French released a memo this morning (read it in full below) saying the matter is now “closed” after the determination of the City Ethics Board (which hadn’t met in nearly a decade.)
I am writing today to update you on the complaint brought forward by Ray Tartaglione of Purchase, NY and Leon Sculti of Rye against Rye’s Mayor, City Manager, Corporation Counsel, Tax Assessor, Building Inspector and the Board of Ethics. I am able to report that the matter is now closed and attached is the finding from the Board of Ethics which essentially says that the Mayor neither sought nor received preferential treatment on issues related to his property; and that Rye homeowners in similar situations receive the same treatment. In the end, this has never been about an issue isolated to the Mayor, but about the process of selling and moving from a home that residents face everyday and are handled by City staff in the same way.
Last week in a process consistent with our Charter, I called for the City’s Board of Ethics to review a complaint against me and City officials for allegedly acting improperly with respect to two issues — a legacy building violation and a misapplied STAR Tax exemption — on a residential property I own. The reason I called for a review by the Board was because of misleading press reports and statements from elected City officials which were parroting the allegations by the accusers and distorted the issues without looking at the facts of the matter at hand. As the persons being accused, there were never any specific charges or facts of misconduct directed at me or City staff, just allegations about the perception of the possibility that improper behavior could have taken place. Really? Here are the facts:
The Building Violation
In July of this year, a complaint was phoned into the Building Department about a potential illegal finished bedroom/storage on the third floor of a single-family rental home I own that was being shown for sale. This is common in Rye and that is how we bought it. Tragically, the City Building Inspector passed away in August and a violation was subsequently issued once a new inspector was in place — just like with any resident. In my case, the alleged building violation happened 40 years ago — I was in the 3rd grade, and most likely given the minimal work done it was not a violation at that time. However, we have taken the steps necessary to comply with today’s regulations as the process requires. I have believed for a long time and will work with the Council to focus on how the City can better facilitate with home-sellers who find themselves in the position of having to legalize work that was done by previous property owners.
The STAR Tax Exemption
STAR is a New York State program that was changed in 2011 and as a result, many flaws in the program and discrepancies arose this spring on properties not just in Rye, but statewide in the administration and eligibility of the program. As required, we had filed our new primary residence when we moved homes in 2000. However, in many cases, the STAR exemption is not removed from a previous property owner when the owner files a new application. The standard procedure when discrepancies are found with exemptions is that the exemption is removed going forward – although the law does allow for a look back period of up to 3 years by the taxing authority, in this case New York State. Unlike how these issues are normally handled, my position has consistently been “we owe what we owe” — so I applied as part of an amnesty program and have made full restitution plus penalties based on the calculations submitted to me by the County Tax Assessor on January 19th.
Finally someone, in this case the Board of Ethics, took the time to examine the facts and understand the issues amidst the calls by the accusers for independent investigations, conflicts of interest, and separate legal counsel. The people of Rye have been very supportive and have seen this for the episode that it is. The most disappointing aspect though has been how quickly some media reports and elected official comments have passed judgment in-line with the allegations of the accusers which attempted to harm the reputations and call into question the integrity of those that work for and serve the City.
While stopping short of calling for an apology to those that have been falsely accused, I am calling to restore civility to Council Chambers. Skepticism of government is healthy, but continuing personal attacks on ones motives and reputation has turned that skepticism into an obsession as been displayed the last few months. Yes, mistakes will be made, but they get corrected. It’s time to get back to solving the problems of Rye that the residents care most about. We volunteer to serve the public for the simple reason that we care about our community.
Mayor, City of Rye