Friday, August 27, 2004

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Town Forum

Notes from the West Hempstead Town Meeting

The local Herald (Malverne/West Hempstead) inauspiciously listed the August 26th Town Meeting in its Crime Watch section (inadvertence or fate? You decide.) There were the usual suspects, both in the audience and at the dais. And many of the same questions asked and answered, and issues hashed and rehashed.

This aside, The Town Meeting, well-attended by host West Hempsteaders and “out-of-towners” alike (with a much better attendance than most events at the Olympic Games in Athens, we might add), provided at least a few refreshing insights, the Echo Park venue offering the perfect backdrop for taking on the Herculean task of addressing the tough issues that face our communities collectively – illegal rentals, affordable housing, reclaiming our “brownfields,” and reinventing our downtowns, among other concerns brought to the fore.

The faces were familiar – Town of Hempstead Councilmen Ed Ambrosino (official host, and World Record holder in the Marathon) and Jim Darcy (a Silver in the High Jump); State Senator and Deputy Majority Leader Dean Skelos (a triple Gold – one for taking on the MTA on proposed fare hikes and station closings – no small feat for someone who, some say, helped to create the Frankenstein monster we now seek to slay; one for having not a single hair out of place; and one for wrestling the medal from a less than sterling Silver up in the Albany Games); Joe Ra, erstwhile Town Attorney (Bronze for best attempt to resurrect the 60’s with his well worn “you can’t arrest ‘em for loitering” speech); Nassau County Legislator Vin Muscarella (going for the Gold on the Hurdles, only to finish a disappointing 4th for walking around instead of jumping over them); and a cast of extras from virtually every Town department, forming rings of fire and water that would make the producers of the Opening Ceremonies proud (we still don’t know how Building Commish Dan Casella and Sanitation Superintendent John Sandrowicz did that tandem flying acrobatic twist – and all without Annette, who was back at Town Hall for the Synchronized Drowning event).

And then there was – or wasn’t – Town Supervisor Kate Murray. Favored to medal in the Pole Vault, she was disqualified when she overshot the Echo Park Pool Complex, landing in George Rand’s flower garden. The only saving grace – a photog on hand to snap a shot of Kate, rose clenched in teeth, smiling through the tears as Bob Costas tried to get “up close and personal.”

Olympic highlights aside (and yes, there was talk of the lackluster judging, particularly in the District Court, where some of our jurists rival the French for their “eyes wide shut” approach to enforcement), the Echo Park conclave had its moments.

Locally, the continuing commitment to convert the Courtesy Hotel into a visionary first for Long Island – a mix of senior and workforce housing amidst revitalized surroundings - reclaiming this part of town, a Phoenix hopefully to rise from the ashes. Talk of turning some of our “brownfields” – like the former Amoco gas station (and adjacent car wash site) - into community parks and playgrounds.

On the bigger picture, the “plague” of illegal rentals was the topic most raised by residents, with assurances that we are beginning to make progress through more vigorous enforcement (measured in part, according to Joe Ra, by the number of complaints made by those who violate the law, and the hammering from certain quarters that Ed Ambrosino is not only withstanding, but ably and stoically fighting off), and, at long last, the establishment of a “Community Court” of sorts – a special part within the District Court dedicated to the adjudication of Town of Hempstead matters.

Support was also expressed for the County’s Bond Referendum (to appear on the November 2nd ballot) to escrow $50 million (about $7 per household) to preserve what remains of Nassau’s green space (see George Rand’s flower garden, aboveJ). This money would also be available, we are told, to reclaim brownfields, including blighted commercial and industrial properties that pot-mark our communities.

And then, of course, there were the quintessential inquiries about property taxes, historically late State budgets, school spending and the ever-popular “Car 54 Where Are You?” as concerns the NCPD’s role on the enforcement scene.

Yes, on many an issue, the baton was passed – sometimes backward – and we will, no doubt, be hearing some of these very same questions - again, and again, and again. As well we should. It is, after all, up to us, as community advocates, not only to keep asking those questions, but moreover, to keep working together – thinking in and out of that box – eyes always focused on the prize of that suburban lifestyle only the privileged now enjoy.

One final observation: We were glad to see so many residents on hand from beyond the hamlet of West Hempstead. We had a nice sampling from around our Town, and a decent turnout for the last week in August. To those who did not make it out – we need you to be vocal, to be visible, to be with us on the front lines of community. As Ben Franklin (who could not make the Town Meeting, but did send a key to Town Hall - sans kite - nonetheless) once said, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately!”