GovernmentThe Northern Westchester Examiner

Puglisi Looks Back on 34 Years in Cortlandt Government

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Outgoing Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi, right, was honored earlier this month at Town Hall.

As she sauntered into the conference room at Cortlandt Town Hall, a building that played a pivotal role in the beginning of her historic 30-year run as town supervisor, Linda Puglisi described the personal touches she made on decorating the space, along with the many scenic locations in town, some that were on display in photographs on the wall.

It was two weeks before Puglisi, 72, would be exiting Town Hall as the longest-serving chief executive in Cortlandt history and only the second woman to lead the town after deciding a year ago to retire after 15 terms.

“I would love to be supervisor the rest of my life. In my mind it’s my identity. It’s who I am,” Puglisi said during a frank, wide-ranging and sentimental interview. “I wanted to go out on my own terms. I have been blessed and fortunate to have had the trust of residents all these years. It makes me feel satisfied that I made a difference. That was my goal from the beginning.”

Born in Canton, Ohio, Puglisi moved with her family to Rockland County when she was two years old. Her father, Ralph C. Braden, was a World War II veteran who would later serve 25 years as town historian in Orangetown. He knew John F. Kennedy; someone Puglisi would grow up to admire.

She and her ex-husband, who she met as a freshman at Pearl River High School, bought a house in the Crompond section of Cortlandt to be closer to his job. Their twin children, Ali and Jeff, who grew up to be an attorney and a doctor, respectively.

Puglisi first became involved with issues in the Lakeland School District, was president of the Mohegan Colony Homeowners Association and director of the Mohegan Colony Nursery School.

Puglisi also joined Cortlandt Watch, a homeowners’ group that promoted environmental protection and controlled development. That caught the eye of veteran town official Jack Gaffney, who was running for supervisor in 1987. Gaffney lost to his longtime nemesis, Charles DiGiacomo, but Puglisi and Thomas Carulli, his two running mates, defeated two prominent Republican candidates for Town Board seats.

“It was the right time for me to run for town council,” Puglisi said. “The community was going in a different direction. They wanted less development. I thought the whole team would win. Tom and I came out of that grassroots community.”

Two years later, Gaffney ousted DiGiacomo. Puglisi had toyed with running a Democratic primary against Gaffney, but decided to back off. But in 1991, she secured the Democratic line and prevailed in a four-way race by 83 votes, outlasting DiGiacomo, Gaffney and Alfred Donahue to win her first two-year term as supervisor.

“From Day One I wanted to be in charge. I didn’t like some of the decisions that were made. I felt I could do a better job,” Puglisi said. “I knew it was an uphill battle.”

During the campaign, Gaffney openly questioned Puglisi’s credentials, remarking, “Linda Puglisi is a nice lady who can serve milk and cookies and sing nursery rhymes, but she can’t run a business.”

“I think it backfired,” Puglisi said of Gaffney’s comments, which were echoed by others. “Sure, that was an outrageous thing to say. I wanted an opportunity. I went and marketed myself. I was pleased that people got my message, believed in me and supported me.”

Puglisi also benefitted from a backlash against Gaffney from Croton-on-Hudson residents, who were bitter that Cortlandt was moving its offices from the Croton Municipal Building, where the town paid about $100,000 annually in rent, to the former Van Cortlandtville Elementary School Building, which the town purchased for $1.1 million in 1991 following a referendum. Ironically, it was Puglisi’s idea to pursue the building and she was part of a negotiating team that secured it.

The town spent another $500,000 to make necessary improvements that Puglisi played an integral role in redesigning.

“In the long run it would be beneficial to the village,” Puglisi said. “I always knew that this former elementary school recycled into a Town Hall would serve our community well and it has done just that for 29 years.”

Other economic-led decisions Puglisi spearheaded were eliminating the town police department in 1999, consolidating town operating departments and other shared services.

Of course, the hallmark of her career has been the town’s average annual tax increase of 1 percent. During the same time, Cortlandt has completed more than $160 million in major improvements and capital projects, while only utilizing 1.2 percent of its bonding capacity.

“It’s a record that we are very proud of which has benefited our community, residents and local businesses during this administration,” Puglisi said.

Puglisi also led the charge to retain veterans’ services at the Montrose VA and helped add 3,000 acres of open space that have been used for recreational purposes or environmental preservation.

“Politics can be difficult, but I had a plan. I had a mission,” she said. “All the innovative ideas were what were best for the community. I don’t regret anything.”

Along the way, Puglisi faced many challenges, from hurricanes and tornados to the sudden announcement that the Indian Point nuclear power plants, the largest employer in the town, would be closing. She said Indian Point “kind of took over my life from the beginning.”

However, she emphasized that nothing compared to the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, none of the town’s 200 employees have died from the virus.

Puglisi suffered a personal misstep in 2006 was when she stepped in a pothole wearing high heels on her way to a function at Colonial Terrace where she was scheduled to introduce President Bill Clinton. She wound up getting five plates with screws in her ankle and has had to use a cane ever since.

“It changed my life. It was a stupid accident,” she said. “I’ve always been a very athletic person.”

Puglisi said she has extreme confidence that supervisor-elect Dr. Richard Becker will lead Cortlandt in the right direction.

“I know Richard will do a good job and carry forward a lot of our projects. I wanted to make sure someone would carry on the legacy,” Puglisi said. “I have confidence in Richard and the team that they will do the right thing.”

Puglisi said she has no plans to leave Cortlandt and hopes to catch up on some reading and do some traveling. She is fond of New England and enjoys being at the ocean. And, of course, she will spend more time with her children and two grandsons, Oliver and Jeremy.

“They are amazing and the light of my life,” Puglisi said. “I’m also just so proud of my kids. They’ve achieved a great deal. The most important thing is they are such good people.”

Don’t expect to see her speaking out at meetings, though. After leading more than 1,700 of them during her tenure, she’s been there, done that.

“I’ve had my turn. I’ve had my time,” Puglisi said. “I’ve worked to the best of my ability. It’s been exciting. It’s been interesting. Where can you have a profession where every day is different? I’ve met so many people that I wouldn’t have met before. Cortlandt has a bright future.”

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