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Richard Thomas and the Problem of Mount Vernon’s Imperial Mayoralty

But saying this only begs an obvious question, which is likely to have Mount Vernonites scratching their heads in confusion. Why does this section of the Charter talk about residency requirements in relation to the city’s elective positions, but not in relation to the city’s appointive positions?

To answer that question, all one need do is look at the general eligibility requirements set forth in the Section 3 of the New York State Public Officers law. In the first paragraph, three general requirements are stipulated for anyone who serves as a public officer in New York. 1) The persons must be at least 18 years; 2) a citizen of the United States as well as of the State of New York; and 3) the person must be a resident of the municipality where they serve, if the office is a local office (as opposed to a state-wide office).  Now let’s do a thought experiment, and think, for a moment, about what would inevitably happen if the charter simply left it at that, and didn’t further mandate that all elective officers be city residents for no less than 3 years prior to being elected to office. Our city government would likely be dominated political carpetbaggers. Without it, in other words, people who had never lived in the Mount Vernon a day in their life would be eligible hold elective office, so long as they relocated to here by the time their terms began. Such an arrangement would surely end the principle of home rule; rule of a city, by the city’s own residents.

Hence, the purpose of Section 15 isn’t to limit residency requirement to elective officers, as the Corporation Counsel contends. Rather, its purpose is to prevent carpetbagging by adding a further eligibility requirements for elective officers in particular: they must be members of the community for a considerable period of time (i.e., 3 years) before holding office. Just as residency requirement for mayoral appointees likewise prevents any carpetbagging on commissionerships through the use of graft by monied interests which don’t have its best interests in mind.

Further evidence of this intent can be found in the text of the Section 3 of the New York State Public Officers Law, which consist of 92 separate paragraphs, spanning roughly 20 pages (about double the length of this essay). As was shown above, the first paragraph mandates, as a general matter, that all person who are appointed to a local office must reside in the municipality where they perform their duties. However, each and every one of the remaining 91 paragraph are exclusively devoted to specifying those job titles and the municipalities that are exempt from this rule!

State-wide, there are eight functionally defined groups of public officers in New York state who are exempted from the local residency requirement: 1) police officers; 2) sanitation workers; 3) parole officers and their fellow employees; 4) emergency special deputy sheriffs; 5) notary public’s licensed to practice law in the state; 6) employees of paid fire departments; 7) probation officers; and 8) members of a drug abuse prevention council.

Unlike the positions above, it is noteworthy that not a single one of the Commissioners positions at the center of our current crisis have been given a blanket, state-wide residency exemption by Albany.

What’s more, all other exemptions to the local residency requirement are granted to specific municipalities that are identified in the Section 3—by name. Officers of Westchester County, for example, are not required to reside within our borders; they can reside anyplace at all in the state of New York. Of the 48 municipalities in Westchester, only a handful have been granted an exemption to the local residency requirement for particular groups of public officers. Named in alphabetical order, these municipalities are Bedford, Greenburgh, Lewisoboro, Mammaroneck, Mount Pleasant, New Castle, North Castle, Peekskill, Pound Ridge, Somers, and Yonkers.

Nowhere in this statute is any exemption to the local residency requirement given to any Commissioners who wish to serve the city of Mount Vernon. Thus, the statutory basis for the Corporation Counsel’s claim that the City’s Commissioners are exempt from the local residency requirement remains a total mystery.

Perhaps Mayor Thomas would like to give Corporate Counsel Porcari the opportunity to clear up this mystery in a court of law.

  1. Past Historical Precedents and Practices Doesn’t Give The Current City Council A License to Ignore the City’s Laws

When the defining characteristic of American democracy are described, political leaders of both parties are quick to invoke the oft-heard mantra, “Ours is a nation of laws, not men.” Although the exact meaning of this high-sounding phrase isn’t always easy to pin down, the American Bar Association (ABA) recently attempted to elucidate its meaning, identifying four key components. Two have a special relevance to the controversy that has surrounded the Council’s insistence that our residency laws must be stringently enforced, no exceptions, at all, allowed.

The first component of the ABA’s definition of the rule of law is that it is “a system of self-government in which all persons, including the government, are accountable under the law.”[13] In challenging his predecessors during last year’s mayoral contest the campaign, candidate Thomas attributed the failures of the previous administration to a culture of corruption which had metastasized in a City Hall because, he said, the Mayor and his Commissioners were allowed to operate outside the law. If there was one reason a groundswell of residents voted for Thomas, it was the belief that this diagnosis was spot-on. And whatever other changes they might’ve thought the incoming administration  ought to make as a priority, top-most on just about everybody’s list, was that the incoming Mayor would deliver on his promise to uphold the rule of law.

But now that he’s gotten in office Thomas’s commitment to enforce our residency laws appears to have weakened, for some strange reason. Framing it as a matter of realpolitik, Counsel Porcari would have us believe that the most demanding positions within city government would go unfilled, were the residency rules strictly enforced, and the talent pool limited to city residents, as the residency law requires. But like so many of his other assertions, this one doesn’t withstand close scrutiny either.

According to latest estimates from the Census Bureau, the percentage of Mount Vernon residents 25 years or older who have professional or graduate degrees is about 11.7% .[14] In a city our size, about 68,000 residents, this age group make up about 66% of a total city population, or about 45,000 residents. Do some quick, back-of-the-envelope calculations and we’re now talking about 5,000 Mount Vernonites who can lay claiming to have the formal credentials, if not the experience, to serve the city with a degree of expertise and effectiveness. Are we really expected to believe that from this pool the Mayor couldn’t find the hundred or so people to fill the executive and mid-level managerial positions under his control?

Doubtful as it seems, this supposed dearth of talent is the official explanation for the odd choice of so many out-of-towners serving in the city’s best-paid, most strategically important  positions in  municipal government. Sadly, there’s another, less palatable explanation heard in the rumors that have been swirling throughout the city’s political circles. Testimony given by witnesses who appeared at the City Council’s special hearing on the demolition of the Park Avenue property, which took place Tuesday, March 8th, suggest that Thomas and his inner circle may have been engaging in the same kind of corrupt horse-trading they accused the Davis Administration of committing. Though much investigative work needs to be done before rumor are substantiated as fact, prima facie evidence was presented which appears to show that campaign operatives raked in large sums of illegal cash donations, under the table, in return for promises to appoint people to Commissionerships. Regardless of whether or not this did in fact occur, the only way to protect the such scheming, is for the City Council to the stick to the letter of the law, and strictly enforce the residency rule—no exceptions, at all.

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About Robert Baskerville Ph,D. (15 Articles)
Born during the long hot summers of the 1960s, Dr. Baskerville life's ambition is to help the up-and-coming activists, organizers and political leaders from the post-civil rights generation to recast the spirit of scholarship and activism that powered the 20th century Black Freedom struggle here in the United States into forms of struggle better suited to the complex social terrain of the Information Age. The recipient of a Ph.D. in sociology from The Graduate Center of CUNY, for the past two decades he has served as a professor of sociology at several public and private colleges in the New York City area, instructing students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in the philosophies, theories and research techniques that underpin the social sciences. His scholarship focuses on two principal areas of research: the intersection between race, education and social inequality, and the socio-historical dynamics by which integrationism became the dominat political philosophy of the 20th Century Black Freedom Movement. Raised in the city of Mount Vernon, where he's affectionately known as "Brooklyn Bob," after a brief stint spent dealing drugs on the streets of the city's Southside, Baskerville began his career as an activist and organizers while he was a student at Bronx Community College (BCC). After helping to lead the CUNY student strike of 1991 at BCC, he went to serve in a number of activist formation, the most notable of which was the Black Radical Congress. More recently, Baskerville has been part of a loose coalition of activists and organizers who have undertaken several projects for civic empowerment in the city, including the 1,000 Man March, several Women's Empowerment Expo.
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