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Board of Trustees Commits to Communications; New Turnaround Time for Sign Requests

yardsignsIn recognition of its efforts to assist the village in improving communications with residents over the past two years, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees voted to advance the ad hoc communications committee as a permanent village council. The new Scarsdale Advisory Council on Communications will continue to work with village staff in supporting public communications and promoting community engagement in public affairs.

According to Trustee Jane Veron, the move is “a tribute to the high quality and positive impact of this hard-working committee… I’ve never seen a group that has worked so hard, truly.” She continued, “The MVP is… Deputy Village Manager Rob Cole – and the voice of Scarsdale Official – enabling us to become more transparent and as open as we possibly can be.”

Mayor Dan Hochvert summarized the village’s interest in improved communications by reading the resolution: ”There is substantial civic value in the effective and efficient exchange of information between village government and the public, using methods and practices that recognize the range of individual communication preferences and needs under both routine and non-routine circumstances.” He continued, “The Scarsdale Ad Hoc Committee on Communications… has demonstrated the value of resident volunteers working in an advisory capacity to shape communication strategies and promote community participation in local governance.”

Dara Gruenberg (Hampton Road), representing the committee, summarized the group’s recommendations to create a foundation for future communications activities: 1) establish a formal communications policy; 2) appoint a public information officer; 3) consider use of social media and develop related policy; 4) develop staff-generated content/communications materials; 5) continue to develop committee/council-generated content; 6) standardize a visual identity for Scarsdale/create branding policy; 7) better utilize Scarsdale Public TV in general communications; and 8) engage in proactive media relations and outreach.

Gruenberg then discussed suggested responsibilities for the group as it moves forward. First, it urges continued active village input in communications planning, “Robert Cole has been invaluable… the committee urges Mr. Cole’s continued participation,” she said. Gruenberg continued by stating that, unlike other boards and councils, communications committee members also participate in other village committees, and this practice should continue to provide a cross-section of ideas and variety of perspectives to Scarsdale messaging efforts. “Committee composition should be partially refreshed annually to promote resident participation,” she offered.

The committee also believes that the village should outline clear, actionable goals and specific assignments each year to continue progress and provide opportunity for measurable results. In addition, the group asks the village to use its 2017 communications proposal as guide in planning for longer-term projects. “The 2017 report continues to accurately illustrate the current state of communications and should be used as a guide for future projects and be updated as needed,” Gruenberg said. She then concluded her comments by relaying that, if the board established a permanent committee, the body should be advisory in nature, assisting a public information officer or designated staff person in completing tasks.

As the resolution states, the village hopes that the new council will help village officials to “foster public trust and confidence in local government” and to develop “communications that successfully reach diverse audiences…(and) cultivate an informed and engaged community, nurture enhanced public involvement in official decision-making, and constitute a hallmark of local government excellence.”

Sign Amendment Approved; Discussion Continues
The board of trustees also passed an amendment to the village code on “Streets, Sidewalks and Public Places” during the meeting. The change, which had been discussed publicly in past weeks, is administrative in nature, and outlines the maximum time period for the village engineer to approve or deny an application to place signage in the village right of way. Specifically, it states, “The village engineer’s decision to grant or deny a permit application shall be made within three business days after a completed permit application has been received by the village.“

Prior to voting, the trustees held a public hearing on the matter, which yielded interesting commentary.

Trustee Carl Finger stated that, ”We believe this issue merits a broader conversation… whether it’s more permissive, less permissive. For the moment, it was mentioned to us that there should be some time period for the village engineer to (respond to applications).”

Mark Lewis (Brewster Road) first pointed out some ambiguity in the proposed change. “I understand the only thing you want to change (now) is to (specify) a three-day waiting period. I feel the problem with the proposed law, as the Democratic chair, (is that it doesn’t address whether) I need to get permission for every individual sign… It doesn’t say where, when, how many… I can’t see how you can pass this… without being more specific… We need clarification on whether we need one form for each location, one form for each candidate…”

Mayor Hochvert responded that, “We are going to go into many of those issues you raised; right now, we have the one item that we need to take care of.”

Later, Bob Berg (Tisdale Road) said, “I strongly oppose this proposed amendment to the village code… as a violation of residents’ constitutional rights… This board has never explained to the public the purpose of the amendment, why it’s needed and what’s driving it… Don’t you think you owe the village residents an explanation of why you’re changing the village code? And, why are you doing it piecemeal? Why are you so vague? … You should be analyzing the whole issue at once… Be open about why you’re doing it.” He continued, “Why does this code govern political signs at all? That’s unconstitutional, that’s un-American. Don’t you think there’s a problem here, with what you are doing? No one’s talking about commercial signs… This is what we do in America… You are trying to impede that.”

Michael Levine (Walworth Avenue) then asked, “What happens if the village engineer doesn’t respond in three days, is the sign approved or not? I think it should be made clear.” He then offered that the engineer may be out of the office or on vacation when applications are pending. Finger responded that while the amendment does not specifically address what happens if there is no response, the village has “a succession of staff, so that the absence of the village engineer should not preclude a response.”

Lewis followed up by asking if there was an appeal process to overrule the engineer’s decision, should he deny a request, and Finger replied, “No, there are legal remedies, but none in the village.”

After the conclusion of public comments, Trustee Justin Arest offered his opinion on the issue. “Just because someone may think or state something is unconstitutional, it doesn’t mean that it necessarily is, respectfully… The public right of way is not private property; the public right of way is public property. We are not doing anything that actually touches property owners’ rights… In fact, because public property is the public right of way, this (deals with) everyone’s property… not just what’s in front of your own house.” He went on, “In response to the idea of political signs, to discuss anything other than being content-neutral would be unconstitutional. As a government, we can regulate size, materials… We have an obstruction provision… having to deal with public safety… There was an unlimited amount of time for the engineer to respond. So, what we’re doing… is saying let’s fix this defect now.” Continuing on his view of public right of way, Arest said, “My belief is that Clarence Thomas was pretty clear; public rights of way are very different from private property… We can regulate based on aesthetics and public safety…. Content is irrelevant; it has to be looked at as if it was just a sign.”

Trustee Seth Ross agreed, stating, “This is a measure that is necessary to correct what we believe is a defect in the ordinance… Unless I’m mistaken, I’ve heard no actual reason not to adopt this amendment.”

In addition to establishing the new communications council, passing the administrative amendment to the village code governing signage in the public right of way, and providing updates on various committee projects, the trustees heard residents raise a number of issues during public comments.

Ron Schulhof (Springdale Road) reminded residents that the LED streetlight pilot will soon end and the public is asked to provide feedback on lights in 11 locations throughout residential areas in the village (two in each neighborhood). To provide your opinion, email by November 19.

In addition to his comments on the pending sign amendment, Mark Lewis mentioned an opportunity to assist local police. “County police have offered to do free dispatching for all communities from 12:00 to 8:00. The only community that has taken them up on this is Tuckahoe. Why hasn’t Scarsdale taken them up on this offer? It can free a police officer or civilian from doing that and, since there’s no charge from the county, it’s a win-win situation.”

Gregg Schwinn (Barry Road), representing the Drake-Edgewood Neighborhood Association, began his comments by expressing appreciation to village staff, particularly Josh Ringel, for improving safety at the crosswalk near the intersection of Post and Edgewood Roads. “It’s a dangerous crossing across a four-lane road... Equipment is being installed this week, in a short time span.” He then went on to discuss the concerns of retirees in his neighborhood regarding rising taxes. and what village can do to entice people to stay in Scarsdale once their children move.

Carol Silverman (Spier Road), a member of the Scarsdale Senior Council, responded by explaining activities for local seniors. “Through the recreation department, we do have all kinds of programs… we also have some lectures and some trips. We can keep you busy and its only $15.00 per year… It’s a good organization to join… Go online at… I hope your senior citizen neighbor will go along with that.” Schwinn expressed thanks for the advice and added that most seniors were concerned about high taxes.

Schwinn also touched upon the problem of leaves in streets throughout Scarsdale and asked if the village could make it easier for contractors to bring leaves to the recycling center. He finished by discussing a more persistent problem in his neighborhood - flooding and sewer overflows. “I’d like to hear, at every meeting, what is being done to solve the decades-long problem of sewer back up and flooding… It’s the public sewer system; we expect it to work… I know the village is working on things… but it has been suggested by village officials that residents need to fund their own sewer backflow prevention devices and that, for me, is a nonstarter… to have to protect ourselves from the public sewer system… neighbors are already paying for the public sewer system.”

Dog Park Follow Up
Taking note of negative comments about the proposed dog park during a meeting earlier in the evening, two trustees clarified the village’s position on the matter. Trustee Lena Crandall said, “Several sites are possible… It’s a complicated issue… If you have any ideas about an appropriate site, please email the mayor or (contact) me. Finding the location is only one of the issues to consider.” She then noted that, while many people spoke in opposition siting the dog park at Weinberg and other sites, a few mentioned that the facility would be an asset to the community. “We have to be practical and listen to one another politely,” she advised.

Trustee Carl Finger followed, “This is, for us, the initial stages of what we anticipate to be a broader discussion… We got information, we’re digesting it, we’ve got comments and we’ll continue to discuss it. It’s clearly a very complicated issue, and may or may not be feasible. I want to reassure people that we’re looking for more input.” He later added, “We had two reports from respected civic organizations that raised this issue (and stated) that this is something that could benefit the community… There was a (Scarsdale) Forum report and a SNAP report… just so people understand, that’s where the dog park is coming from.”

Several residents who spoke at the earlier meeting also commented and reiterated their views in opposition and support of a dog park in Scarsdale. For more information, read “Not in My Backyard: Residents Growl About Proposed Dog Park.”

Laura Halligan is a local writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is a principal of Pinch Hit Prose and provides communications services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits.

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