Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

Mount Vernon: The Little City That Could

Now that the single biggest obstacle to progress, Ernie Davis, is history, one already senses that the City of Mount Vernon is on the road to recovery, and realization of its potential. The Power Of Positive Thinking - and, Clinton Young and his associates bring plenty of that - can be a wonderful catalyst when attempting to turn a bad situation around. A bad situation, worse than even Young could have imagined, is what he discovered upon taking hold of the controls on January 1st.

As the new mayor declared in his State Of The City Address two weeks ago, “I have found people with the willingness to work hard,
who have pledged, like I have, to not give up on this City.” It will be that kind of commitment, that kind of positive energy, that will certainly be needed to turn things around. The smallest of lower Westchester’s cities, barely 4.4 square miles in area, Mount Vernon has more than 68,000 residents. Its population density is 50% greater than Yonkers, a city nearly five times as large. Therein lies part of the fundamental problem the new administration must grapple with, the lack of available commercial and industrial property capable of propping up the tax base and supporting the infrastructural improvements necessary to go forward.

In his address, Young pointed to what he politely termed, “A lack of clear policies, adequate procedures, and professional leaders to carry
them out,” in his predecessor’s administration, all of which was true.

However, there was also the matter of a mayor who had long ago decided that his first responsibility was to his own comfort and prosperity, a mayor who would, time and again, compromise the interests of his constituents.

In that regard, knowing what control Ernie Davis exercised over every aspect of City Government activity, it is absurd to think that the waste hauling scandal and the HUD and housing scandals were in no way connected to him. As tired as his administration had become over the years, it was never too tired for self-enrichment. All the protestation, the six hundred million dollar federal lawsuit, was but a smokescreen of indignation and dissatisfaction with the fact that so many good people, Mount Vernon people, successfully banded together and put his tired self-centered carcass out.

It was wonderful to witness people coming together for the good of their city, people who had grown tired of the routine, people
who would not be conned or bought off. And, it wasn’t as though political leaders, who should have known better all along, stopped promoting and supporting the “old dog.” Andy Spano, and all those under Larry Schwartz’ control, Reggie LaFayette, even Eliot Engel, came out in support of Davis, even after it was obvious the United States Attorney was seriously investigating him. It makes one wonder just how far some politicians will go against the best interests of their constituents.

No doubt, in the coming weeks, we will see new indictments, very likely involving Ernie Davis. Time will tell. Hopefully, that sad chapter,
when fully exposed, will serve as a warning to others so inclined. What is more important now is the fact that Mount Vernon has been put on the right track by a man who is not only very motivated and energetic, but also apparently endowed with Christian forgiveness. How else might one understand Mayor Young’s willingness to keep Lisa Copeland in the City Clerk’s position, given her aggressive activities against his election. His calculation that her knowledge and her experience would be better utilized for the people of the City than lost to political or personal retaliation, is admirable. Hopefully, in this instance, kindness will not be mistaken for weakness. On a more positive note, it is obvious that Mayor Young has rolled up his sleeves from Day One. Nothing is more motivating to one’s employees and assistants than a boss who expects as much, or more, of himself than he does of them. Also, his concerted effort to bring on board home-grown talent, young
Mount Vernon High graduates, will reap enormous loyalty and work output going forward. Mindful of what became of the Davis administration over a period of 12 years, Young’s creation of an Inspector General’s position, staffed by Harry Stokes, will go a long way to stave o fraud, waste, and abuses in City Government. Attorney Stokes’ experiences, both in New York and Washington, D.C., should prove invaluable in the years ahead.

The Mayor has his priorities straight, putting the City’s emphasis on its youth. In an initiative he has called “Taking Back Our Kids,” Young is acknowledging the years of broken promises and outright neglect that has left the City virtually void of recreational and employment opportunities enjoyed by children and adolescents in most other Westchester communities. In telling the City’s residents, “I quickly scrapped the Hip-Hop Museum Project,” the Mayor was making a clean and decisive break with the disappointment and abuse of the past.

His establishment of a Youth Empowerment Council, and his reaching out to the City’s youth for their input, signals a new covenant, a new era, for Mount Vernon’s young people. Under his predecessor, good high school students told The Guardian, about a year ago, that after school their only option was to “go directly home and lock the door.” Not everything and everyone inherited from the former Adminitration
was bad, by any means. For one thing, after several failed attempts, Ernie Davis did, in fact, appoint a wonderful police commissioner, David
Chong. That police commissioner, for one thing, saw fit to put the notorious “Conference Room”, in the basement of Police Headquarters, out of the business of producing false confessions. Mayor Davis, though he was publicly advised of the operation on his radio program some two years ago, did absolutely nothing to stop the unlawful practice of eliciting false confessions from innocent suspects, after being handcuffed for 30 hours, or more, in a chair. Young proudly acknowledged Commissioner Chong’s leadership, declaring that under him, “Our Police Department is second to none.”

In light of all of the young men of Mount Vernon who have been prosecuted by the Westchester District Attorney’s Office and convicted based upon false confessions obtained from the Conference Room, prior to the arrival of David Chong, perhaps Mayor Young will prevail
upon District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who he described as “a product of Mount Vernon”, to use that “Second Look Program” she spoke of at the Harvard Club several months ago, to determine those who were convicted and sent “upstate” wrongfully!

Another signal that the new mayor is determined to turn the City around is evident in his reaching out to successful business people such as Robert DiBenedictis, a life-long resident whose family has deep roots in Mount Vernon, and Roberta James, individuals who will reach out
to the City’s youth with employment and training opportunities. In conclusion, there is an excitement around City Hall, a sense that good things are happening and will continue to happen in Mount Vernon. Quality of life issues will begin to improve as residents feel better about
themselves and those around them. The Mayor’s positive thinking, and that of his staff, has already begun to attract investors and developers. Each must be listened to very carefully, with a mind to getting the most suitable and beneficial development for the City, including good paying job opportunities for qualified Mount Vernon residents.

Mount Vernon didn’t arrive at the condition it’s in overnight. It took several years of self-serving neglect and indifference. And, it will take years of determined effort to reclaim its resources and its reputation. We are con-fident that, under the leadership of Clinton Young, and those he has enlisted in the effort, Mount Vernon will rise again.

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