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Government & Politics
Sleepy Hollow News

Sleepy Hollow Trustee Candidates Participate in League of Women Voters Forum

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March 12, 2024

By Barrett Seaman–

Six candidates running to fill three vacancies on the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees filled the Zoom screen for some 90 minutes on Monday night, March 11 in a candidates’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Rivertowns.

Three of the candidates, Jim McGovern, a Fox Sports ad executive and 14-year village resident, Matt Presseau, an attorney, and Jim Husselbee, another attorney with extensive experience with the school district, are all running under the banner of the Unite Sleepy Hollow party.

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Two other candidates are members of the TAG (Transparent Accountable Government) party formed by the village’s new mayor, Martin Rutyna: incumbent Lauren Connell, originally a member of Unite Sleepy Hollow, and Patrick Sheeran, owner of Beekman Alehouse, a popular restaurant on Beekman Avenue.

Also running, though unaffiliated, is Charles Zekus, a native of Sleepy Hollow who served for more than 20 years as a member of the village’s police department.

The tone of the exchange was civil and often granular as the six responded to questions posed by the League. No stark differences on policies emerged except on questions of priority in deciding in what order the remaining projects should be completed and paid for under the village’s Comprehensive Plan.

If there was a dominant issue, it stemmed’ from the redevelopment of the 90-acre riverfront property once occupied by a GM assembly plant and now filling up with Edge-on-Hudson’s nearly 1,200 townhouses, condominiums and apartments, along with 27 acres of land reserved largely for parkland. To the extent that there were differences among the six, they had to do with how to pay for the final touches, in what order they should be addressed and how to manage the impacts—traffic, services, revenues—that will emerge as the massive project nears completion.

Two questions elicited divergent views: what are your ideas about balancing taxes and services? And what should go into the yet undeveloped East Parcel? The Unite Sleepy Hollow candidates, Presseau, McGovern and Husselbee, expressed more confidence in the village’s capacity to fund both a new DPW facility in the East Parcel and a second bridge into Edge-on-Hudson. Presseau and McGovern blamed the current deficit on the slow occupancy rate at Edge because of the COVID pandemic but suggested that the pace of occupancy is now speeding up, bringing in anticipated tax revenue. “Obviously, we can’t spend money we don’t have,” said Matt Presseau—to which Lauren Connell responded, “Actually, you can spend money you don’t have; it’s called a bond, and it’s like a mortgage.”

“Over the last ten years, we’ve been told that we can afford whatever we wanted,” Connell explained. “That’s not true.” She recited her analysis of the village budget, concluding that, over time, spending increased and revenues decreased until there was a deficit. “We have to follow Mayor Martin’s [Rutyna] lead here,” predicting that if the village did, “in the next three or four years we will be much better positioned to afford larger projects.”

Jim Husselbee expressed optimism that the village could afford both to move the DPW to the East Parcel, relying on income from the sale of the old site, and on state and local grants to build the second bridge, which Jim McGovern called “imperative.”

Again, Connell pushed back. While declaring herself in favor of both moving the DPW and building the bridge, she argued that the sale of the old DPW site would bring in only $5 to $7 million, which she said was a fraction of what the total cost of the move would be. “The original plan was to build the DPW, then the bridge, then build the park,” she said. “I question whether that’s the right order,” suggesting that maybe the DPW would have to wait.

All six candidates expressed a desire to revitalize the inner village around Beekman Street. Restaurateur Sheeran positioned himself as the best equipped “to fill our vacant storefronts,” contending that he had “that insider knowledge of what’s going to bring other people to this community” and “knowing what it takes to create a successful business in the village.”

Charles Zekus relied on his experience as a policeman to claim understanding of the needs of the inner village—particularly the Spanish-speaking residents, whom he said were often reluctant to report crimes not because they feared police but rather that they feared retribution from neighbors. He presented himself as someone willing to “work with the mayor and the other board members to achieve positive change for the benefit of all residents.”

Jim McGovern presented himself as a collaborator who is also “good at identifying who is an expert in what field, as well as an active volunteer in the village.

Matt Presseau claimed that the Unite Sleepy Hollow contingent was committed to fulfilling the Comprehensive Plan and continuing its “record of keeping tax increases to less than two percent.”

Jim Husselbee called himself “a dedicated fiscal conservative” and promised to be “a good and prudent steward of your money.”

Lauren Connell, whose day job is as a regulatory and compliance attorney, presented herself as “someone who wants to understand the details, how things work, gets into it, someone who’s analytic.”

On several questions, the candidates showed mostly consensus. As to the lawsuit by several Hispanic voters in Sleepy Hollow contending that the Town of Mt. Pleasant’s “at large” voting system discriminated against them, none of the candidates was willing to predict the outcome, though all regretted that the Town had chosen to spend taxpayer money in hiring an expensive law firm to fight the charge. Matt Presseau came closest to siding with the plaintiffs, saying that “there is a significant population within the Town of Mt. Pleasant that isn’t getting a voice. If that’s the case and if it’s a historically underprivileged community then we really need to really think about how to address that.” Voting by district, he said, would give Sleepy Hollow “a greater voice in Mt. Pleasant.”

Asked to opine on whether Sleepy Hollow should move its elections from March, as they are now held, to November, when they would be combined with state and national elections, all six approved of the current board’s decision to put it to a referendum that would also be on the March 19th ballot and all at least implied that they favored the change because it would bring significantly higher voter turnouts. The downside, they seemed to agree, would be that it would bring national politics and the national political parties to village elections. As Pat Sheeran said, “Local government should remain local.”

For those who missed the debate and would like to see it, the entire forum is available on the League of Women Voters of the Rivertowns’ YouTube site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKfoyisdtWE

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