Letter to the Editor: League urges a “No” vote on ward system referendum

September 23, 2011
by Sheila Bernson and Jennifer Mebes Flagg

After a membership meeting in which the referendum* to increase the size of the New Castle Town Board and to change the system of electing board members was thoroughly explored, the League of Women Voters of New Castle arrived at a consensus to oppose the referendum. The League urges residents to vote no on this referendum on November 8th.

Background Information

New Castle has 17,600 residents and about 12,000 voters. It currently has an at-large system of electing the Town Board, which means all the town’s voters elect the four board members plus the supervisor. The four board members each serve four-year terms (two elected every two years) and the supervisor serves a two-year term. Each board member is paid $10,250 per year and the supervisor is paid $42,865 per year.

The referendum calls for New Castle residents to adopt a ward system and to increase the size of the Town Board from the present number—four board members plus the supervisor—to six board members plus the supervisor.

Under a ward system, the six board members would each be elected from one of six separate wards, the boundaries of which would be determined by the Westchester County Board of Elections should the referendum succeed. Each ward would have about 3,000 residents and 2,000 voters. Under the statute, board members would serve two-year terms with elections to be held every two years.

Only 11 towns out of 932 in New York State have a ward system. The 11 towns all have a larger population than New Castle. None of the towns in Westchester and only two cities (New Rochelle and Yonkers) out of the six cities in Westchester operate under a ward system.

League Process and Position

Since learning of the petition for the referendum, the League has conducted a study, including interviewing current and former town officials, town residents, proponents of the referendum and others. The League’s primary focus has been on the most significant part of the referendum - changing the method of electing our board members.

The League does not believe a ward system form of government with six wards would be in the best interests of our town. Among the reasons for the League’s opposition to the referendum are the following:

Town fragmentation. Currently the Town Board is elected by and represents all of New Castle and is answerable to every citizen of the town. The Town Board primarily deals with issues affecting the entire town. In a ward system, each board member would be answerable to only residents in his or her ward.  In addition, more focus could potentially be on narrower issues relevant to only one or two wards. New Castle is not large enough to justify such a major change in its government.

Decrease in continuity. Electing a new Town Board every two years is inefficient and probably would have a deleterious effect on continuity and long-range planning.

Increased costs. Two additional board members would result in an increase in costs to New Castle residents. Also, it is ill-advised to increase policy-makers at a time when the Town’s administrative staff is being reduced.

Ability to get qualified candidates. Prior to this year, New Castle had not had a contested election for board members in many years. Under the ward system it may be difficult to get the most qualified candidates for Town Board from six different wards of only 2,000 voters each.

Finally, it is important to note that the League did not study the issue of whether New Castle’s government is transparent or responsive enough. Rather, we studied whether the referendum would improve the transparency and responsiveness of the Town Board. We concluded it would not.

The League is planning an informational meeting for the community on October 17th. We believe that this is a very important issue for residents of New Castle and we hope to see everyone there.

Sheila Bernson and Jennifer Mebes Flagg
Co-Presidents of the League of Women Voters of New Castle
September 22, 2011

*The referendum is as follows: “That a) the number of at-large seats on the Town Board be increased from four to six; and b) that these six members of the Board be elected as representatives of each of six wards respectively of the Town of New Castle, to be defined in accordance with the laws of New York State, Town Law, Article 6, Section 85.”

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

wondering if it would be more cost effective to change everyone’s address to:  town of new castle.  of course, it wouldn’t, but there’s got to be a solution to this division and inequitable representation.

i think it’s a good idea and none of your reasons have convinced me it’s not.

By wondering on 09/23/2011 at 8:15 am

While I encourage change and applaud the new candidates that will finally challenge the old guard in New Castle I can not support a “ward system”. We are a small community and a ward system would only tear apart and polarize us.

The biggest mistake and most damaging community initiative was to build a second middle school creating redistricting and fracturing our students and parents. Lets eliminate a middle school and bring the community back together. In NY State there are approx 1000 “towns” holding elections and only 11 have a ward system.

My understanding is that those 11 wards are bigger and have significant demographic and socioeconomic diversity issues. New castle can come together we do not need to split apart based on which street we live on or whether we go to 1 middle school or another, or whether we have a sewer or septic tank. Every town has some small number of residents that have a mailing address in the community but their children attend another district (or go to private school). This should not determine the desire for a ward system.

By chapp tax payer on 09/23/2011 at 8:25 am

If the ward proposal had been to keep the number of board members at four and to continue to elect them to staggered, four year terms, many of the League’s concerns would disappear. There would be no increased costs, no lack of continuity, and qualified candidates would be easier to recruit. The only remaining issue would be “town fragmentation,” which of course is exactly the issue this referendum is intended to address.

The League may like to believe that New Castle is one big happy town, and that the town board dutifully represents the interests of all residents, but those of us who live on the geographical margins of this community know differently. To say, as the League does, that our interests and concerns, which are sometimes very different from those of Chappaqua residents, are narrow and unworthy of representation on the town board, is to prove the case that many of us have been trying to make for years.

By Bill Kurth on 09/23/2011 at 12:47 pm

@ Bill Kurth

The League has not said that this is one big happy town.  The League has not said that the Town dutifully represents the interest of all residents.  The League most certainly did not say that any resident’s concerns are unworthy of representation.  Perhaps you should re-read the League’s letter.

I understand the motivation for the ward proposal,  however there is no reason to believe a priori that the ward proposal would do what Mr. Areces says that it will do.  It may serve to make the Town even more fragmented.
Many folks in New Castle feel marginalized, not just those living on the geographical margins of the town. 

By Roberta Galant on 09/23/2011 at 5:00 pm

While I appreciate the League’s efforts in doing this study, I am disappointed the the League has chosen to tell citizens how to vote. While the League is an advocacy group, it is non-partisan and should presents its position without “urging” voters one way or another.

By Audrey Rabinowitz on 09/23/2011 at 6:53 pm

@ Roberta Galant

Thank you for your observations, and thank you for signing your name. Some of your points are well taken. It was wrong of me to extrapolate from what your League’s letter actually says to my impression of what I believe your League is trying to convey.

For example, the League’s letter flatly states that the town board as presently constituted represents all of New Castle, but I believe that’s only true in an a priori sense—my experience tells me differently. On the other hand, you are wrong to assume that I agree with Mr. Areces about what this referendum will or will not do. But my real reason for responding is, I’m eager to know who you are referring to when you say that “many folks in New Castle feel marginalized.” I don’t want to repeat my mistake of extrapolating—instead, I’ll just ask you directly who you are talking about. Please let me know at your convenience. Thank you.

By Bill Kurth on 09/23/2011 at 9:25 pm

This is more of the same.  First the local democratic counsel consisting of a handful of people determines who will run on the democratic line and now a handful of member of the LWV advocates against change that will address in part the first problem mentioned.

A ward system will not change the fiduciary obligation of members of the board to serve the entire community.  The problem is that many times there are conflicting interests within the town on various issues and significant parts of the town are under represented at the table. 

The resident of NC in the West-End are constantly being ignored.  Their issues take second place on the priority list.  At least in the ward system, every smaller ward would have a seat at the table.  Remember, the vote is still one vote per council member so I imagine there will be more split votes, but so what?  That is good in fact.

The belief that there will be turnover every two years is fallacious as well.  If a sitting council member is doing a good job, they will get reelected.  There will be continuity with the good members.  The weak members will be voted out.

But, while I support this proposal, I think another proposal would have also helped this town.  Eliminate the ability for candidates to run on a party line or affiliation.  There is no need to associate with any party for these local elections.  It is counter productive and divisive for no reason.  The only thing that should be on the ballot is the candidates name.

By Ted Gross on 09/23/2011 at 11:40 pm

New Castle has many challenges facing it now and in the future.

To fragment the representation is to fragment the community spirit.

All who live in New Castle are my neighbors, not just those who live in my cul de sac.

Those who call for a ward system just wish to serve their political party, not the town.

Beware of this political move.

By United we stand on 09/24/2011 at 12:57 am

The LWV states: “Currently the Town Board is elected by and represents all of New Castle and is answerable to every citizen of the town.” 

My experience is the majority of the Town Board members do not act is as if they are answerable to every citizen of the town.  I personally left messages for each of the TB members on two occasions this past year and the only one who returned my call was Mike Wolfensohn.  (Interestingly, he is the one who hasn’t been endorsed by his party for re-election.) 

I’ve also attended Town Board meetings and my feel from the gallery is that the Town Board members consider the participating residents to be an inconvenience if not the opposition.  During the public comment section at one of the meetings, when a resident requested information and was told by the Supervisor, Barbara Gerrard, that “This isn’t a Question and Answer session.” 

Something certainly needs to be changed with the New Castle town government.  New Castle deserves a board that is concerned with the residents and businesses who are here.  While the League may disagree with this referendum, I applaud those who worked hard to get it on the ballot, as well as the candidates who are challenging the one-party government we’ve had for the past 17 years.

By Robin Murphy on 09/24/2011 at 9:39 am

Chappaqua Taxpayer;  I think you miss the point of concern for the Taxpayers of the Town of New Castle..We are currently a polarized Community.  Your tag Chappaqua Taxpayer is a case in point. There is no “Chappaqua” to pay taxes to, although I am sure the US Postal Service would be happy to receive a check.  I have gratefully paid my taxes to our town for 27 years! Our elected and appointed officials are dedicated and professional.  However the residents of Kisco Park, the West End and much of Millwood have not had any of our Residents nominated to run for Town Board by either political party.  This also exists on the Appointed Planning board, Zoning Board etc.

New Castle HAS Demographic and socioeconomic isues, based on School Districts and the value of Real Estate based on them.

You feel that the most damaging Community Initiative is your second Middle School, and it may be for your School District, but it is NOT most Damaging for the New Castle Community at Large.

We ALL need to Identify ourselves as living in New Castle, and not in a Postal Service district. When we do this then we will have a Town unified in Identity and purpose.

By New Castle "Westy" on 09/24/2011 at 11:18 am

Mr. Gross,

It also bothers me that “the local democratic counsel consisting of a handful of people determines who will run on the democratic line”. 

But, when 23 members of an organization, any organzation, unanimously agree on something, anything, it does mean something to me.  I share their concerns, and I’m not part of the political machine of this town, nor do I have ties to their organization.

I like your suggestion to “eliminate the ability for candidates to run on a party line or affiliation”.  I agree that “it is counter productive and divisive for no reason”.  And I agree that “the only thing that should be on the ballot is the candidate’s name.”

But I don’t think a new proposal is necessary to achieve that.  If anyone feels underrepresented, they can and should run.  With on-line publications like NewCastleNOW, The Patch and The Daily Chappaqua anyone can offer ideas for changing what doesn’t work in our town and run for the Town Board.  And, as you said, there would be “no need to associate with any party for these local elections”.

The solution to the problem is getting more people involved & running for office, not this referendum.

By Rob Greenstein on 09/24/2011 at 4:59 pm

Mr. Greenstein,

I appreciate your willingness to put yourself out there, to remain active and state your position on issues here on this message board.  I will vote for you.

But, this referendum is not a negative.  An elected official to the Town of New Castle Board would have a fiduciary duty to the entire town, not just their ward.  However, it would ensure that every part of this Town would have a seat at the table.  What is wrong with that?

If the issue is getting enough people to run from each ward, that is a different issue that needs to be addressed, but structurally, giving everyone a seat at the table is a good thing.  If there are 7 wards, what is wrong with a 5-2 vote on an issue?  Nothing, but hopefully, in the discussion process those 2 wards would be able to express their point of view and influence the issue.

Even you was a big opponent of Chappaqua Crossing in the developer proposed form would concede that a West-ender had every interest in supporting the proposal.  They are part of this town too.  They deserve a seat at the table.  So do all the other parts of NC that may not be in Chappaqua or in the CCSD.

Then, to have the LWV put out an ignorant poorly thought out position on the issue is simply disappointing.

By Ted Gross on 09/25/2011 at 1:51 pm

Mr. Gross, I truly appreciate everything you wrote in your 1st paragraph - even without the last sentence - thank you!

I think we’re in agreement about the problems with our current system, and both recognize the issues.  But, we disagree, to a certain extent, about the potential impact & willingness to accept these potential impacts.

Granted, if I was one of the residents of the West End who felt under represented, that my interests were being ignored &/or it wasn’t a level playing field, I would be more willing to accept these risks.

I believe, though, that we can address their concerns but do so in a way that minimizes the negative risks. This contested election is certainly a step in the right direction.  The fact is that although I don’t live in the West End, I could.  I live near 133 & 7 Bridges - to my left is Millwood - to my right is Mt. Kisco.  But, my point is that anyone from the West End could run & do exactly what I’m doing.  I’m not saying I’m going to win but I think most would agree that I have a shot.  And, if I am fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to win, maybe the residents of the West End would see that I am looking out for their interests.  Only time will tell.  But I don’t think it would be fair for anyone to assume I won’t (and I’m not saying that you are making that assumption). 

Maybe the solution is something as simple as increasing the size of the board to 7 members. Or, another option is your suggestion to “eliminate the ability for candidates to run on a party line or affiliation.  There is no need to associate with any party for these local elections.  It is counter productive and divisive for no reason.  The only thing that should be on the ballot is the candidates name”. 

My main point is that we should see what happens with this election, and then thoroughly explore other options, before rushing to pass this referendum.

By Rob Greenstein on 09/25/2011 at 9:19 pm

What are the fiduciary duties facing Chappaqua that need to be addressed?

What are the fiduciary duties facing Stanwood that need to be addressed?

What are the fiduciary duties facing Millwood that need to be addressed?

What are the fiduciary duties facing the West End that need to be addressed?

What fiduciary duties currently have to be fulfilled, that have not been fulfilled, where such matters are presently affecting all, or each of the four areas? Explain?

Who would the candidates state for the record as individuals at Town Hall who have not carried out their fiduciary duties, and what would you do about it?  Explain?

All candidates please post your remarks here!

By Fiduciary duty! on 09/26/2011 at 6:59 pm

I am confused about exactly what issues the TB decides in favor of one segment of the community versus others.  The Gazebo decision, the once-a-week garbage decision, the endless bridge construction mess (that had destroyed downtown) for 5? years now, affect us all.
The CC issue affects us all since it changes the character and rural ambience of the town and creates traffic issues for all of us including traffic and parking issues, especially for commuters. Everyone has objected to the endless bridge non-construction and the failed promises of completion. EVERYONE west of the village—and that is most residents—has to use that bridge and it has been a hardship.  The TB try to pass the responsibility on to the DOT but what have they done to pressure the DOT of even monitor the progress?

I think we would have more power as residents to pressure the board if they were all beholden to all of us, instead of just to a smaller constituency. As it is, hardly anyone attends TB meetings unless there is a hot issue such as CC.  And when the town got together as a community, concerned about community interests, the TB paid attention.

The school district is a valid point, but CCSD decisions are made by the school board.

BTW, I live on the western end of town.

Editor’s Note: Bridge construction has lasted about three years.

By Don't quite understand on 09/27/2011 at 12:00 pm

If you are an elected official of this town, ward or no ward system, you have a fiduciary obligation to represent the interests of all the residents of this town. I cannot for the life of me understand why a ward system would change that.

But, that does not mean everyone’s interests are the same.  The easiest example is CC. If you live west of 100 in the area of Amsterdam field, traffic is not an issue near CC. Their children do not even attend HGHS.  But if it was approved, any increase in the taxes collected would be a benefit to them without the negatives of traffic or change of character of the hamlet of Chappaqua. To them, not approving the largest development raised their taxes by missing an opportunity to lower them. While the Town of NC spends beaucoup on trying to improve downtown Chappaqua, it has done nothing but replace the sidewalk in Millwood. Do you know there are parts of NC that are in the Ossining and Yorktown schools?

Or, do you think that those of us who live near town have any issue with the expansion of the playing fields at Amsterdam or approving the building of the new Mosque there too? Nope. Won’t have anything but a positive affect for most of New Castle, but the traffic and noise from both will have a definite affect on nearby residents. NCastle is huge and has many issues that affect some segments more than others. The mistake many make is to equate Chappaqua with New Castle.

The ward system will benefit this town by giving everyone a seat at the table. Why would you not want to have every point of view represented? One reason is if you live near Chappaqua and another is if you want to continue with the king making type of party system that currently anoints our council members.

There really are few negatives to this change. Change is the operable word. People and especially politicians are afraid of change. Let us embrace change and be an inclusive community that values all parts of it rather than the exclusionary club it has become.

By Ted Gross on 09/28/2011 at 12:17 am

New Castle is not huge, but perhaps those living on the borders would be happier as part
of their surrounding towns.  Maybe that should be explored rather than rushing into
this ward idea.  Any change such as the ward proposal should have much more study and
should not be pushed on the residents as is being tried by of a small group of discontents.

By Why so fast ? on 09/28/2011 at 8:55 am

Following several weeks of belly-aching by a few malcontents who live in the “West End” of New Castle has only served to reinforce my original opposition to the idea of a ward system.  I don’t want to be represented by these nuts.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with Millwood and the contention that the “West End” is being maltreated by the Town Board is ridiculous.

By Longtime Millwood Resident on 09/28/2011 at 2:54 pm

After reading all these comments I’m convinced that this ward system is a bad idea.  It would benefit only a handful of NC residents.  Government must do what’s best for the community, at large.  It would be a mistake to encourage our elected officials to look out only for the interests of those in their ward.

By I'm convinced on 09/29/2011 at 8:20 am

I am disappointed that Longtime Millwood Resident thinks that there are a few “malcontents” “belly-aching.”

The concerns of the West End need to be considered.  As Ted Gross has pointed out, issues such as the expansion of the playing fields at Amsterdam is a good example. The Millwood Task Force, an advisory board to the Town, was completely surprised by the sudden decision to build a second field on the site.

I am not a longtime resident; I have only lived here for a decade.  I have served a term on the Millwood Task Force, attended Planning Board and Town Board meetings, and spoken with the Town Supervisor and Administrator about my concerns.

I do wonder how the concerns of those of us who live in the West End, in the Ossining School district, are balanced against the concerns of those living in Chappaqua and the Chappaqua School district.

As an example, I was appalled to attend a Planning Board meeting and hear someone describe Hoag’s Cross Road as wide enough for the volume of two way traffic that has been generated by the playing fields.  Either the speaker had never had the experience of being confronted by a car approaching him head on, as I have been many times, requiring me to pull over and stop to avoid a collision, or he had never been on the road.

A well qualified member of the West End applied to serve on the Planning Board and was rejected; in the past, members of the West End have served in many capacities but for some reason over the past decade the composition of the boards has changed.

Please consider that rather than being a “small group of discontents” many of us are public minded citizens, ready and willing to serve, who are frustrated at not having a voice in decisions that profoundly affect the quality of our lives.

By Connie Knapp on 09/30/2011 at 10:56 am

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