By Beth Mellow
In a crowded upstairs room at Council House on West 72nd Street last Thursday evening, six Democratic candidates, and one Green party candidate for City Council, debated and discussed hotbed issues ranging from affordable housing to city taxes. The candidates are vying for an opportunity to secure the District 6 City Council seat vacated by Gale Brewer when she announced that she would run for Manhattan Borough President earlier this year. The Democratic primary for City Council will take place in September.
Candidates participating in last week’s meeting included (in alphabetical order) Ken Biberiaj, Debra Cooper, Noah Gotbaum, Marc Landis, Helen Rosenthal, Tom Siracuse, who is a Green Party member, and Mel Wymore. Although there were many nuanced differences, and a few larger divides, in the way candidates viewed topics, a belief that the community needed to secure more control over its destiny emerged as the central thesis of the evening. Time and time again, in regards to various municipal issues including education and housing, the candidates declared that the state government, or mayoral appointees, hold too much of the power in policy making.
In addition, each of the candidates also debated issues not only relevant to the Upper West Side community, but also the city at large, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. As one candidate, Debra Cooper, stated, “The Upper West Side is a specific geographic space but we have always been the leader on progressive issues affecting the rest of the city, state, and country.”
Last week’s event was hosted by the Social Action Committee of the National Council of Jewish Women, New York, West Side Federation of Neighborhood & Block Associations, and the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development. Here is a summary of how candidates weighed in on various topics.
While all seven candidates expressed concerned over rising rents on the Upper West Side and throughout New York City, each came to the topic with varying opinions on how to cap increasing housing costs. Some of the candidates mentioned problems surrounding the Urstadt law, which enables state government, instead of New York City, to set parameters for rent regulation, while others talked about the need to bring Mitchell-Lama style housing back for the middle class. See their opinions below:
Tom Siracuse: “I live in a rent control apartment, and if it weren’t for rent control, I wouldn’t be here today. Rent regulated apartments form the bedrock of working class and middle class people living in the city.”
Debra Cooper: “We need to repeal the Urstadt law. We can’t accomplish this without getting the Republicans out of control of the state senate. That will require some political organizing.”
Helen Rosenthal: “We have to work harder to connect with the community [on housing issues]. I worked with residents of Trinity House (a Mitchell-Lama building located on West 92nd street) to fend off a purchaser. They are now hoping to have a tenant buyout.”
Ken Biberiaj: “We have to support the young families that are living here and we have to hold HPD accountable to make sure that rent stabilized units are not deregulated.”
Mel Wymore: “Housing is a broken system in New York City because there are so many different programs between the city and the state working at odds with each other.”
From overcrowded classrooms to free tuition at CUNY, all the candidates felt passionately about the state of education on the Upper West Side and throughout the city. Many of the candidates had personal experience with the New York City public school system, including Siracuse, who spent 29 years as a high school teacher; Landis, who helped establish Frank McCourt High School; and Gotbaum, who has been part of school boards and parent organizations over the past several years. Read what some of the candidates had to say about the current school system and how to improve it.
Marc Landis: “We need to give families options that don’t cost $40,000 a year.” He also stated, “I want to make sure the city council has more of a say on educational policies. It shouldn’t be only up to mayoral appointees.”
Noah Gotbaum: “I have fought against charter schools, high stakes testing, and demonizing teachers. The DOE right now doesn’t listen to parents and communities and are out to privatize our schools.”
Tom Siracuse: “We must restore free tuition at CUNY for students who graduate from New York City public schools.”
Debra Cooper: “We need to improve access to early childhood education. When you prepare kids as preschoolers, they do better once they get to grade school.” She added, “We need to work on classroom overcrowding too. The current elementary school bulge, will become a middle school bulge, which will in turn become a high school bulge.”
Ken Biberiaj: He believes it’s important to provide children with access to their local schools rather than sending them to other neighborhoods. “We’re zoned for P.S. 87 and we only have a four percent chance of getting our child into preschool there. When a school is right there, it doesn’t make sense that they won’t enroll your child.”
Mel Wymore: “We need to make sure that our resources are shared more effectively. There are some PTAs with million dollar budgets, while others have only $20,000.”
City Council and the Mayor’s Office
All seven candidates agreed that there was a need for reform, or at least some improvement, in the functioning of City Hall and City Council. In fact, certain candidates believed that Speaker Christine Quinn’s relationship with Mayor Bloomberg had become too friendly, and as a result, is affecting proceedings at City Council. Additionally, others felt that Quinn’s leadership is skewed, claiming that she favors districts where council members are most helpful in pushing forth her agenda.
Noah Gotbaum: “City Council has become a lap dog. Christine Quinn and Bloomberg have gone together like this (shows crossed fingers to the audience). We need a strong City Council.”
Ken Biberiaj: “While I don’t agree with Bloomberg on everything that he has done, I believe that we have made progress on many fronts over the past few years.”
Marc Landis: “We need to break ties that bind in the council. I will only support a next speaker who will work on creating those reforms.”
Debra Cooper: She believes that Quinn favors some council members, and by extension, their communities, based on their loyalty to her. Cooper explained, “You shouldn’t have the power to punish those who do not support you.”
Tom Siracuse: “We need a city council that is not dominated by one party.”
The candidates also weighed in on city income tax. All believed that there were issues with the current system, with many citing the fact that the current tax laws impose the same percentage on all residents who earn more than $60,000 annually.
Ken Biberiaj: “We don’t have control of our destiny. We have a 70 billion dollar budget in New York City, but so much, including taxation, lies beyond our control.”
Marc Landis: “As a member of the Democratic party, I have been a proponent of the progressive tax through and through.”
Noah Gotbaum: “It was our own Democratic party that took a pass on the millionaire’s tax.”
Recovery from Super Storm Sandy
Although District 6 was minimally affected by the hurricane, recovery and future preparation was still important to many of the candidates.
Mel Wymore: “We need to re-design our drainage system because currently our drainage system and sewage system are connected [which creates a whole host of problems during and after a major storm].”
Helen Rosenthal: “We need to demand from the government that they issue bonds [to help with the recovery].”
Noah Gotbaum: “There was a shortsightedness in excluding the community from preparation. We had 20,000 New York Cares volunteers interested in helping out, but no way to get involved.”
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