Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Can Cultural Sensitivity Live and Be Well in Mamaroneck?

Another Election, Another Hiring Site Fight

The upcoming Village of Mamaroneck election, pitting Republican Mayor Phil Trifiletti against former Democratic trustee Kathy Savolt and Independent Trustee Tony Fava against Democrat Randi Robinowitz, is more than four months away. The knives are already out, however, and the nasty thrust and parry began at a packed June 25 Village Board meeting.

It was preceded on June 23 by the picketing of Democratic Trustee Tom Murphy's home, (see article below). Even though he was re-elected last November and won't be running again until 2008, Murphy has been singled out at Village Board meetings by Washington Street resident Nancy Tumm as Washingtonville's Public Enemy No. 1 for having opposed the decision of the Republicans on the prior Village Board to fight, rather than settle, the 14th Amendment harassment lawsuit brought against the village by five day laborers.

Tumm and other Washingtonville residents were further incensed by the laborers' victory in the lawsuit and by the vote of the board's current Democratic majority to settle the case rather than appeal it. And they now also blame the Democrats for a laborers' hiring site, which opened in their neighborhood two weeks ago at the Strait Gate Church on Madison Street.

The new Workers Center was established through a private contract between the church and the Hispanic Resource Center (HRC), which operates the site. The neighborhood opponents of the Center, however, do not accept the Village Board's claim that it has had nothing to do with the site because the lawsuit settlement stipulates that the village advertise the Workers Center on its Web site and post signs noting its location.

But Tumm and her neighbor, Mary Lou Greco, got caught in their own contradiction at the June 25 board meeting when they blamed the site for increased traffic problems in Washingtonville. Greco said she observes the site, and takes photos of it, from 6 a.m. to about 9 a.m. every day but Sunday, when it's closed. And what she has observed, she said, has been laborers standing "in front of Tarrytown Two [a deli on Old White Plains Road, opposite the church]; in front of Peter & Son's and over in Fava's parking lot [across Madison Street from the church]. They're all over the place. Why," she asked, "are they not using the facility?"

Murphy turned Greco's question back on her, asking if the reason the laborers weren't going to the site might not be that she was standing there taking pictures of them. Setting up a situation that deters them from using the site and then asking why they don't use it, he suggested, "is like the person who murders his parents and then goes in and asks the judge to forgive him because he's an orphan."

But, when Murphy went on to tell the residents of Washingtonville that the laborers are in their neighborhood because the men live there, he was answered with shouts from Tumm, Greco and their neighbors in the audience, who called out: "They do not!" "They're coming from all directions!" And, "We're saying, 'take them out of there'. . .We want them out of there!"

The claim by Greco and Tumm that the hiring site is responsible for increased traffic, even though they also said the laborers weren't using the site, brought Police Chief Edward Flynn into the conversation.

To their accusation that the police were not responding to traffic complaints related to the Center, Flynn replied, "I haven't had complaints about traffic problems created by the hiring site. I've had 22 complaints about parking. There are police officers down there. Their patrol is no different than it's been in the past, except for that initiative we had down at Columbus Park." Flynn went on to say that the calls the police are getting are "parking complaints about cars pulling up" and the driver "running into a deli. These are the same situations that happened before that site was there. . .. And, all of a sudden that site is there, and I'm getting 22 complaints?" he asked, not bothering to conceal his incredulity.

Flynn also refuted their charge that Murphy had gotten special treatment because four officers were assigned to his house during the demonstration.

"Trustee Murphy did not ask . . .for a police officer to be present," Flynn said. "That was strictly my decision. . .. Rumors were picked up on the street that there was going to be a demonstration, or several demonstrations, at each of the trustees' homes." And, he said, because the trustees had been receiving. . .difficult e-mails from all over the country, I decided that I wanted police protection there. . ..I had no idea how many people were going to be there," whether they would be "local people, whether they would come from out of town, who they were, and I wanted to ensure the safety of everybody involved."

And it proved not to be an idle concern. On Monday afternoon two men rang Murphy's doorbell, and, when his 84-year-old father-in-law, who was babysitting, opened the door, one of the strangers stuck a camera in his face, while both peppered him with questions about Murphy. The police were called, but the men disappeared before they arrived.

At Monday night's board meeting, both local Republican chair John DeCrescenzo and Rye Neck resident Jerry O'Donnell, who made an unsuccessful run for trustee on the Republican line last fall and also helped organize and lead the demonstration at Murphy's house, said they saw nothing wrong with demonstrating at a trustee's home. Murphy declared that the Democrats would not tolerate anyone in their party demonstrating at a private home.

DeCrescenzo and O'Donnell also denied that the village Republicans were behind the June 23 demonstration. Murphy, however, noted that he had been contacted by someone who said DeCrescenzo had told him a demonstration was being planned. Murphy also asked O'Donnell why, if the demonstration were not politically motivated, an announcement of it posted on Lohud's Mamaroneck blog made clear that the three trustees it charged with supporting the hiring site were Democrats.

But neither have all Democrats been above reproach in the latest installment of the day laborers controversy. Fenimore Road resident Doug Capasso, took the microphone at Monday night's meeting to say that that political debate in the village had reached such a troubling level that all elected and appointed officials should be requird to take a cultural sensitivity course.

Capasso said this idea was prompted by a remark a former Democratic mayor, a man he did not name, made to Capasso's 87-year-old father, as they watched the Washingtonville residents demonstrate at Murphy's home. Capasso quoted the former mayor as saying, "All the trailers are empty, and all the trailer trash is up here today."

Capasso admonished the trustees, saying, "No matter what your issues are, I think that there needs to be a cultural sensitivity, which this board doesn't have, and I think that the elected officials and those folks who are appointed to different positions in the village need to be mandated to take a cultural sensitivity course. . ..

"My father," he continued, in a very soft voice, "was born on Madison Street. My mother lived on New Street, and my grandfather and my grandmother [lived there]. . . I was not born of trailer trash. I am not the descendant of trailer trash. I don't think that the folks in Washingtonville are in any way to be considered trailer trash, and I want to make sure that, when you make decisions here, no matter what they are. . .that you've had some experience in dealing with this cultural issue."

Capasso went on to suggest that funds be allocated and that "some decision is made for all of us. . .myself included, because I happen to be on the 2025 [master plan update] Committee, to go to a cultural sensitivity program. It's only half a day," he assured the trustees. It doesn't take a lot, and it will help us out."

Two other speakers focused on the legal aspects of the day laborers' presence in the village and of the commerce between them and contractors on village streets.

Hunter Street resident Linda Brekne introduced herself as an immigrant who "came to this country in 1958 with my family" and noted that "at that time, you had to be sponsored. . . you had to have a job and you had to have housing, and we went through that whole rigamarole.

"My main concern with the day laborers issue now," she said, "is the legality behind it. Some of them probably are here legally, " she said, adding a somewhat doubtful, "I guess." But, she asked, "What can be done so that our community is not supporting people who are not supporting our community in paying their taxes, in paying for their children to be in our school system, in paying their own way in the community?"

She also asked why the police could not ask the laborers to move on when they line up along the streets. Flynn replied that "there is nothing illegal about standing on the street, "and that local teenagers have the same right to congregate.

Murphy offered a thumbnail civics lesson. Though he lacked time to delve into interpretations of the Constitution by Supreme Justices, as the politics of the high court vary from one presidential administration to another, he said, "The Constitution comes first." He, as well as others on the board, called immigration a federal problem. He went on to say that "what we have to do is try to enforce our laws, while keeping within the Constitutional mandate, and it's a hard thing to do."
A local electrical contractor raised the issue of the unfair commercial playing field created by employers of immigrant laborers who do not comply with the law. "They're breaking the backs of these immigrants," he said. "They're not paying them a fair wage, they're not contributing anything to health [insurance], they're not contributing to compensation, like we all have to do. . ..I pay big money for labor, big money for compensation, but I do what I've got to do. . .."

He challenged "rights groups" to check the conduct of contractors who employ laborers through their auspices. HRC President John Gitlitz, to whom the remarks seemed primarily addressed and who was also at the microphone, did not respond and walked back to his seat.

However, in conversation during the first week that the Strait Gate hiring site was operational, HRC Executive Director Mariana Boneo, replied to a question about monitoring employers by saying that, as a non-profit organization, the HRC cannot take on investigatory functions.

And, although there was heated discussion about Boneo having been barred from a Washingtonville community meeting about the hiring site issue, she and Gitlitz said they hoped a meeting of the HRC with neighborhood residents would take place soon.


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