Though the November election is still months away, candidates for Rockland County executive debated for the first time Thursday night.
The debate was organized and hosted by the Rockland Water Coalition. Democrats Ilan Schoenberger, Vladimir Leon, David Fried and Dagan Lacorte, and lone Republican Ed Day participated.
The crowd packed into the auditorium at Clarkstown Town Hall for the debate, which centered around many environmental issues facing the county. The first question of the night asked the candidates about United Water’s desalination plant proposal in West Haverstraw. Four of the candidates said they oppose the desalination plant, while Leon said he isn’t opposed to desalination as a concept, but would want to make sure the water isn’t privatized.
The second question also focused on the desalination plant, asking the candidates about the increased cost of the plant.
LaCorte said that as the mayor of Suffern, he runs the water utility there and has dealt with United Water. However, he thinks another issue is connected the desalination plant.
“Bigger than the issue of the desal plant is the overall fact that our county government is broken, that our budget for planning is down 41 percent in two years and we only have one full-time planner to review all these projects in the county and the planning board doesn’t meet in public,” he said. “What we need to do is invest in our planning department and commit real resources to look at these large projects, like the desal plant.”
Fried, the former Spring Valley justice, said that before they look at desalination, they should look further into water being taken from Lake DeForest and being brought to New Jersey. He said the contract with Bergen County is up in September.
“I’ve called upon the current county executive to make sure that he’s intervening,” Fried said. “We should only be sharing the water that we have to share and there should be severe penalties for water that is shared in excess of our agreement. As county executive, I will make sure that those standards are enforced. The reason that this is so important is because the lack of water is the justification that United Water uses to support their claim that we need the desal plant.”
The candidates were also asked about overdevelopment, and whether high-density development is beneficial to Rockland and sustainable. Leon said he’d work to preserve Rockland’s resources and the parts of the county important to residents. The two county legislators, Day and Schoenberger, had differing opinions on the matter. Day said the county can insert itself into public planning, and warned that overdevelopment can be dangerous, especially if it leads to housing illegally converted to apartments, which can create added hazards for firefighters and other emergency responders. Schoenberger didn’t think county government should involve itself with local planning.
“The county legislature and county executive, in my opinion, cannot and should not go into towns and villages and tell the towns what it can or can’t build, or what it should or shouldn’t build. That’s an issue of local control,” he said. “I don’t believe the public would want the county executive to go into your town or your village and say you must build this or you can’t build that. Under state law, land use is reserved for local control for the towns and villages.”
Another question focused on Indian Point and the evacuation plan. The four Democratic candidates said they want Indian Point closed, and Fried called the evacuation plan “insane.” Day said he’d like to review the evacuation plan.
“What I can do with certainty and accuracy and experience and knowledge, I can take a look at that plan specifically with the experience of a law enforcement executive and be able to make a judgement on whether or not that plan is viable or not and be able to extend that experience, in cooperation with the rest of the law enforcement executives in the county, and bring that to bear on the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission],” Day said.
Leon is the only candidate running so far who has never been an elected official. He said Thursday night was his first debate. However, he quite literally ended up standing above his opponents. That’s because Leon said sitting was making him uncomfortable and asked if he could stand up while answering questions. When it came to issues in the county, Leon pointed to how things are running currently.
“We have to control mismanagement. We have real mismanagement in the county, and it’s bad,” he said.
“We have to be consistent with what we do. Right now we are not consistent.”
When asked what the county needs to do moving forward with its fiscal climate, Leon talked a lot about sustainability. He also said his office would practice “transparency, efficiency, accountability and preservation.”
LaCorte said the county government is large, but opposed cutting departments that are needed to help fix the hole Rockland faces, such as the planning department.
“There’s overlapping between towns and villages, and people are often unclear,” he said. “I have people all the time saying, ‘are you running for [Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher] St. Lawrence’s job, you’re running for county executive?’ People don’t know. But what they do know is they have concerns, and I do not think that we can have an adequate role as a county government, as a county executive, if we’re completely cutting funding and gutting funding from those very departments that are supposed to review these large-scale projects.”
Schoenberger and LaCorte were really the only two candidates who had somewhat contentious back-and-forth discussions on Thursday night, many focusing on the budget from the other candidate’s office. Schoenberger criticized LaCorte for bringing ideas from a village government to the county level because they wouldn’t translate well.
“The county government is unlike any town or village,” Schoenberger said. “We’re the ones who carry the burden of state mandated costs. Yes, county taxes went up 18 percent this year, and every single penny of that 18 percent increase went to pay the increase, the increase of pension alone. No other costs.”
Day said moving forward the county needs someone residents can look to for guidance.
“What this comes down to is leadership,” he said. “I’ve been battling development that’s been untoward to this county for years as a citizen representative. I’ve spoken out and gotten things done.”
Fried also talked about the need for a leader.
“There are going to be very difficult choices for the next county executive, whoever it is, and so far in the course of the campaign, my team and I have been putting forward very specific plans on how to restructure and how to save money,” he said. “I think that the cuts have to start at the top. It doesn’t save that much money, but I believe that if you want to be county executive you have to set an example of leadership. That’s why I want to downsize the county executive’s office. I don’t need $150,000 a year. I’m here to serve, and I don’t think that the Rockland County Legislature should be immune from that process either. Throughout the government, I think we just need to rethink our approaches.”