound obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information request initiated after a reader provided a 2006 email exchange between former Council Member Chris Selin and the City of New Rochelle Development Department.

Talk of the Sound has since confirmed that the report was never made public, never discussed at a City Council meeting, not made available to ALL members of City Council and withheld from the current City Council members prior to voting on the proposed Forest City Land Disposition Agreement which would have shifted all legal liability for the toxic waste to New Rochelle taxpayers.

The City Manager has claimed that the Army Corps of Engineers report is referenced in the 2013 Forest City Environmental Impact Study but has failed to produce a citation from either the Draft Environmental Impact Study or Final Environmental Impact Study to support that claim.

Pursuant to a July 2013 Freedom of Information Request by Talk of the Sound, the City of New Rochelle has not provided a single record related to this study -- and others -- along with internal communications and communications between the City of New Rochelle, developers including Forest City, and the Army Corps of Engineers. This includes the DEIS and FEIS reports which the City Manager claims reference the Army Corps of Engineers report (they do not).

City Council members Louis Trangucci, Albert Tarantino, Shari Rackman and Ivar Hyden have all privately expressed concern that the report was hidden from them as they were asked to vote on Forest City's Echo Bay Development project yet the item has never been put on the agenda for discussion at a City Council meeting.

The position of the City of New Rochelle has been variously that (a) they know nothing about any study; (b) they do know something about it but there are no records; (c) they know there were discussions between Forest City and the Army Corps of Engineers but they were not a party to those discussions; (d) the records may have existed but there was a flood and maybe they were destroyed in the flood.

In all this time of seeking records, the City has failed to turn over a single document including their side of the email exchange between Chris Selin and Suzanne D'Amato that I provided to them last summer. The "flood" would not have destroyed email records or records delivered to the City on CD (as was the case with the Army Corp report in 2006).

A few days ago, under a Freedom of Information request to the Army Corps of Engineers, I was provided a letter sent by City Manager Chuck Strome on January 21, 2004 to Eugene Brickman, Chief of the Plan Formulation Branch with the Army Corps of Engineers of in New York City.

In the letter, Strome states that he is responding to the Preliminary Restoration Plan for Echo Bay dated November 2003. He notes that the PRP was "prepared under the authority of Section 206: Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration, Water Resources Development Act of 1996".

Strome says New Rochelle agrees with the recommendations in the Plan to return "this deteriorated, urbanized environment to a functional wetland ecosystem."

Strome then confirms the City's understanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will undertake a $600,000 Ecosystem Restoration Report funded entirely the Army Corps of Engineers after which the City will have the opportunity to enter into a cost sharing agreement for the construction and the study costs which are estimated at $3,000,000.

Strome concludes:

Given that understanding, we agree to serve as the non-Federal partner and share in the costs of feasibility and construction in accordance with Section 206 requirements, subject to the feasibility report recommendation and signing of the Project Cooperation Agreement.

Echo Bay is critical (sic) element of the City's redevelopment and revitalization program. We look forward to working with the Corps on this important ecosystem restoration project.

A copy of the letter can be found here

Given the nature of this letter -- committing the City of New Rochelle to a multi-million dollar partnership with the Federal government -- how can City officials now credibly claim to not have a single record related to this project, not even this letter which binds the City to a deal with the Army Corps?

It is not credible, as is clearly evidenced on the pained face of the Mayor each time I bring this matter up during City Council meetings.

Whether it be the falling fence incident at the high school or the toxic metals in Echo Bay, serving up the sort of deception being practiced in New Rochelle destroys the bonds of trust in a community.

Our community cannot function effectively without those bonds.

Our Mayor learned what happens when a government official attempts to deceive all of the people all of the time; years of work to develop the waterfront along Echo Bay goes up in a puff of smoke, along with your political career.

Noam Bramson's demise as a political force should serve as a cautionary tale for other City Council members, School Board members and those who occupy various positions of power in our city government, court system, school district and so forth -- tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, especially when it comes to matters of the health and safety of the residents you purport to represent.

RELATED:

Why is City of New Rochelle Stonewalling on Army Corps of Engineers Report?

Long Hidden 2006 Army Corps of Engineers Report Found High Levels of Hazardous, Toxic Metals in Channels Flanking Proposed Echo Bay Development

How Come No One in New Rochelle Knows Nuthin' About Army Corps of Engineers Study of Echo Bay?

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