In the latest of a series of offensives against incumbent Mayor Dennis Pilla, challenger and Trustee Bart Didden said Port Chester's downtown is "an embarassment" and said the mayor hasn't done enough to crack down on safety violations and eyesores.
Last week, Didden released the outline of a three-pronged plan to "bring downtown back" if he's elected mayor. The cornerstones of that plan, Didden said, involve cracking down on trash violators, implementing visual changes in the village's Main Street business district, and "beefing up code enforcement."
On the latter initiative, Didden called for legislation that would prevent judges from reducing fines against landlords accused of operating overcrowded and illegal homes and apartments. In addition, Didden said if he's elected mayor, he'd find ways to force violators to pay fines.
Didden and local Democrats sparred over enforcement fines in December, when Code Enforcement Director Christopher Steers answered questions about violations during a public board meeting.
In that exchange, Didden said violators shouldn't be given leniency for failing to observe the holiday schedule, which moved trash collections up by a day. The vast majority of those fines came during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays, when residents left their trash on curbs on normal collection days.
The result: garbage was left on village sidewalks for up to a week in some places. But Trustee Daniel Brakewood argued that many residents who received fines simply , and the $250 fine is .
Didden also accused Pilla of going back on his promise to increase code enforcement staffing, saying the mayor "transferred funding for two additional code enforcement officers to a contingency fund." Under Pilla's plan, funding was provided for three full-time and two part-time inspectors, and Didden says the mayor eliminated the two part-time positions.
Pilla disputes that allegation, saying the vacancies in the part-time positions were created when the part-time code enforcement officers were promoted to full-time positions. He pointed to an internal e-mail exchange with Village Manager Christopher Russo.
"Two of [the full-time positions] were filled by the part-time code enforcement officers being brought up to full time pending civil service exam, of course, but they are legally in the positions provisionally," Russo wrote. "This resulted in two part time positions now vacant for which we are actively recruiting."
Since taking over code enforcement duties, by both Democrats and Republicans on the board. Code enforcement was traditionally part of the long-corrupt building department, which was raided by the Port Chester Police Department early last year, resulting in the retirement of Acting Building Inspector Frank Ruccolo after he was suspended without pay in May.
Ruccolo, dauphin to longtime building inspector Leonard Cusumano, is widely rumored to have taken bribes; several sources say police raided the building department after police received credible evidence that Ruccolo had taken a $1,500 bribe to approve an illegal dwelling, but the investigation has been ongoing for 10 months without a comment from police.
Remnants of the alleged corruption surfaced earlier this month, when maintenance worker Daniel DeLisa was fired for allegedly outsourcing his $5,400-a-year cleaning job. DeLisa told authorities the late Cusumano gave DeLisa his blessing to outsource the job a decade ago; DeLisa had been paying a woman to do the work since 2001.
After the scandal surfaced, Didden was forced to backpedal after claiming he'd "uncovered" the corruption.
Although the police investigation is ongoing, Cusumano passed away in 2007 and Ruccolo was allowed to retire, it's difficult to find a resident in town who does not have a corruption story about the building department.
It all adds up to a staggering amount of corruption Steers has had to contend with as code enforcement director, and in January after Trustee Sam Terenzi was accused of dangling a promotion in front of Steers in exchange for political support.
While the board has heaped praise on Steers in the past, Didden says "slumlords have been allowed to get away with violating safety codes," and says the code enforcement department's efforts haven't been enough.
Pilla says Didden's accusations aren't based in reality, and said his statements could have legal ramifications for Port Chester.
"It should be a crime to so violate the public trust," Pilla wrote in an e-mail to local media. "Let's not forget this man is an elected Trustee with legal and ethical obligations to the public he serves."
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