Frustrated first-responders walk out after Soskin and Schoenberger delay vote
BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY– The protection of emergency personnel from illegal housing modifications made by unscrupulous property-owners has been universally described as a critical, valid concern in the County Legislature. However, when it comes to offering even memorializing support for such protections, the rubber has yet to meet the road.
On Tuesday, the County Legislature’s Multi-Services committee took up a memorializing proposal which would have extended legislative support to County Executive Ed Day’s plan to crack down on illegal housing. Though the resolution was broadly supported by attendant first-responders and its implications were debated at length, it failed to even reach a vote, prompting the angry emergency personnel to storm out of the meeting while chanting “shame” at legislators who opposed an immediate vote.
The Rockland Codes Initiative, which began in late April, grants new powers to the Department of Health, which is expected to receive four new hires to bolster county-level enforcement of building and housing codes. The Initiative also created an online reporting system for residents who observe possible illegal activity and a database which publicly displays addresses of properties owned by the worst offenders.
The Health Department has already begun to implement the initiative independent from the Legislature, which struggled to come to a conclusion on whether their support should even be subject to a vote. Legislator Christopher Carey, a supporter of Day, argued the matter was an imminent concern, particularly after input from County Fire & Emergency Director Gordon Wren Jr.
“This, to me, is a life and death issue which can’t be put off for a couple of weeks,” Carey said. “I don’t want to stand on administrative stuff, as important as it is.”
Wren, who spoke before the board, argued the initiative, which he had worked on with Day since before the beginning of the current administration, was both self-sufficient and necessary. According to him, the failure to create effective means of housing enforcement is reflective of “years of frustration” with “dysfunctional” government bodies at all levels.
At the same time, Wren argued the new hires were so important that it was very likely the Health Department would return to the Legislature to pursue the matter, again with support from emergency personnel.
“If we have to, we’ll fill this place up,” Wren continued. “I can’t tell you how serious this is. Deadly serious.”
Though all legislators expressed a desire to see more protections for firefighters, a few were skeptical enough of the fine points of the bill’s language that they failed to support an immediate vote. Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, while explicitly supportive of a new law protecting first-responders, argued the resolution was “premature” because it lacked detailed legal explanation from Day’s office.
Specifically, Schoenberger expressed concerns about the potential exclusion of dwellings smaller than three-family homes and whether or not the sanitary code would be changed, a decision which could require further legal analysis. Hence, Schoenberger argued the resolution should be tabled until all the facts had been gathered.
“I have not seen a proposed change to the sanitary code yet,” Schoenberger said. “I’d like to see the document that I’m being asked to support and endorse and approve and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”
In response, Health Department Commissioner Patricia Schnabel Ruppert assured the Legislature that no changes to the sanitary code were being pursued and that three-family homes were not included in the online registry at present, but are still subject to public reporting and enforcement. Still, Schoenberger remained skeptical, pointing to language referencing a proposed amendment to the sanitary code in the resolution and reiterating his desire for assurances from the county executive.
Legislator Philip Soskin, the chairman of the committee, was similarly wary of an immediate vote. Like Schoenberger, Soskin stated he wanted to ensure emergency personnel were well-protected, but argued he did not anticipate the level of discussion generated and argued the sanitary code was too nuanced to discuss in one meeting.
“This is serious stuff, but the law is the law,” Soskin argued. “This is not Obamacare. We would like to know what’s going on.”
Though there were strong calls from both the audience and the Legislature to bring the matter up for a vote, Soskin ignored a motion by Carey and Hofstein to bring the matter up to a vote and opted instead shelve the resolution for at least two weeks until the body received more feedback.
As the question of technical details and immediate need grew more heated, Soskin’s comments grew more contentious as he alluded to executive overreach on the administrative action, challenged claims of widespread danger described by Wren was “hearsay,” and even attempted to argue the proposal was not a memorializing resolution because it could be a slippery slope.
Soskin also argued on behalf of scrutinized property-owners by claiming the risk of misplaced enforcement and even blackmail was too great for an immediate decision without all the facts.
“We’re talking about large fines for people earning money,” Soskin said.
Legislators Lon Hofstein and Joseph Meyers, who co-sponsored the resolution with Carey, countered that an up-or-down vote could still be pursued with little risk of serious repercussions. Hofstein elicited applause from attendees when he objected to Soskin’s attempts to postpone discussion, arguing lesser issues have been granted far greater time for talk.
Meyers similarly stated that though there was nothing wrong with further exploration of the issue, it should not hold up a mere memorializing resolution, much less provoke panic on a matter where controversy on the matter was technical rather than substantive.
“I don’t understand why everybody is getting so shrill unless there is something that’s more than meets the eye, which is always possible,” Meyers said.
First-responders in attendance were similarly eager to see the passage of the bill and frustrated with the technical hold-ups. Illegal Housing Task Force Chairman John Kryger spoke of his experience losing three friends in the infamous “Black Sunday” fires in 2005 and the near-loss of his captain in a local illegal housing fire, arguing that without immediate support, tragedy was all-but-certain.
“I’ve been to too many funerals and seen too many people hurt,” Kryger said. “This is not a warning. This is not a threat. It’s gonna happen.”
Spring Valley Fire Department Captain Justin Schwartz, while acknowledging many legislators made an effort to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities, condemned others for what he saw as a dangerous apathy and even reluctance to offer support.
“They don’t give a damn about the peoples’ lives. They’re pontificating on legalese,” Schwartz said. “These legislatures are fiddling while the county is burning.”