It's been a familiar sight since Port Chester's new board was sworn in this June. Mayor Dennis Pilla, tight-faced and wearing an embarrassed smile, and Trustee Sam Terenzi – arms crossed, eyes rolling, muttering under his breath.
The episodes range from loud and angry invective hurled during budget discussions, to low-toned volleys returned with thick doses of sarcasm. They haven't escaped the notice of the public.
During a meeting in August, a husband and wife exchanged glances as they watched Terenzi and Pilla trade backhanded compliments. The wife leaned in toward her husband, her voice low in the small courtroom where the board holds its meetings.
"They fight," she said, "like an old married couple."
From the row in front of them, a man looked back with a grin, shoulders heaving in muted laughter.
While Terenzi in particular has been scolded by residents for his frequent outbursts ("childish," "abusive," "unprofessional," "disgusting" and "embarrassing" are some of the adjectives that have been employed to describe his tirades during meetings), others say they appreciate the fact that Port Chester's politicians air their dirty laundry in public – and provide comedic entertainment value.
"More fun," is how Trustee Joseph Kenner put it after the first of several scoldings the board's taken in the last two months, while on Monday Trustee Daniel Brakewood said it wasn't always pretty, but no one could accuse the board of being boring.
A discussion about public documents turned into one of those moments Monday. Terenzi wanted Treasurer Leonie Douglas to explain why the village's computer systems couldn't pull up simple lists of professional contracts.
Douglas started to speak, then Village Manager Christopher Russo chimed in, and Terenzi lost his patience.
"Leonie, [Russo is] going to speak for you," Terenzi told Douglas. "You move your mouth, he'll do the talking."
Terenzi was cut short by Pilla rapping on the courtroom bench.
Terenzi glared. "You interrupted me!"
"I have the gavel," the mayor said.
"I forgot. It's early alzheimer's I have."
"Sorry to hear."
If the exchanges sound as if they've been lifted from a script, maybe it's because both men have had lots of practice.
Pilla has accused Terenzi of posturing ahead of a run for mayor, and conducting back-room meetings with other trustees, out of the public eye. Terenzi has accused Pilla of micromanaging, whitewashing unpleasant news and using the press to make him look bad.
"Things that get said in the papers need to be said with more clarity," Terenzi was saying when he was interrupted again by Pilla's gavel.
"You can bang that thing all you want," Terenzi said, "just make accurate statements."
Pilla didn't look at Terenzi. "Frankly, I'm tired of taking the humiliation and the intimidation from many of you."
Terenzi shook his head. "What are you talking about? You're paranoid."
But clearly, not all of it is taken seriously. While Pilla was praising Russo for his accomplishments during Monday's meetings, Terenzi crossed his arms, grumbled under his breath, and waited until Pilla was finished before declaring that he'd need Brakewood's sociology PhD. to understand what Pilla was saying. Brakewood, a Democrat and an ally of the mayor's, laughed with Terenzi.
Later, Terenzi had it out with local newspaper publisher Richard Abel, trading ad hominems – Abel said Terenzi should take the treasurer's job "because I know you need the money," while Terenzi replied flatly: "What you don't know about this village, Richard, you could fill a library with."
As Pilla banged his gavel to try to bring the meeting back to order, Abel got one more shot in before Terenzi settled back, looking disgusted. "What a jerk," he grumbled.
As the meeting winded down and the trustees were given time to offer final comments, Terenzi reflected on a night when he earned two new nicknames – "Sammy the Bully" and "The Carl Paladino of Port Chester" – and suggested the stress of elected office was taking its toll.
"Maybe it's good," he said, "maybe it's bad. But I'm going to be 55...and I'm not gonna change."
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