Changes course abruptly as members, too, voice concerns
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Faced with ardent public opposition and sharp dissent in its own ranks, the Putnam County Legislature Tuesday night (July 2) abruptly switched gears and postponed a seemingly sure vote on authorizing the county executive to make a deal with a private firm for advertising-bearing signs on a county bike-hike path.
The issue involved allowing County Executive MaryEllen Odell to agree to a contract with Bikepath Country Inc., to install, on the Putnam Trailway, signs mixing mile data and rider information with advertisements — albeit small ones, according to draft designs — for such companies as Target and Gatorade. A paved path through woods and glens bordering “civilization,” the trail runs through the eastern end of the county, into Westchester County and beyond.
The premise of the concept, according to an early version of a proposed resolution on it, would be for Bikepath Country to undertake “the supply, installation and maintenance” of the signs. Although listed on the agenda as a vote for “approval of [the] proposed contract,” the Legislature’s resolution stipulated that it wanted to approve any final contract.
An online petition opposing signs with ads circulated in Philipstown as well as other towns.
Legislative supporters of the signs-cum-ads described them as a way to pay for signage and trail maintenance and boost county revenues while enhancing safety and helping emergency responders find accident victims on the trail, since the mile signs would provide rough indicators of location.
Opponents decried the “commercialization” of a serene nature trail and raised the specter of ads for sex-themed shops in public parks if the county government proceeds. They also urged the Legislature to not confuse safety and installation of necessary information signs — to which no one objected — with commercial promotions.
Although Odell is a Republican and the Legislature consists of eight Republicans and a Democrat who has also run as a Conservative, any vestige of party unity dissolved in the brouhaha. An initial attempt to table or postpone the Odell-authorization vote failed. Some two hours later, after the legislators had sparred among themselves and heard pointed public comments, a second motion to postpone action passed 8 to 1.
District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley, supported the sign venture and voted with the majority both times. She framed the issue in terms of expenses to constituents.
“It costs this county over $80,000 a year to maintain,” Scuccimarra said. “I believe my first responsibility to my district is to keep their taxes as low as possible.” She explained that she would oppose typical advertising on the trail but “looking at these signs, I do not have a problem. This [trail] is an expense for the county. I want to be fiscally responsible for our taxpayers and I think this is fiscally responsible.”
Neighboring District 2 Legislator Sam Oliverio of Putnam Valley, the Legislature’s lone Democrat, disagreed. “It’s commercializing the bikeway. That’s not what the bikeway was put there for.” Oliverio also pointed to the “hundreds of signatures” on the online petition against the ads.
District 6’s Roger Gross, of Southeast, spoke in a similar vein. “I don’t support advertising on the bikeway. We just don’t need it. It’s not the way to go.”
But fellow legislators, an apparent majority as the discussion began, thought otherwise. “It’s a beautiful path” but “one of the problems” is its lack of signs, said Joseph Castellano, who represents the Village of Brewster and other areas of District 7. “It’s a safety issue. Mile markers are a necessity for the safety of the community.”
“Business and government partnerships can benefit everybody,” said Carl Albano, of Carmel and Patterson areas, District 5. “Why not try it for a year?” Albano, too, cited costs. “Many people don’t use this bike path but they pay for it,” he said.
“We do not have much to play with, so we need to be creative” in raising revenue, declared Richard Othmer, the Legislature’s chairman, from Kent. “The emergency services part of it speaks for itself. These signs look so damn good they’re going to be a benefit. If we can have a self-supporting bike trail, why not do it?”
Critics, in both the Legislature and from the floor, countered the county could install signs for safety purposes without putting ads on them and that the amount of revenue to be gained is nebulous. “What revenues are we guaranteed?” Oliverio asked. “We probably won’t see a single cent.”
Procedural questions likewise arose. The Legislature met in an executive session an hour before the scheduled regular meeting, for “advice” from Odell on the contract.
“My objection to this is the whole issue of process,” said District 9’s Anthony DiCarlo, representing the Carmel and Mahopac areas, the deputy chairman. He cited the way the issue came up with no time to see and ask questions about the contract proposed. “It’s just not proper. For us to not table this tonight and have a further discussion is wrong.”
“What is the urgency? What’s another month for us to go over the contract?” Legislator Dini LoBue, representing Carmel and Mahopac areas, likewise asked. “We’re allowing a private company to come in and profit off this bike path.”
Oliverio cited principles of openness and good governance. “I believe we’re violating those tenets by rushing this through. It’s an abomination. It should never have come before us,” he said. “We were surprised by a contract introduced at 6 this evening.”
“It’s clear public safety is not the issue,” said Jeff Green, a Kent resident, one of a string of concerned citizens who spoke from the floor. He challenged legislative supporters of the ad-bearing signs. “I want to know what your real reasons are.” Green offered to raise money for signs without ads, a $1,500 cost, according to his estimate. “There’s no reason to support this contract. There is a reason to keep our trails and our parks advertising-free. And you don’t even have a contract to look at.”
Ultimately, Othmer, the chairman, switched from championing immediate action to sounding a voice of caution. “I really would like to do what I want to do” and move ahead on the signs with ads, he acknowledged. “But there was a lot of good testimony from the public.” Consequently, “I’d like to table it. I really would.”
A few minutes later, seven legislators voted with him to do just that. Albano cast the sole vote opposing postponement.