March 3, 2017 - Hundreds of county residents attended Monday’s “Ask Astorino” at White Plains City Hall to ask County Executive Robert P. Astorino about federal, state and county-related issues affecting them.
“I was proud to host this ‘Ask Astorino’ town hall,” Astorino said. “These forums can be raw, loud, and boisterous at times, but they're necessary. People deserve to have their opinions heard and to question their elected leaders.”
Following the event, Astorino was praised in a Journal News editorial for his willingness to meet with constituents consistently – about two dozen Ask Astorino town halls have been held around the county since they began in 2012 – and for answering tough questions on Monday night in front of an audience, some of whose members at times tried to shout him down.
“The town hall didn’t fall apart because Astorino kept his cool,” the Journal News wrote. “He didn’t raise his voice and stayed longer than planned. He took mostly tough questions – on Trump, the travel ban, his support of gun shows at the Westchester County Center, his desire to privatize the airport, diversity on the county police force, rising anti-Semitism, his steadfast opposition to the county’s settlement with the federal government on affordable housing, and more.”
Before taking questions, Astorino spoke about his seven-year record without a tax increase, unfunded state mandates, the affordable housing settlement, the development of the North 60 BioTechnology Center, plans to revitalize Kensico Dam Plaza, and Indian Point. Many residents also sought answers on federal issues. Each question was answered directly and expansively, and Astorino took questions well beyond the event’s advertised one hour.
Topics on Monday included:
- President Trump’s Comments against the Media. Astorino responded, “Trump is absolutely wrong to call the media the enemy of the people.” Noting his own background in journalism, Astorino unequivocally stated that the freedom of the press is vital to our nation.
- President Trump’s Travel Ban. Astorino stated, “I am not, nor will I ever be in favor of a religious test to enter this country.” Astorino also said he had clear issues with the President’s Executive Order, but our government’s system of checks and balances worked when the courts blocked key provisions. Astorino also said he supports vetting anyone entering our country, ensuring good people are coming here for the right reasons, whatever those right reasons are.
- Veto of the Gun Show Ban. Astorino said, “The rights of people that you disagree with cannot be shut down simply because you disagree with them. We have a Constitution.” Astorino noted that pistol permit applications, especially by women, are increasing in Westchester, and that safety protocols supported by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman were in place at the January gun show at the Westchester County Center, including required background checks. A diverse crowd of more than 8,000 law-abiding citizens attended the gun show, making it one of the County Center’s most popular events.
- Public-Private Partnership at Westchester County Airport. Astorino said, “It’s my responsibility to look at options for new revenues that don’t take more from the taxpayers so we can afford to pay for essential services, our police, and our parks.” Astorino also pointed out that Westchester County Airport has always been run by a private operator, and that the county would retain its rights over the property under a public-private partnership, which includes requiring a new operator to seek approval for any major improvements. He stressed that the number of gates and the length of the runway would not change under the new proposal. The county is seeking to take advantage of a Federal Aviation Administration program that would allow revenues currently trapped at the airport to be used for broader purposes such as helping to pay for roads, parks and public safety. Currently, the county pays the operator a fee of about $1 million a year on top of all of the company’s expenses. The public-private partnership proposal is expected to generate more than $100 million for the county budget.
- Fostering Diversity in the County Police Department. Astorino said, “Our police department should reflect the diversity of our county, which is the fourth most diverse county in New York State.” Astorino outlined efforts working with local community leaders to encourage minority applicants to take the Civil Service Exam, including quarterly meetings with the United Black Clergy of Westchester. In particular he encouraged minority youth to consider applying to the county’s Park Ranger program, as a possible first step to a career in law enforcement.
- Anti-Semitism, including bomb threats to the Jewish Community Centers (JCCs). Astorino said, “I absolutely condemn any form of bigotry, hatred, anti-Semitism, or racism. This is Westchester. We don’t stand for that, in any way, shape or form.” Astorino said County Police immediately worked with the JCCs and will continue to do so. Astorino and Police Commissioner George Longworth met with two dozen Jewish leaders to address their concerns and to extend an offer to review the security protocols their organizations have in place, an offer that extends to all houses of worship
- Promoting Private Sector Jobs. Astorino cited New York State Department of Labor statistics showing that approximately 44,000 private sector jobs have been created in Westchester County since he came into office in 2010. He pointed to the proposed development of a Bio-Science Center at the Grasslands campus in Valhalla as one of his initiatives to create high paying jobs and new revenue streams for the county.
- The Affordable Housing Settlement. Astorino said that his stand on the 2009 federal Affordable Housing Settlement has not changed since he inherited it former County Executive Andy Spano on his first day in office. He agrees that the county must complete all of its obligations in the settlement but disagrees that the federal government has any right to force the county to go “beyond the four corners” of the agreement, including overreaching by HUD to dismantle local zoning. Astorino pointed out that the county exceeded the settlement’s fundamental benchmark of developing at least 750-units of affordable housing by the end of 2016.
- The Human Rights Commission. When asked, Astorino informed the crowd of the existence of the Human Rights Commission, which has the power to litigate human rights complaints. Westchester’s Human Rights Commission can be reached at (914) 995-7710.
- The South and North County Trailways. Astorino stated that a project is currently underway to link the South and North County Trailways in Elmsford, creating 36 miles of biking, walking and jogging from Bronx to Putnam County. A $5 million capital project to repave and rehabilitate the trailways was recently approved.
- Climate Change. Astorino said he believes in climate change, and cited several county initiatives to promote a cleaner, more sustainable environment. For example, the county has invested in the H-MRF to expand recycling for plastics, household and electronic waste, and medications. The county issues sales tax credits for solar panels, is replacing conventional lighting with LED, and initiated River Rescue to clean up the Bronx River and reduce flooding.
- Indian Point. Astorino said, “All the good is going away while the bad—such as the nuclear fuel rods—is staying for the next six decades.” Astorino noted that 1,000 jobs at Indian Point will be immediately lost, while 2,800 support jobs will be severely impacted.Astorino concluded the Town Hall forum by thanking everyone for participating, saying democracy is rooted in the ability for the public to meet with their elected officials.
“Respectful dialogue is more important than ever today,” Astorino said. “We can disagree with one another on issues or viewpoints, but we must not forget that we're all in this together. We're Americans first and foremost.”
This was the second “Ask Astorino” town hall in White Plains since the series began in 2012 and the second in 2017, the first held in Cortlandt.