Since launching Talk of the Sound last summer I have had dozens of people ask me whether the things we have been reporting about how the City of New Rochelle and City School District of New Rochelle could really be true. Especially when it comes to the schools, people just do not want to believe that their representatives could be involved in the corruption and thievery that seems to have permeated every aspect of government in the United States.
You have to wonder why people would think New Rochelle is "special" when it comes to kickbacks, misappropriation of public resources, embezzlement, fraud, and abuse of power. In just the past few years, every governor in the New York metropolitan area has been forced from office due to cronyism and corruption (don't be fooled by Jim McGreevey of New Jersey who used his sexual orientation as a pretext to leave office before the public learned he had appointed his otherwise unqualified lover to high public office). Around the country, the governor of Illinois was impeached, the governor of New Mexico is facing federal indictment, Congressman are going to prison and lower level officials in federal, state and local governments are constantly being indicted and convicted of crimes related to abusing their elective or appointed office.
The recent story in the New York Times about the New York State pension scandal provides a perfect illustration of the insidious nature of public corruption and how difficult it is to do much about it. When EVERYONE is involved who does the honest citizen turn to for help? I was particularly struck by a line from the Times's piece where State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is quoted:
“It goes to the heart of public integrity,” Mr. Cuomo said this week of the investigations, adding, “The more the scheme goes on, the more brazen, the more confident they become.”
This statement perfectly illustrates the problem in New Rochelle. The liars, cheats and thieves who have obtained power in New Rochelle have been getting away with their various schemes for so long they have become absolutely confident that they will never be held accountable. It has become so normal to these people that I actually believe that many of them no longer even realize they are breaking the law as a matter of routine. And when they are not breaking the law, they are otherwise violating the public trust to such an extend that they might as well be.
To site a few examples here:
- The New Rochelle Naval Armory was sold to the City by the State with the condition that the Armory be made a public resource. The City government paid the $1.00 the state asked, then turned around and began to actively engage in an a blatant effort to blight the building so it could be condemned so it could then justify giving it away a waterside parcel of land and building valued at $15mm for nothing to a real estate developer who has yet to move a single shovelful of earth in our City.
- The New Rochelle Industrial Development Agency, a quasi-government agency that has saddled New Rochelle residents with tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements for real estate developers, appoints two people to what amount to lifetime appointments without publishing an announcement, issuing a press release or publishing the information on their own web site.
- The New Rochelle Fire Department hires a consultant from New York City who informs them that even if every fire fighter in NRFD were to respond to a fire alarm at Trump Tower it would still be far less than the recommended number of first responders for a high-rise apartment building alarm. If the alarm is genuine and there IS a fire in a high rise the consultant told NRFD they would need double the number of firefighters which, of course, New Rochelle does not have.
- The City School District of New Rochelle produces a budget which hides millions and millions of dollars in spending through a wide range of accounting tricks and basing their estimate of the required tax increase to support their budget on an assumption that property values have declined this year the same as last year which no sane person in New Rochelle believes to be the case.
There is not enough hours in the day for us to document on Talk of the Sound all the many ways those in power lie, cheat and steal to maintain their power and keep the pumps primed for themselves but I want to make sure folks get a chance to see how pernicious this problem is and how the game is played. Two examples will suffice:
In our recent story about a student at Isaac E. Young Middle School, the mother of the student went to the police station on three separate occasions to file charges against the security guard and was repeatedly rebuffed. There is absolutely no doubt the student is telling the truth - the student suffered bruises and scratches which were observed by school administrators, the school nurse, and an officer at NRPD. All of this was documented. He was repeatedly interviewed by lawyers, school administrators, detectives and the media and told the same consistent story every time. The kid had absolutely no motive to lie but New Rochelle officials repeatedly lied about the kid (claiming falsely that he was a gang member) and the mother (that she did not want to file charges) So, what happens? The Journal News runs a SINGLE-SOURCE story (the NRPD) claiming that they have "cleared" the guard, that the mother decided NOT to press charges and that the mother wanted to work it out the New Rochelle School District. False, false and false. First of all, how did NRPD "clear" the security guard when no charges were filed? Since when does the Journal News run single-source stories? And since when does the New Rochelle School District cooperate with the NRPD on investigations? The coordinated response between the City School District of New Rochelle, the New Rochelle Police Department and the Journal News demonstrates the power structure in New Rochelle works -- circle the wagons, shoot the messenger, poison the well.
In an ongoing story, we have been reporting on the highly-questionable "no bid" contract given to MacMenamin's Grill by the school district which bypassed the normal approval process and instead approved the six-figure contract with a voice vote on a all-but-secret resolution without public disclosure or public discussion. The contract was for a culinary arts program at Chefworks, the cooking school at MacMenamin's Grill and was criticized by the New York State comptroller in his recent audit of the school district. In response, the District lied to the Comptroller and then failed to address the issue as required in their Corrective Action Plan. We have known all along that SOME kids did attend cooking classes at Chefworks. That is not the issue. The question we have is why out of all the millions and millions of dollars spent on student services contracts by the District is this the ONLY ONE that did not go through the normal RFP process, why is there no written contract, no invoices that explain anything about how many students attended how many classes for how many hours.
No sooner did we raise this issue at a school board meeting then this announcement appeared in the Journal News:
We here at Talk of the Sound have seen this exact thing time and time again - every time we raise an issue the District tries to duck it and the works with the media (mostly the Journal News) to put out a countervailing story meant to mitigate the damage from our stories here. These sorts of manipulations are not always as transparent as it the case here - the Journal News promoted this program a week after they reported that MacMenamin's Grill & Chefworks had been shut down by the federal bankruptcy trustee overseeing the restaurant. So, why would the Journal News promote a show on Fox5 about a program that no longer exists at a cooking school they had themselves already reported was no longer in operation? And didn't anyone bother to tell the producers at Fox5 this before the package ran on TV? This sort of bizarre public relations typifies the approach of the District to dealing with questions form the public or valid criticism - get some media outlet to run a story and hope it all goes away.
It is clear to contributors on Talk of the Sound that the old media is no longer willing to serve in their traditional watchdog role and that many of the government officials elected or appointed to protect public integrity are in on the game. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Internet - blogs, twitter, podcasts, facebook, etc. - provides a new way for citizens to go around the politicians, the bureaucrats and the media hacks to speak directly to their fellow citizens.
When those people I mentioned at the top talk to me about whether things are as bad as we portray my answer is "it's worse". We only publish what we can document or double or even triple source because we know these people are watching this site everyday looking for an excuse to take legal action against the site (lawyers for the school district have already contacted my web hosting provider for that purpose). That's the bad news. The good news is that using the Internet go around the existing power structure works which is why the powers that be in New Rochelle are more than a bit rattled by this site.
But if you are reading this article and are as sick and tired as many of use here at Talk of the Sound are about the way our community is being run then stop wasting your time telling your neighbor what YOU know about the crime and corruption in New Rochelle and start reporting it here. The only way to get real change is to shine a very bright light. As Justice Brandeis famously said "sunlight is the best disinfectant". If you learn of some bad behavior by a public official report it here, if you can take a picture or -- even better - shoot some video. Most people these days have those small digital cameras and most of those can shoot video too. And almost every cell phone has a digital camera. You want to join the cause and take back New Rochelle? Start writing, start snapping photos, start shooting video and start contributing to Talk of the Sound.