The candidates were tame and the atmosphere friendly at the first debate between the hopefuls running in the 32nd Council District special election.
Six of the seven candidates, three of whom had not made it onto the ballot as of Wednesday, sat in a row in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua Church in South Ozone Park last Wednesday night.
After introducing themselves in one-minute opening statements, the candidates answered questions from members of the audience and the debate moderators — Ken Fisher of the New York League of Conservation Voters and Anthony Gellineau of the South Ozone Park Civic Association West.
The focus of the forum, sponsored by the two organizations, was transportation in the district — why it is inadequate and what can be done to improve it. All the candidates agreed that mass transit in south Queens is, in one oft-repeated word, “deplorable.”
A major reason transportation is lacking in much of the district’s neighborhoods — which include Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach and the Rockaways — is their geographic isolation, Fisher said before asking the candidates how they would go about increasing those options.
Glenn DiResto, a retired NYPD lieutenant and Rockaway resident, said he would work with the City Council’s Transportation Committee to ensure greater oversight of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Not having mass transit options “make us all feel like outsiders in our community,” DiResto said, adding that that must immediately be put to an end.
Democratic District Leader Frank Gulluscio, a Howard Beach resident and former teacher, touted his experience as a former staff member of then-city councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. before noting he has worked with the committee and its chairman, Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing).
Gulluscio told audience members to be pragmatic, reminding them of the local and national fiscal crisis — the MTA will not build new trains or stations or start spending millions of dollars, he said. With that in mind, Gulluscio said he would work on improving the quality of existing transportation.
Lifelong Rockaway resident and Democratic District Leader Lew Simon said he has been calling for the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach line of the Long Island Rail Road for many years.
If the line were reopened, it would save south Queens residents a tremendous amount of travel time, he said, noting that a ride from Howard Beach to Penn Station would take 20 minutes — a big improvement from the typical hour and a half it takes commuters riding the A train.
The youngest candidate in the Feb. 24 special election, 24-year-old Republican District Leader Eric Ulrich of Ozone Park, said the real question is how is the district’s next city council representative will deal with the MTA as a quasi-state organization.
In addition to more oversight of the MTA, Ulrich said it is essential to improve the agency’s level of transparency. “The MTA has two sets of books,” Ulrich said, and the public must have access to them both, to know exactly how money is being spent and affairs are being handled.
Geraldine Chapey, a fourth-generation Rockaway resident and Democratic district leader, echoed Ulrich’s sentiments. “The MTA wastes money,” Chapey said. “It needs to be more efficient and fiscally responsible.”
Chapey, who in 1994 started Trinity Senior Services — a community transportation program for the elderly in south Queens — is concerned that the region’s transit system is not aimed at seniors. “Baby boomers are going to need services,” she said. The MTA should be looking for new alternatives and technologies to improve its operations, Chapey added.
Sam DiBernardo, a 74-year-old former educator from Howard Beach, also emphasized the used of technology as a means of improvement for the MTA.
His specialty being education, DiBernardo said everything always comes back to the way things are handled in the classroom: the MTA could work with students in technology-specific schools or programs to come up with more efficient and effective solutions, he said.
Among the other subjects discussed during the debate was education. The candidates were asked their opinions of mayoral control of city schools — they all said it needs “tweaking” — and their plans to address gangs, violence and overcrowding in schools.
Each candidate said the bottom line is communication between all parties: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, Department of Education heads and the NYPD school safety division.
The economic development of the Rockaways was also an issue that got much attention from the contenders. Each acknowledged that the peninsula is in poor shape.
The city has neglected Rockaway, used it as a dumping ground and treated it like “dreck,” or garbage, according to DiResto, Simon and DiBernardo, respectively. Joining them in lambasting the city’s treatment of the peninsula, Chapey and Gulluscio both said it’s time for economic revitalization in Rockaway.
The city needs to start promoting and marketing the peninsula, DiBernardo said. Simon and Chapey said Rockaway needs a college. Ulrich and Gulluscio want to eliminate the toll on the Cross Bay Bridge — the only way in and out of Rockaway from Queens. Rockaway, DiResto said, “should be a recreation destination.”