Active Community Members Featured in District 3 BOL Showdown
Sometimes the participants in a campaign reveal themselves months before petitions are circulated. Other times the candidates can be somewhat of a surprise.
The matchup in this year’s race for the Board of Legislators’ District 3 seat didn’t take shape until summer. In early June, former New Castle councilman and ex-North Castle Democratic co-chairman John Diaconis jumped into the contest, presumably to take on current Republican incumbent Michael Smith.
However, by July, Smith had decided to bow out, in large part due to his increased responsibilities as president of Berkeley College. In his place, the Republicans are running Margaret Cunzio, a lifelong resident of the district, which is comprised of North Castle, Mount Pleasant and Pleasantville, who is making her first run for public office.
Reasons for Running
Cunzio, 40, is a former school teacher who grew up in Armonk and graduated from Byram Hills High School. For the past 16 years she has lived in Thornwood, with her husband, Michael, who is principal of Mount Pleasant’s Columbus Elementary School. Cunzio is a professor in the education department at Iona College and Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
She said she would be a fresh voice that would benefit the Board of Legislators.
“I’m approachable, I listen to a lot of people, I speak to a lot of people and I have a lot of information and experience behind me that I think I can bring to the table and bring a new perspective to county government, especially in District 3,” said Cunzio, who volunteers for the SPCA of Westchester in Briarcliff Manor and Second Chance Rescue in the city and has served on the Mount Pleasant Architectural Review Board.
When he lived in New Castle, Diaconis, 61, served nearly five years on that town board, having been appointed in early 2001 to fill a vacancy, then winning a four-year term that November. After moving to Armonk nearly six years ago, he joined the town’s Democratic Committee and has also served as treasurer of the Friends of Miller House. For the past year, Diaconis, an attorney, has been co-chair of North Castle’s Ethics Task Force.
Diaconis was motivated to run because of the county’s inertia over the Elijah Miller House, but there are a number of other issues he wants to hone in on.
“I find that I’ve got a fair amount of experience and qualifications to serve the county and to make it better,” said Diaconis. “Not only am I interested in restoring the Miller House but I think I can, because of my experience with shared services, really help keep taxes low. I think shared services is sort of an untapped strategy that can be used better.”
Cunzio is a critic of the 2009 settlement agreement that mandates the county complete building 750 units of new affordable units by the end of next year. She said that many county and district residents likely don’t realize that the residences are not workforce housing, not senior housing, where there is a dearth of options for retirees on fixed incomes who want to downsize, and it’s being marketed outside the county.
There also remains the threat of the federal government hoping to impose greater conditions than what the settlement calls for. Cunzio said she would defend the county against a federal agency that may threaten to dictate local policies from afar.
“It’s not just about home rule,” Cunzio said. “What the federal government has done is they have the four corners of the agreement, but they’re trying to go outside of that and that basically undermines all the local zoning. What then does the local government have to say?”
Diaconis said he has experience in dealing with issues surrounding affordable housing issues. He successfully defended the Town of Yorktown several years ago against the federal government.
While Diaconis acknowledges that the federal government does try to intimidate through aggressive, hard-nosed litigation tactics, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cannot dictate changes to the agreement. Therefore, it is up to county officials to remain composed, not antagonize and comply with the agreed upon requirements
“The requirement is a consent decree to build 750 units, do an Analysis of Impediments, and once that’s done, those two things are done, it’s over,” he said.
This is an area that Diaconis believes the county can provide a greater role than it’s doing in order to encourage more sharing of services and ultimately to save taxpayers money.
On the New Castle Town Board, he saw how that town had partnered with Pleasantville to jointly operate the water treatment plant in Millwood. The county could help connect municipalities to share heavy equipment, DPW trucks or other possibilities.
“Shared services is one of my passions,” Diaconis said. “I think it needs to be tapped. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit there and I think if we get serious about it, we can make big strides.”
Cunzio advocates opening lines of communication between the county and local governments to learn what the needs are and what areas can be explored.
“You don’t get change unless you start having a dialogue and I think that’s really the first step,” she said.
She applauded the Village of Mount Kisco for its police consolidation with the county, which is forecasted to save the municipality $2.4 million over five years. Cunzio acknowledged that step is not for every community and local and county leaders don’t want to diminish quality of life, but there are greater opportunities to pursue.
One of Cunzio’s key campaign platforms is keeping taxes low to allow younger people after graduating college to live here and for seniors to remain in the county after they retire on fixed incomes.
She pledged to be as vigilant with the public’s money as she is with her own. It’s also an area that she has experience with as an education administrator.
“You have to look at the budget with a new perspective and find creative ways to save money, whether that was consolidation of services, whether that is looking at programs that are maybe overlapping in services, whether we can streamline things,” Cunzio said. “I have a lot of experience with that and I’ve worked with other entities and organizations.”
Cunzio said she would borrow for operating expenses only as a last resort.
Diaconis stated that although there has been no tax levy increase for the five years that County Executive Rob Astorino has been in office, borrowing to achieve stable taxes is a mistake.
He said that he would examine the budget and look for unnecessary or redundant expenses and what revenues can be expanded
This hot-button issue, particularly in North Castle, was Diaconis’ original motivation for running for this seat. He said regardless of where the county ultimately decides the 1738 house should stand – it is located on Virginia Road next to a cement plant – the structure needs to be immediately stabilized before a storm knocks it down and is lost forever.
That would improve the county’s credibility on the issue, not only for many North Castle residents but all those who want to see history preserved.
“Let’s get the house fixed right away so it doesn’t collapse,” Diaconis said.
The goal of the county should be to keep the house open to visitors, establish memberships and fundraisers and open it for school trips, he said.
Diaconis called the county’s various discussions to move the house “a diversionary tactic.” The latest talks have the county considering a move to Miller Hill, but a steep topography would likely discourage any visitors and stormwater runoff could place the house in peril.
Diaconis said it is feasible to improve the area in front of the house to bring in a bus or a small number of vehicles.
Cunzio strongly stated that the county must not shirk its responsibility to maintain Miller House and come up with a plan. However, since it has been seven years since the last environmental study, another one should be undertaken as soon as possible to guide officials on the best course of action, she said.
“It’s one thing to fix it,” Cunzio said. “Then you need a plan in place to maintain it.”
Exploration of public private partnerships should also be done to help, similar to some other historical sites, she said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/