North Shore Action sponsored its second community event, a Candidates Forum for the upcoming Village of Great Neck mayor election, on June 14 in the new community room of the Great Neck Public Library on Bayview Avenue.
Beth Friedmann served as moderator of the forum before an audience of approximately 35 people. For nearly two hours, candidate for mayor, Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, was present to answer questions and address the concerns of her constituents.
Incumbent Mayor Pedram Bral did not attend the forum. In response to the invitation, he stated that he had work commitments. According to Veronica Bisek, a founder of North Shore Action, who hand-delivered an invitation to Bral at Village Hall, every attempt was made to reach him and to get a response from him. He was offered options for alternate dates, but Bral did not respond to the offer. North Shore Action made repeated efforts to contact Bral by telephone and email to confirm his attendance at a new date, to no avail.
According to Bisek, Bral was given the exact same questions that were to be asked at the forum, but Bral did not respond at all.
Members of the audience were permitted to submit written questions to the moderator. A microphone was also passed around so that everyone could comment or pose a question.
The main themes of Gilliar’s remarks concerned process and transparency. Gilliar stated that the concept of government process is an important one.
“Great Neck needs to have public meetings, in a public space,” said Gilliar. “There should be an agenda for the meeting and proper procedures should be followed. What is going on now are village meetings in local restaurants. Sometimes eight people show up, sometimes four people, sometimes one. If my constituents request meetings in the restaurants, I would accommodate them. But no such request has been made. The right place for meetings is in the Village Hall.”
Jon Mostel, the former Village Justice of Great Neck was present at the meeting and spoke in favor of following government process with public hearings, specifically New York State Open Meetings Law.
“There needs to be open discussion,” said Mostel.
When asked about how well the villages and mayors on the peninsula work together, Gilliar responded: “The villages work well together when there are emergencies, storms, use of open spaces and meeting areas. The mayors are socially integrated. All nine villages have a stake in the public schools and library. But at times, the villages do not work together. That is an area that can improve.”
As to the issue of transparency, Gilliar stated that with respect to Village Hall, no changes should be made without ample public hearings. She acknowledged that the Village Hall is falling apart and must be renovated. However, she was alarmed by Bral’s unilateral discussions with developers, without any notice to the public.
“He has secret meetings with developers, and we know nothing about it,” said Gilliar. “There hasn’t even been a conversation about Village Hall.”
According to Gilliar, the same lack of transparency was found with regard to the relocation and sale of the DPW site. “Mayor Bral had plans to sell assets of the village, and we know nothing about it. There has never been a hearing.”
Several audience members expressed concern about Vigilant services. Gilliar stated that members of her own family have called Vigilant, and lives were saved. She expressed her concern that Bral would propose a change from Vigilant to Northwell, when no such change was requested by the constituents.
“No one ever raised an issue regarding a change,” said Gilliar. “No complaints were made. In the absence of such complaints, and without a public hearing, why would a mayor make a change?”
When a member of the audience asked about Gilliar’s willingness to “go against the status quo”, Gilliar again responded that it would depend on the need for a change. “I understand the need to explore other services and alternatives. But my job is to answer to constituents. I will not make changes unless there is a request by the people I serve. If something is not working, I will propose ideas and explore alternatives in an open setting. But no change will be made unless it is supported by the people.”
Jean Pierce, a longtime resident of Great Neck who has “gone through five or six mayors,” addressed her concerns about the “concealed million-dollar deficit,” a significant figure given the village’s $9-million budget.
According to Gilliar, when Bral was first elected, he refused to disclose the deficit to the residents, despite Gilliar’s urging. Bral’s reasons for keeping the deficit a secret were ostensibly due to his uncertainty on how to address the deficit, and concerns that residents would assume a higher tax bill was the answer. For two years, over Gilliar’s objections, the deficit remained a secret.
Anne Meyer, a supporter of Bral, was a vocal member of the audience. She stated her support for Vigilant. “Of course I support Vigilant, my brother is part of it.”
But to the issue of public meetings, Meyer said: “I see nothing wrong with having meetings with the mayor at local restaurants. What’s wrong with it? I feel like I am fully informed about the village.”
A concern was raised regarding water quality and the environment. Gilliar stated that she would appoint a knowledgeable person to head the Water Authority.
A member of the audience voiced her support for Gilliar as mayor. “There is a feeling of helplessness in Great Neck, based on how Mayor Bral is running the government,” said the audience member. “There is no transparency, and there are things going on in secret.”
Regarding the scheduled Candidates Forum, Bral sent the following statement to Great Neck Record on June 12: “I would be happy to attend a forum under the auspices of a nonpartisan group at any time so that the public would have an opportunity to hear from and compare the candidates. However, as I was given short notice there are various scheduling conflicts that cannot be changed. Given the short time until the election, no viable alternative dates and times have been offered. The other issue concerns whether or not the sponsors of the proposed forum are nonpartisan. Comparing the websites of a clearly nonpartisan organization such as the League of Women Voters to that of North Shore Action, one sees the clear difference in that North Shore Action is a closed organization that supports specific issues, whereas the League of Women Voters is an open group whose main goal is to promote fair elections and educate voters without supporting specific political issues. North Shore Action does not appear to be a nonpartisan, making their involvement suspect. This is not the appropriate group to be hosting such a forum. Rather, if my opponent wish to have a debate, she should invite an organization such as the League of Women Voters to do so.”
Bisek, one of North Shore Action’s founders, responded to Bral’s statement, “North Shore Action is a nonpartisan group. We do not have a website. We gave both candidates the same notice. We offered alternative dates to Mayor Bral by email and he did not respond. The ground rules of a forum can help determine whether it is nonpartisan or not, and by failing to engage with us, Mayor Bral lost the opportunity to determine whether we would be nonpartisan. It is true that we are not the League of Women Voters, a group which sets the standard in this regard, but in the absence of a debate held by the League, we sought to fill the void. One of North Shore Action’s specific issues is to facilitate engagement with elected officials. This, we believe, is the bedrock of democracy. And, what better engagement than in a public forum? If Mayor Bral had concerns with our ability to be impartial, I wish he had communicated them to us. We would have worked to alleviate his concerns. And, no matter what Mayor Bral may say about us, North Shore Action is not anti-Bral. Not before the forum and not now, even despite Bral’s inaccurate portrayal of us. Our goal was—and continues to be—to allow for the candidates to engage directly with each other and with the voters on issues of importance to the community.”