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10 Questions: Irvington Candidate Walter Montgomery

IRVINGTON, N.Y. – Elections for village trustee are less than a month away, and The Daily Tarrytown is preparing by asking each Irvington trustee candidate 10 questions about local issues, what they hope to accomplish and why residents should vote for them.

Three candidates are running for two open seats on the Board of Trustees. Incumbent Republicans Walter Montgomery and Rocco Rasulo are running against challenger and Democrat Mark Gilliland.

The following questionnaire was filled out by Montgomery. Check back during the next week for each of the other candidates' answers.

Please tell us a little bit about you:

My wife and I were attracted to Irvington literally at the moment we first saw Main Street 26 years ago. In fact, that day we made an offer on our first home here. The allure of Irvington was — and is — its small-town aura, natural beauty, (relative) socioeconomic diversity and excellent schools.

Mainly through its proximity to “The City,” Irvington is culturally distant from where I grew up in Elmira and the Finger Lakes region of upstate. Of course, that area has its own virtues.

Upstate, at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, I acquired a lifelong belief in the importance of public service. Later, at Brown University I received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in history, specializing in China, with a secondary focus on Russia. That training led to five years of college teaching and subsequently to a 33-year career as a communications and crisis-management adviser to the senior managements and directors of major companies, including a position as head of international communications for American Express.

For the past decade, I have been CEO of a strategic-communications consulting firm — Robinson Lerer & Montgomery — that I joined in its infancy a quarter-century ago. I have just merged it with a British-based company to create a global business.

As a small-town upstater, military service during the Vietnam Era was also an invaluable experience for life, because my main job was to train officers and enlisted personnel from various branches of the U.S. military, as well as the armed services of countries in Asia and the Middle East. In addition, I feel I have learned much about serving causes beyond my immediate self-interest through my ongoing memberships on the boards of not-for-profit groups: Project HOPE, the international disaster-relief organization; Union Settlement Association, which aids disadvantaged people in East Harlem; the New York YMCA; and the Maxwell School. Of course, my experiences on Irvington’s Board of Education, Planning Board and Board of Trustees have been uniquely up-close-and-personal for me, given the special place Irvington became for my family and me.

What qualifications make you the best candidate for village trustee?

I am not the best-qualified. I do think I may be as qualified as almost anyone else, but there are many people capable of being a trustee, if they have the desire to put in the time and effort on a job that offers no financial reward, power or glory. One does trustee work for other reasons.

I feel that I am qualified, based on five years of at least reasonably constructive work as a trustee, six years of service on the Planning Board and six rather tumultuous years on the Board of Education, including a stint as president during an especially difficult financial period.

Beyond that, I feel I am one of the people who helped bring a more civil tone to village government than had existed for a while. I also have been a principal driver of budgetary discipline that has led both to a much lower rate of tax increases the past five years, and to actions that may well help the village’s financial condition in the future (I do believe that the lack of long-term thinking has been a terrible plague on governments at all levels around the country). Moreover, I have been a strong supporter of trustee and volunteer initiatives to protect our environment and the overall quality of life that drew my family and me — and thousands of others — to Irvington. As part of that effort, I have worked for five years to try to achieve a balanced and rational approach to Waterfront rezoning, without setting neighbor against neighbor in the process.

I believe, too, that it’s helpful that I bring to the job of trustee a wide range of expertise in business, education, the military and philanthropy.

What committees and organizations are you involved with in the village and area?

Currently, besides my BOT service, all I do — with my wife — is to help sponsor certain community and philanthropic endeavors.

How would you address the tax cap and residents' concerns about higher taxes?

The tax cap is too much of an attempt by Albany to avoid tough decisions. Cosmetically, it is appealing but does little or nothing to help local communities with their financial problems. Perversely, the cap increases the burden of difficult decision-making on localities while creating yet another illusion of help from Albany. Nevertheless, I do believe that in other ways, the Cuomo administration really is beginning to move the state in the right fiscal direction, and is willing to be more tough-minded than previous administrations were.

Meanwhile, fiscal responsibility in Irvington requires us to keep a very tight rein on expenditures, continue to make some very selective cuts and carefully prioritize capital expenditures. We also have to continue working with department heads to come up with more or less creative ways to configure work and staffing, and to utilize technology. During the past five years, we have done all of this and have achieved a major reduction in the tax-rate increase during that time. Looking to the longer term, we have been taking steps to reduce the kinds of personnel and debt commitments that were made in the past and that are today threatening the financial well-being of governments throughout this country.

By the way, everyone in the village should know the department heads and staff have been quite cooperative in helping the trustees deal with the harsh financial realities we all face. There are many examples of such productive cooperation, but of course this needs to be sustained.

What would you do to help revitalize the Main Street business district?

Two of the best courses of action for the board to help revitalize the business district are a) continue to promote a high quality of life through sound fiscal policies, protection of the environment and maintenance of good services; and b) ensure the village's laws and regulations do not needlessly hinder commerce and, where feasible, actually promote it. Elsewhere in this questionnaire, I describe some priorities with respect to “a”. As far as “b” is concerned, the board has taken specific constructive actions — e.g., with changes to the village code — and has encouraged the chamber of commerce and individual business people to propose other measures we should consider. A few years ago, we also established the Business Improvement Committee, which has been a constructive force, and we should continue to support it.

What are your opinions on the Waterfront Rezoning?

The waterfront, I believe, must be rezoned or otherwise handled legislatively to protect it against undesirable industrial usage. In that process, the viewshed must be safeguarded and good public access ensured. Moreover, there have to be constraints on the types of businesses that could operate there. I do not believe the Board of Trustees should prescribe exactly how the waterfront is to be developed by its owners. Nor should we limit its development in ways that effectively preclude the owners' ability to make economically, and responsibly, viable use of that area.

It seems to me that if we step back from the passion and rhetoric surrounding the zoning issue, we can see that nearly everyone who has been involved in this matter has the same basic goals regarding the waterfront. Differences exist over how to achieve them, but surely rational people of good will in a community like ours can address those differences with less heat than we all have felt. One of my goals is to avoid dealing with this issue in a way that needlessly drives a wedge of animosity into the community. In addition, I want to avoid lengthy, costly and dubious litigation — something that has not been unknown to Irvington.

Moreover, we should bear in mind that the current owners have done an excellent job of developing Bridge Street in a manner of which we all can be proud. And they have been civic-minded citizens in other ways as well. 

What are your opinions on the Mercy College expansion?

My fundamental view, as a veteran of the Planning Board, is that this project should go through the most meticulous review by that board that is possible under our village code, with intensive attention to the input from residents of the village. The top priority is to protect the quality of life and environment in our village, of course. I feel that the individuals on the Planning Board have understood all of this and take their responsibilities very seriously.

What are your thoughts on working with other municipalities and government agencies to share services?

We need to share services wherever there may be a feasible cost-saving opportunity to do so. Always, the Board of Trustees is looking for, and is open to, any ideas for this purpose. We have implemented such measures with the school district and other organizations to help save money on energy and insurance, for example.

However, we do have to analyze each idea carefully. The proverbial devil is always in the details. On the surface, the concept of shared services is a “no-brainer,” but close scrutiny of any idea is essential, because a specific idea can of course have unacceptable consequences – and perhaps minimal savings.

What other issues need to be addressed within the village?

Aside from the specific matter of the waterfront, the most important issues for our community, I believe, are fiscal responsibility, protection of the natural and man-made environment and the caliber of public services. Together, these are the main determinants of the quality of life that drew most residents here, and make us want to stay.

I already have addressed the waterfront and fiscal responsibility. As for protection of the environment in general, the board needs to continue to do all it can to facilitate volunteer efforts, such as the "Love 'em and Leave 'em" leaf program. We also should review our village code to help ensure it does all it reasonably can to promote the use of sustainable energy. Further, we need to implement the stormwater drainage plans on which the board has been working. Of course, these are only a few examples of what the trustees have been doing or need to do.With regard to public services, there probably is little more to cut without making truly major changes to what we offer residents. We certainly do not want to do that, but for five years, we have been able to make reductions and capture other savings by a) microscopically examining budget items on a continuing basis; and b) working with Village Hall administrators and department heads to find creative ways to reconfigure work and staffing and thus achieve new efficiencies. The department heads have been very cooperative in efforts to do that, and there are several specific examples of genuine success.

Why are you running for the position of village trustee?

I am running because I believe public service is important and I live in a community that has been good to my family and me. In addition, I enjoy having a role in our village’s daily life.

At the same time, I want to focus on solving challenges without the silliness and malice of most political endeavors, and that is probably achievable only at the local level, although not always. Moreover, I have come to enjoy working with my colleagues on the board, regardless of party affiliation (which I do not regard as important — and in fact, I was appointed by a Democratic mayor and later ran with a Democrat). I also like interacting with the people who work for our village.

On the board, I get a good view of the “special place” that drew my wife and me here more than a quarter century ago. I want to help leave Irvington an even better place than it was when we found it a quarter-century ago.

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