Seemingly no topic was out of bounds or went uncovered on July 18 in a freewheeling debate among the five remaining candidates for the office of Queens Borough president.
The forum was sponsored by the Eastern Queens Alliance and included Republican Tony Arcabascio, State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Democrat Everly Brown, former Democratic Council member and state Assemblywoman Melinda Katz, and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria).
Candidates fielded questions from EQA moderators and from the audience of 70 people.
Most had similar but nuanced responses to the question of the office’s primary function, and why they are best suited to fill the post.
“It’s a very important role that people don’t give due credit,” Arcabascio said. “You have influence over land use, the education representative, the community boards — which I think have not been representative of their communities — and quality of life.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman,” he said, saying that means completing tasks and assignments he undertakes.
Avella pushed his experience at various levels of community service, starting as a community activist and former member of his community board to the City Council and his current post in the state Senate.
He said that puts him in the best position to carry out the borough president’s job of securing Queens’ fair share of funding, personnel and services for things like schools, hospitals and parks.
“Every letter that comes out of my office, I edit and I sign,” Avella said. “I have the experience as a hands-on person.”
Brown cited parallel responsibilities over land use and the community boards, the latter of which he said were not advocating for their neighborhoods, and the former of which he said would play to his strength as a real estate developer.
Katz, the former chairwoman of the council’s Land Use Committee with the Democratic party endorsement, said the office’s land use powers allow direct and indirect influence over things like job creation and infrastructure like sewers.
“You also have to see that the borough is funded [by the city] and funded fairly,” she said.
Vallone struck that chord as well.
“We have 30 percent of the city’s school children but get only 10 percent of the funding,” he said.
Referring to has family’s law firm, Vallone said he is the only Democrat in the race that has run a small business, and pointed to his background as a former prosecutor and a parent of children who have gone through the public schools.
Newly-passed bills regarding the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy and public safety oversight brought the full spectrum of opinions.
Vallone was adamant that both bills must be vetoed. He said stop and frisk can be done but acknowledged that it must be done legally.
And he said both are anti-police bills that will accomplish little but to handcuff police.
“Want to return to the good old days?” Vallone asked. “Last year we had just over 400 murders. If we went up to the same murder rate as Detroit we would have over 4,000.”
Katz and Brown said the stop and frisk numbers speak for themselves, with 98 percent of all stops — predominantly in minority communities — turning up no guns and most coming up with no illegal activity.
Katz said NYPD inspector general and so-called anti-profiling measures are useful for “starting the conversation.”
“Stop and frisk has to go,” Avella said.
The EQA has been fighting noise and air pollution from John F. Kennedy International Airport for years, but with LaGuardia Airport to the north the concern is generally borough wide.
Avella pointed to the success he has been seeing in recent months to get the Federal Aviation Administration and Port Authority, which runs the two airports, to come to the table with resident groups.
All believe some sort of equNIMITY can be reach to balance out residents’ needs with the vast economic activity spurred by the airports.
“Expansion of the airports makes sense — as long as Queens benefits from it,” Brown said.
Vallone said he would favor sitting Down with other airport officials in the region, such as MacArthur Airport in Suffolk County to relieve some of the air traffic.
“Why not reach out to places that want that economic development?” he said.
“Without a voice at the table, the people’s voice won’t be heard,” Arcabascio said. “And that voice is the borough president’s.”
With the Rockaways and parts of Southeast Queens devastated by Hurricane Sandy last October, four of the five candidates said the city’s weaknesses and overconfidence were exposed.
“What you need is a plan, not diagrams that will not work,” Arcabascio said. Then you need to go to Florida and New Orleans, people who deal with these storms all the time, and see what they do.”
Vallone pointed to hearings he held as public safety chairman in 2005 and 2009, where he asked emergency management officials about hurricane preparedness.
“I sat across from [Deputy Mayor] Cas Holloway and told him that we get hit with a hurricane every 100 years; we’re due,” Vallone said. “I was called Chicken Little.”
Avella and Katz said the coordination of services before, during and after Sandy was completely inadequate. Katz said even little things beforehand can have a big impact.
She, like Vallone, said there is no longer any excuse for city officials to be caught off guard with no plans in place well beforehand.
“We’ve had three once-in-a-lifetime storms in the last 10 years,” Katz said.
Vallone said Sandy relief money also has been mismanaged.
“Down in the Rockaways they have built no barriers, no dunes, but they built a $4 million lifeguard shack,” Vallone said. “They told me ‘We have to open the beaches.’ I was a lifeguard. I need a small stand. I don’t need a $4 million lifeguard shack.”
Only Brown was comfortable as is.
“God is in charge of hurricanes,” Brown said, saying there was little that could be done beyond prayer.
All said their appointment to the Panel on Education Policy would have to be either an educator or a parent with first-hand knowledge of the educational system.
“And a loud voice,” Arcabascio said. “With mayoral control if that voice isn’t strong, it won’t be heard.”.
Katz said her appointee will be an educator with the ability to advocate for high-tech education programs; and that she will reopen the educational “war room” kept in Borough Hall by former Borough President Claire Shulman.
Vallone, who would appoint a parent, pointed to his record for protecting gifted and talented programs and advancing Science. Technology, Engineering and Math — or STEM — education.
Avella pointed to his legislation to end co-location of schools, while Arcabascio said he does not generally approve of charter schools.
“Fix the public schools; they’re broken,” he said.
Land use, alluded to by several of the candidates while discussing other subjects, brought Avella to what he said “may be the most controversial remark of the night.”
Specifically, he criticized Katz, who worked in land use for a high-powered law firm after she left government service, and Vallone, who has raised about double the campaign funds that Katz has, for accepting large sums of money from real estate interests, warning that they will be beholden to developers should the get elected.
“Look at where their contributions come from,” Avella said.
As of last week’s reporting date, Vallone had raised just over $1 million, Katz nearly $500,000, and Avella just over $70,000.
Both frontrunners were unapologetic.
“In my eight years as chair of the Land Use Committee, we downzoned 6,000 blocks in this city,” Katz said. “Yes, we did upzone nearby commercial areas, and that created jobs. And I’m proud of that.”
Vallone said the dollar amount, if large, is all relative to the size of his war chest.
“I’ve raised over $1 million,” Vallone said. “It’s only about 10 percent of my total. You’re not going to see that at that end of the table.”