May 10, 2001
Interviewed by Jeffrey Kroessler
KROESSLER Welcome to the last of our series, Conversations
on Politics, in the Archives and Special Collections of
the College of Staten Island. I am Jeffrey Kroessler,
historian here in the Archives, and it is my pleasure
to be here this evening with Councilman Jerome X. O'Donovan,
a Democrat hoping to be Borough President.
O'DONOVAN Thank you. It's a pleasure. It's always a pleasure
to be in this college; it's a unique institution in the
City of New York, if not the state.
KROESSLER We're very pleased to have a flourishing campus,
and we're very pleased that you joined us. I called you
a Democrat. Why are you a Democrat?
O'DONOVAN I'm a Democrat, and also we just recently picked
up the Working Families line, so we're on two party lines,
and incidentally we'll be seeking the Independence Party
and the Green Party lines. I'm a Democrat because here
on Staten Island some of the Democratic values I believe
in, good schools, good jobs, working wages, prevail on
Staten Island. We're not on the Upper West Side, we're
not Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side, we're here
with families, with kids that go to school, we're here
with senior citizens, and children, and young mothers
and fathers. So I think the Democratic values that the
Democratic Party believes in bodes well for Staten Island.
I'm also a moderate Democrat, for instance I run, I've
always run with the Conservative Party line, a Democrat-Conservative,
because here on Staten Island, being moderate, moderate
meaning keep our taxes low, keep people at work, keep
our crime down low, keep some of the social programs,
not as affluent as some of the other boroughs, but taking
care of people that need help, which is a Democratic way,
slowing down some of the activities here on the island,
such as development, a moderate approach, a Democratic
approach, so I run as a Democrat, and I run as a conservative,
I always have, so really I'm that type of political animal.
KROESSLER Were you born a Democrat?
O'DONOVAN Well, you evolve. Some people are born Democrats
or Republicans or Conservatives, or Liberals, whatever,
but I sort of evolved into it. I'll tell you how I came
about it. I was born a native Staten Islander, my mom
and dad are native Staten Islanders, my dad, the big O'Donovan
family from Stapleton, my mom the Campenossi family from
Concord. In fact I went to the same grammar school, P.S.
12, as my mom did, and I had a couple of teachers that
taught my mom. The O'Donovan family in Stapleton, the
Campenossi family in Concord, and here I am. But I enjoyed
good public education. I think growing up on Staten Island
was a little different from the other boroughs, because
at that time and even to some extent now we were so rural.
You could walk out the house in the 50s and 60s and leave
the house open and the car windows open too. Things have
changed a little bit, obviously. But I think when I look
back on it, growing up on the Staten Island and where
I am now and how I became a Democratic Council member.
I think there are a number of event in my life that really
focussed me and where I was going. There were some good
events, some sad events, my Dad passing away two years
ago, my sister dying when I was a small child of a disease.
I think one of the first instances and ideals that set
me going was when I went to high school and played football
for the legendary coach Sal Sohmer. Organized sports and
sportsmanship, teamwork a teacher like that, and that
started me on the road of what the world is all about
and how to work with people. Then I think the second experience
that was positive in most aspects and sad in some aspects,
was becoming a captain in the Marine Corps and being sent
to Vietnam, being sent to that hellacious war, you know,
there were some humorous parts of it, being chased by
a water buffalo, a place where I wasn't supposed to be.
KROESSLER You were chased by a water buffalo? Was it
a Republican water buffalo?
O'DONOVAN No it was North Vietnamese. That experience
of Vietnam and the hellishness of the war, the jungle
war, and the experience of living with the Vietnamese
Marines, because I was an advisor, I speak the language.
And I lived with them. And seeing the tragedy of the war,
then coming home and seeing what happened. So playing
football for the legendary coach as a youngster, going
to war in Vietnam, in that particular war, then coming
home after that war and meeting my high school sweetheart,
my wife Vita, and marrying her, at an age where, you know
I was 33 years old, and bringing up our daughter, the
third thing. The fourth thing really brings us to where
we are, in this great country and the island, to get involved,
to get involved civicly, to get involved politically,
to join the Party, to start meeting people, to run for
political office, the see the Republican party, the Conservative,
the Liberal, the Independence, the Democratic Party, to
look at these parties and say, I like the Democratic Party,
what it stands for as a conservative Democrat, and to
have the opportunity to be put up as a Democrat, and a
Conservative, and then win, and serve the public, serve
the constituents of Staten Island, provide the services
as a public as an elected official. And that's how I got
to be where I am now. But those four things: playing sports,
the Vietnam War, marrying my wife, and becoming an elected
official, here I am. And I'm proud of what I've done,
I've been a lot of places. There are a lot of calluses
on these feet, folks. But I'm proud and I'm happy, and
I've had a full life, and I'm prepared to move ahead as
the Borough President of Staten Island, and I think we
can make it. Because there are a lot of issues out there,
issues that I have been involved in, issues which I've
championed, issues which are the issues that we relate
to on Staten Island. And I think my opponents do not relate
to them for a number of reasons. And there are a lot of
things I can do on Staten Island that I've done in the
Council, that show my track record, that show which way
I'm going, my philosophy for what Staten Island should
be. What I've done is important, but where I'm going is
KROESSLER There's a sense that whether you're liberal
or conservative, Republican or Democrat, you still have
to clean the streets and pick up the garbage, as Fiorello
La Guardia put it. So is there a Democratic way to maintain
civic services, or a Republican way?
O'DONOVAN No, there is not. There is a joke in this past
administration that when we had David Dinkins as the mayor
that it was a Democratic dump. It was the Democrats fault,
the Democratic mayor, and he wasn't doing enough to close
the dump, therefore it was a Democratic dump, it was David
Dinkins's dump, and all the Democrats on the Council were
responsible for that dump. Not a Republican dump, a Democratic
dump. So that type of politics, it happens, but it doesn't
have a seat at my table. There isn't a Democratic or Republican
way, there's a philosophical way of doing it, depending
on the man or the woman that's the borough president or
the mayor, philosophical in what should we do with the
budget. Should the budget be 99% for more cops, fire,
sanitation, civil service, or should a lot of it be assigned
to closing a dump, for instance? Should the budget be
philosophically, the mayor or borough president, whoever
it should be, should my philosophy say education is my
agenda, other than the overdevelopment issue, which we'll
get into, should education be the second part of the pie
in the budget, or should we be sponsoring more building
inspectors, take a bigger part of the pie for that particular
issue, so there's a philosophical leadership issue. It's
not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. There are
some issues that are, but here, locally, it's the person,
it's his philosophy, it's the staff that he or she hires,
good people, good staff, good experts, whether it's land
use or engineering, that's how you get things done on
Staten Island and the City of New York.
KROESSLER You mentioned your broad experience, your personal
background, but as you entered the political arena, did
you model your career after any elected officials? As
borough president would you model yourself after any New
York figure in particular?
O'DONOVAN I have my own style, the style I have has been
influenced by athletics, by Coach Sohmer, by teamwork,
as a young man, my style has been influenced by being
a Marine Corps officer, my style isn't a micromanage style,
I like to listen, I like to learn, I listen to laymen,
I listen to experts. And then I make the decision, I've
done that in the Marine Corps, and it worked. That's my
style, to listen, to learn, not to jump, not micromanage
and not dictate. It's served me well, it serves me well
in the Council. I think if you asked about Jerome O'Donovan
the Councilman the first word out of the mouth would be
civility. Civility, and the ability to listen and learn
and then make the decision based on merits, and if you
disagree with O'Donovan he won't be a vindictive man or
a vengeful man, like some of these other elected officials
are. You disagree, fine, I want to know why you disagree
and you know something, maybe that person is correct.
I think there is a mood in city government, particularly
borough hall today, that says if you disagree with this
administration, whether it's the borough president or
the deputy borough president or his staff, that message
goes back to borough hall and there's a fear that there'll
be some type of retribution coming out of Borough Hall.
I see it in the community boards, I see the decisions
in the Community Boards 1, 2, and 3, decisions that are
made based on almost fear, not all, but based on a concept
that we can disagree but we'd better disagree the right
way. That's not me, that's not my style. So my philosophy
and my training has served me well. And I know my limits,
and I think I know where we can go. So that's who I am,
that's the whole person I am. So I believe it would serve
Staten Island well.
KROESSLER You're bringing up civility.
O'DONOVAN I have a program on civility, in sports, on
KROESSLER I agree with you on sports. One of the things
that molded me was having an excellent coach. And knowing
sportsmanship and fair play.
O'DONOVAN Very important as a young woman or young man
growing up in New York City today that you participate
in sports, not necessarily sports but activities that
bring people together, with good teachers, whether it's
some sort of class, or civic group or club, in the university,
and be molded and taught by a teacher that knows what
he's talking about, whether it's sports and athletics,
civic classes. I see organized sports, just to refer a
little bit, what we have on Staten Island is a tremendous
amount of organized sports, Little Leagues, football teams,
and soccer moms and soccer dads, it all comes together.
But civility, which is a mental health issue, a number
of years ago I said enough with the fighting and the parents
getting involved, and people getting hit over the head
with hockey sticks, which happened a year ago, getting
arrested. My staff and I put together a civility program,
worked with the Mental Health Society, because it is a
mental health issue, we put together some money from the
city budget which says we will award some schools with
civility essays, and the winners were picked by, part
from the Advance, part from the Mental Health Society
and part from the teachers at all these schools, and we
gave awards out. And we're going to do it again this year.
Civility in sports, we're doing the same thing with the
help of the Advance. We have a contest going, the kids
would write into the Advance ten different ways there
could be more civility on the athletic field. Civility,
and my ability to realize that civility is part of government,
whether its road rage or whether it's people knocking
each other over, yelling and screaming, whatever it is,
is part of my program, is part of me. Opening up Borough
Hall to the people of Staten Island, whether you're black,
white, Hispanic, Christian or Jew, not throwing out anybody
from Borough Hall which has happened because he's a man
of color, not arresting anybody because there's a perceived
threat. When I was the grand marshal of the St. Patty's
KROESSLER Which I did not bring up.
O'DONOVAN I got some nasty letters, folks. I didn't arrest
anybody. So the civility aspect, the nature of me, the
nature of my staff, is to open up Borough hall to the
public, to everyone on Staten Island, open a South Shore
satellite office, which one of my opponents said he was
going to do. I said that a year ago, if he wants to copy
me he can copy me, I'll understand. On the issue of overdevelopment,
I've been doing this for years. I've made laws on overdevelopment.
If my opponents want to say overdevelopment is the issue,
hey, if you want to copy me, you can copy me. But I have
the track issue on that particular issue.
KROESSLER It seems that there's a sea change on Staten
Island where people aren't willing to just accept unlimited
growth any longer, it seems as though that's been a decades
long process and now it sounds as if enough is enough.
O'DONOVAN That's exactly right, exactly correct. The
developers, the builders, 99% of them are good people.
They're there to develop, that's their industry, that's
what they do, and it's a big industry; it used to be the
biggest industry, now it's maybe second or third. The
biggest industry is health services, a tremendous industry.
But the development has reached the top. There's a straw
that breaks the camel's back, and the straw here, there's
a couple of straws, overcrowding of schools, no school
seats available, traffic that's choking us right here,
lack of libraries, lack of logistical support for the
people that are coming in here, whether it's day care,
whether it's hospital beds, or schools or libraries, all
these different things, and we're still going full bore
ahead. We've got to do something with it. I've done something
with it in the past, for instance, it's my law, the special
hillside law on the North Shore, which I represent. St
George and Grymes Hill, and West Brighton and New Brighton,
the hills of the North Shore, Ward's Hill. My law. I formed
a committee, a task force that said we have a law in place,
it's not strong enough, the developers, only some, are
raping the property, I hate to use that word but they
are, they're tearing down the hillsides, and once something's
torn down, you can't replace a hillside, and then you
just build. The former law said you have to prove it was
there. How can you prove it was there when it was torn
down? So we strengthened that law, that special law that
says you must preserve the hillside, that says you cannot
build on this particular angle slope, and if you can build
because it's not that particular angle of a slope, you
preserve that slope that you have, you preserve the trees,
you preserve the shrubbery, and what we do is if you take
down a tree you replace it with two or three trees. And
that law is effective now, it was passed a year and a
half ago, it has slowed down development, tract development
on the North Shore. I want that law moved through the
City Planning Department, to move out to the other parts
of Staten Island, like Dongan Hills, and Lighthouse Hill,
and Emerson Hill, and the hills of New Dorp, that has
to be redone to preserve what we have now, as well as
our wetlands, and our marshes. I'm the one who has pulled
all the city-owned property from auction so we can preserve
it and step back and wait for a master plan, which I have
called for, what to do with this city-owned land. If it's
big enough maybe we could put a new school on the property,
or a new library. Maybe we'll make it just a park and
preserve it from development. I'm the one who put my money
where my mouth is and put millions of dollars in the budget,
to buy private owned property, like up in West Brighton,
because the folks up there don't want any more development,
and that's what was going to happen, so we put a million
dollars in the budget to show good faith to the developer,
we want to buy it, he said ok, fine. I'm the one who put
a million dollars in the budget to preserve Chapin Woods
because the same thing happened. We've got duck ponds
up there below Todt Hill and Dongan Hills. And folks don't
want it any more, so we're going to buy it from the developer.
There's a pond up there, $800,000, and $400,000 for Fort
Hill Circle, where there was an historic fort in St. George.
So I'm the one that puts the money to do these things,
and I'm going to do the same thing as Borough President.
If I have to put up city money up to buy private property,
to buy and protect, to landbank it for something that
has to come along, I'll do it as the Borough President.
I'm the one who says we have to look at the Building Department
and put a special master in there, because we're special,
we're not Brooklyn or Manhattan or Queens or the Bronx.
We have hills, we have wetlands, we have beaches, we have
hillsides, we have a greenbelt, that nobody else has.
So we can't have a Buildings Department that issues permits
and permits and permits to build in these places without
any rules or regulations. That whole thing has to change,
and I'm going to change it.
KROESSLER One of the issues that you've become a more
recent champion of is historic preservation. And we've
had two issues on Staten Island recently, one the loss
of the Dorothy Day Cottage,
O'DONOVAN That was a shame.
KROESSLER And two the preservation of the Farm Colony
and Seaview, and I'm wondering, were you always a friend
of preservation, or how did you come to appreciate landmarks?
O'DONOVAN That's a good question. When I first started
19 years ago, I was very conservative, meaning that when
I looked at a building project, and you change, you know,
I think that's the ability of good leaders to change when
you see that you're on the wrong track. And I did. I was
not a big fan of preservation or landmarking or historic
districts, because I looked at it in a practical way as
the industry did, that if you landmark a home you can't
do anything with your home. It's a burden on the homeowner.
And as things progressed, as I came to know government,
as I got to know more people, more organizations and as
I came to know the national law on landmarking and what
it does, and as I came to visit all these different places,
my philosophy changed, my philosophy of government changed.
I wasn't as hard edged as I was before. I'm the one who
landmarked or made a historic district in St. George incidentally.
And yes, now I am the one who champions historic districts
and landmarking if it's necessary. I landmarked the 112
Police Precinct, I've landmarked a number of houses on
the North Shore. Now I believe it's for the good of the
community as a whole. And we did change the laws to give
more relief to people who own some of these landmark buildings
so if they wanted to change something, if they wanted
to get a new roof, they could ask for special permission
and it's worked fine. And I'm the one who looked at the
Dorothy Day Cottage and stood there a couple of weeks
ago and the developer screamed in my face and said, "Get
off my property." Because I think he's wrong, I know he
owns the property, I know he can develop, but he has to
do it the right way. That's the whole thing about my overdevelopment
issue: Do it the right way. A plan for the infrastructure,
a plan for a moratorium on selling city-owned property,
a plan for buying private property, a whole plan of where
we're going. It's not happening. Now the other two candidates
can say the same thing, but they haven't. I'm the one
who has, I'm the one that's proven it. One candidate's
a real estate lawyer, the other candidate actually is
a developer. There's a clear, clear, difference in where
we can go. You know a lot of people say to me, Councilman
O'Donovan, as Borough President you don't have this power
to do it. Well you do have power. There's the power of
the budget, the capital budget, no matter how much it
is, how tall it gets as far as money goes, each borough
president gets a piece of the action by a formula, as
high as 10, 15, 30 million dollars depending on the capital
budget. That money is the power of the purse, that money
can pay for a lot of things, can pay for a lot of land,
can pay for a new school, new library, new child support
system, all these different things. So the power of the
purse. The borough president incidentally also has the
power, which is very, very important, to appoint a person
to the Planning Commission, as well as a person to the
School Board. And incidentally, while I'm on that subject,
I haven't made this public, I think I should tonight,
since I wrote the borough president, on good government,
I wrote a week ago, I never got a response, but then again
that's nothing unusual, that our current appointee to
the Planning Commission, John Mortollo, who's a good man,
an infallible man, is filling out the place of the former
appointee, Anthony Jacoby, who's now a supreme court judge,
is up for reappointment in June. Now I wrote the Borough
President a week ago, again he hasn't responded to me,
and I said, Borough President, I understand that your
appointment, which is his appointment but the authority
is the Council's, is up for reappointment in June. I believe
that since the election is in November, we should request
that you do not reappoint him for good government. Because
the next Borough president might come in, whoever it might
be, and say, all right, I'll reappoint him because I agree
with his philosophy, who he is and his background. But
there might be another person and say no, I want my own
appointment. So for good government, don't reappoint him.
He can stay on, and they do stay on, until the term ends
and the new Borough president comes in. He can continue
to do his work. So that issue, I just wanted to bring
up. And let me tell you something else, on the appointment
to the Board of Education, since we're on this.
KROESSLER Well, we are now.
O'DONOVAN We are now. This is very important. I was shocked
Saturday, I'm in my office Saturday, and mostly Sunday,
when I opened up the Post, I read all the papers, and
I saw an article, I brought it with me, I didn't know
I was going to get this far in this issue, and this is
the appointment the Borough President makes to the Community
School Board, which is very, very important. And I read
this article and I couldn't believe what I was reading
about the appointment to the Community School Board, that
we have right now in the Borough President. This is from
the Post: "Workers at the Department of Youth and Community
Development are complaining that top level aids to Commissioner
Jerry Cammarata are doing political work on city time.
Jerry Cammarata is the Borough President's appointment
to the school board, the complaints might be sour grapes
except there's proof that one aide has already mixed politics.
Joseph Kovac, a $56,000 a year assistant to Cammarata,
is listed on the web site of the New York State Young
Republicans with an e-mail address at the city Finance
Department where he used to work." That's improper, not
to mention stupid, and probably illegal, that's my own.
Kovac, director of field operations for the Molinari Republican
Club, got an $11,000 raise when Cammarata brought him
over to DYC. The Molinari Club executive director Mario
Bruno received a $21,000 when Cammarata plucked him from
the Transportation Department. Cammarata serves as vice-president
of the political club headed by Staten Island Borough
President Molinari and one of his allies. He didn't return
KROESSLER I'm going to assume.
O'DONOVAN You can assume that Jerry Cammarata should
start packing his bags today.
KROESSLER I'm going to assume that there are political
appointments and that nothing is done strictly on its
merits necessarily, but I'd like to ask you. Education's
been taking a lot of hits in the city. Everyone's been
saying the public schools are terrible, the teachers are
terrible, we can't keep good teachers. Now as Borough
President, aside from the politics of the current Borough
Hall, what is your take on education, what are the education
issues, what is the crisis that you see coming, and is
the solution you might offer?
O'DONOVAN There is. Let me just reiterate, there are
political appointments, like Cammarata and Mortolla. You're
absolutely right, but these appointees have to be diligent,
they have to do the people's business, they have to do
what the appointing officer's philosophy is, as well as
their own job. When Mr. Cammarata, and I have excerpts
here from the Staten Island Advance in February, I'll
answer the question about schools, but I want to make
my point about political appointees. You have Gene Prisco
of the School Board said, We never see him, he never meets
with us, the president of the Staten Island PTA says he
doesn't make himself available. Now political appointees,
fine, but you have to do the people's business, you have
to do the work. When you have a person doing political
business for a political club or a political person, in
this particular race a Borough President, and he doesn't
even do his business of meeting with the school board
people, he has to go. Anybody has to go. And as far as
Mr. Mortolla goes, hey, I'm not happy. An appointment
made at the recommendation of the Borough President, I'm
the one who approved him, at the City Council, we brought
him in, now look, you have do the people's business. We
want you to take the special hillside regulation and we
want you to move it through the process in the Planning
Commission and we want it effective to other parts of
Staten Island, it hasn't been done yet. There has been
no master plan yet, which we wanted him to do. So political
appointments are fine, I'm going to make a political appointment
to the School Board, but I guarantee that political appointment
will do the people's business. Who will know the issues,
will meet with the school board, will talk with teachers,
meet with the PTA, talk to the UFT. And the same thing
happens, if I should make a new appointment to the Planning
Commission. I want him to move, I want him to act, I want
him to do things for the betterment of Staten Island.
That's what a political appointment should do.
KROESSLER If you're hearing from constituents on schools,
what do they want from schools that they are not providing
O'DONOVAN It's a good question, and a good issue, particularly
for Staten Island. Parents want a place where their children
can go to a good school, meaning a good facility, excellent
teacher, licensed teachers, teachers that are being paid
a fair, good wage as compared to other teachers in the
surrounding areas, our teachers aren't, that's the whole
battle with the UFT and the Mayor's office. Parents want
children to go to a facility that has updated books, that
has classes that are not crowded, a school board that's
receptive to their needs, a PTA that is receptive to all
the parents' needs. And to that end I have continually
funded PTA's, $100,000 two years ago, about $80,000 last
year to all the schools in my district so the PTA's can
have newsletters go out, I funded in every school on the
North Shore, took me three years to do it and $10 million.
A lot of them are Title 1 schools. Every school in my
district, folks, has a brand new computer lab, never had
it before. And that should happen in all of Staten Island.
And how about copy machines, which we just funded, most
of these schools teachers don't have copy machines. How
about schools upgraded with air conditioning, so the kids
can go in and be comfortable and the teachers can work.
So that's what we need, that's what the parents want.
They want schools that provide good adequate education.
And that's what I'm all about. I put money in the budget
for all those computers, I'm still doing it, for athletic
fields that are brand new, we've done it in Port Richmond,
new playgrounds, we just opened one up in PS 19. And we're
continually looking at the schools to make them better
so parents can look at a public school and say, I like
that teacher, I like that principal, I like that facility,
I like what's being taught, they're all brand books, new
library, there's a brand new computer lab, and I'm keeping
my son and daughter in public schools. That's what we
have to do, we have to be diligent about it. We have to
sit down and look at the school system, it's a continuous
battle, it always has been, stop the rhetoric, the political
rhetoric, and do it.
KROESSLER Moving up a few grades, we're in the College
of Staten Island, a branch of the City University of New
York, and in recent years there seems to be an assault
on the quality of CUNY education by the current Mayoral
administration, and there seems to be a question about
the City University and a politicization of public higher
education in the city. Do you have any thoughts about
O'DONOVAN Well, CUNY really should provide the services
that I just mentioned about the lower schools. Schools
should provide those services, and if you gave it an in
depth look, this mayor had blue ribbon panel to look into
CUNY, but that blue ribbon panel are political appointed
by him. Now those people are going to look at CUNY in
a pragmatic way, and see where the money should be allocated
best, see why some of the scores aren't as high as they
should be, then fine, but if they're going to make a political
statement, say we're going to have to fire all the chancellors,
we have to make the students pay a higher tuition, even
higher than they're paying now, almost as a punishment
for not getting good grades, then that's wrong, it's the
wrong philosophy. I'm not an educator, I'm elected official,
I'm an administrator, but any person that I would appoint,
or had any influence in appointing to higher education,
would be an administrator who has a philosophy like mine,
that says, look, the institution is there for the betterment
of the students, not necessarily for the president or
teachers, though they have to survive and work too. Let's
look at the system, see where we're going to come up with
a balanced program to provide better education, not slash
and burn like we have the philosophy now. Let's fire everybody,
let everybody pay more money, some of these wacky programs
we have now, and we'll teach everybody a lesson. No. We'll
have a little civility in that way too. Do it the right
way, and that's what I plan to do.
KROESSLER I've noticed one of your issues is the waterfront,
and we have a big waterfront. I was looking at the history
of Staten Island, and in the 1650s two gentlemen walked
the perimeter of Staten Island, it took them three days.
I'm wondering, if you walked the perimeter of Staten Island
today, what would you find? What would you wish?
O'DONOVAN You would find a potpourrie zoning, that has
to be changed. That's why the master plan is important.
You would find spot zoning of industrial, commercial,
and residential, that makes Staten Island, particularly
the North Shore, a discombobulated mess. Not that bad,
but you would find zoning that must be looked at, a plan
that must be put in place, a plan that can perhaps have
mixed use, but not the mixed use we have now. Let's face
it, our industrial parts of the North Shore could be changed,
rezoned, part commercial, part residential or parkland,
because they're not being used now, it's being abandoned
now, we can take it in rem now. I'll give you a proper
example. One of the first things I'll do, folks, when
I am the Borough President, is to acquire the gypsum plant
and tear it down on Richmond Terrace. We've already been
in consultation with the owner, the price is not that
high, I think he's just using it for a tax write off.
In fact, I inquired of the Borough President a number
of years ago, let's sit down, let's work on it, and see
what we'll do with it. Of course, he never answered my
KROESSLER What do you want to do with it? What do you
want to see? For the waterfront.
O'DONOVAN The waterfront has to be looked at as far as
the zoning is concerned. We need a plan. We have to look
at where the spot zoning is, what type of rezoning can
fit in that particular area of the waterfront. Now a lot
of our waterfront is recreational, so it's going to stay
recreational. You can go from Fort Wadsworth all the way
down almost to Great Kills and you see recreation, South
Beach, Midland Beach, Gateway, another Gateway Park in
Great Kills, you see recreation there, then you see residential
all the way down to Tottenville. Then from Tottenville
around you have a lot of derelict barges and things like
that, there'll be development there, and that's where
the industrial park comes in, it's scheduled for an industrial
park. You see a couple of tanks that have to come down,
being changed to probably residential, we have to look
at that. The real problem comes in at Mariners Harbor
going all the way down to St. George, with the vacated
rail, vacated shipyards, some residential, some industry
that's vacated. So that's the problem spot. Then you can
come around to the St. George Ferry Terminal, we have
a big program going on there, for the renovation of St.
George. A lot of buildings have been wired now, because
of a program the Council put in, EDC, money we put in
to rewire a lot of buildings in St. George wired for back
office space, and we see some back office space coming
into St. George, which is a waterfront community, if you
want to say that. Then the Homeport, which is a sore spot
for me, because it was done wrong, it was done behind
closed doors, done in secrecy.
KROESSLER What was done in secrecy?
O'DONOVAN Well, when the Navy moved out the Borough President
formed this Homeport task force see what to do with it,
they moved a bagel factory in it, everybody drank champagne,
it was the greatest thing that happened, the bagel factory
moved out, they're looking for movie studio, now the Borough
President has spent I don't know how many thousands of
dollars for a study on what to do. We went to that meeting
a couple of months ago, I made a proposal, high end housing,
and middle income housing, and low end housing, but there
are other proposals out there. I proposed a combination
of housing, and wholesale or retail, and a civic center,
put in a new police precinct, and fire command post, because
it's ready made for it, plenty of parking for the police.
Then of course we're back to Fort Wadsworth.
KROESSLER And it took shorter than three days.
O'DONOVAN So this is a big issue. The next planning director,
if it's Mr. Mortollo, hey, might be.
KROESSLER The issues will still be there no matter what.
O'DONOVAN And I would direct my planning director to
look at this issue and come up with something with the
borough engineer, and come up with something that's do-able,
that's pragmatic, for the betterment of Staten Island,
it's not being done now. We need that plan, as part of
the master plan, the rezoning, where to do it and how
to do it so it fits in best with the community. It's not
being done now.
KROESSLER We've been talking for quite a while. Can we
entertain any questions?
QUESTION 1 You speak a lot about the North Shore. As
a Councilman do you only serve the North Shore?
O'DONOVAN There are three councilmen, and one's from
the North Shore, one's from mid-island, including Brooklyn,
and one's from the South Shore, and for 19 years I've
served the North Shore, but the budgetary process, which
is a law incidentally, really included a lot for all of
Staten Island, our cultural institutions, capital projects,
the three of us had combined. I had moved away from that
a number of years ago and just focussed on the North Shore,
because I believed that my money, as a senior councilman,
I normally get a bigger slice of the pie than the other
council members, and I focus most of it on the North Shore,
cultural institutions, schools, computers. Incidentally
on schools, we're funding a $3-4 million item to put security
cameras in all of our schools on Staten Island. But I
had moved in the past couple of years to issues on the
South Shore and mid-Island with my colleagues. I am the
chairman of the economic development committee, I brought
the committee out, we had a hearing out on the South Shore,
in a Little League complex on some of the economic development
problems on the South Shore, a big project they wanted
to do out there. And as the budget negotiator for the
island, because I'm the senior man, 19 years, the other
two have only been there a few years. I negotiate the
budget, I get their input, and we put the money in the
budget to help them with their budget process. In some
of the land use items, I'm going to put $500,000 in this
budget to buy property and help Councilman Fiala in Great
Kills, because I believe he needs help, I believe we should
preserve that area, rather than developers go in to take
care of the Great Kills wetlands. So yes, I do serve constituents
of the North Shore, but I have certainly done my bit to
help the other councilman too.
QUESTION 1 It's interesting that you speak of your master
plan for development, because I work in the Archives and
I've been going through Senator Marchi's papers and his
South Richmond Plan, and that came to mind when you said
master plan. I live on the South Shore and I quite honestly
can't stand the way the knock down one house and put up
QUESTION 1 I'd love to see that stopped, and preserve
Staten Island, because I am a Staten Islander, five generations
on Staten Island. It sounds good to me, but when you say
master plan, do you know what the South Richmond plan
is, and is it something along those lines where you see
developments, or master plan to curb random development?
O'DONOVAN That's a very good question. The South Richmond
plan is an old plan, but there are many loopholes in it.
For instance let me give you one, which really is one
of the biggest causes of development. That is the South
Richmond school seat certification issue. Now South Richmond,
south of Richmond Avenue down. That plan says this, the
school seat certification issue. This is really a stinker.
It says this: you can build in South Richmond two new
homes, attached homes more than likely the way it's going
down there, and if you build those two new homes you must
have one school seat. So what does that do? And statistics
show that when you have one new home, a young couple buys
it, and statistics show they bring one and a half to two
children, or one and a half to two cars, that's one home.
And then you have the other home right next to it with
the same statistic, maybe one and a half to two children,
one and a half to two cars. So effectively you have three
or four children just to start, but you only have one
school seat. That's one of the biggest issues, and the
developers lobbying, the industry is such that this administration,
right up to the mayor's administration, and Borough Hall's
administration, will not look at this issue. That plan
should be reversed: two school seats for one new home.
Then you'll see good, proper good planning as it relates
to slowing down of the homes. Because if there's no school
seat available, then no building permit should be issued.
The other issue is that if a new school is budgeted, in
the city of New York, particularly on Staten Island in
the South Richmond plan, that means builders can file
for permits and the Buildings Department can issue permits
under the same schedule. In other words, if there's one
new high school with a thousand seats, that means four
thousand permits can be issued. The faster you go, the
behinder you get. So we need a plan, we have to address
the South Richmond building in particular. We need a plan
that looks at the zoning, that looks at this issue here.
To address with the new Democratic administration in City
Hall, stop it, reverse it, slow things down. And we will.
We're not doing it now. And that's where my planning director.
He's a good man, he's an infallible man, intelligent guy,
but we asked him to do a few things, and he has not done
it. Again the Borough President should not seek to have
him reappointed, he can serve out his time until the new
Borough President comes in, and let him be the philosopher
of who he should appoint.
QUESTION 2 Councilman, you've argued tonight you're going
to make a decisive break with the past, but I wonder if
there are any Molinari policies you will continue in the
O'DONOVAN I have not looked at that at length yet. I
think that using the bully pulpit as he has is very effective.
I would continue that, but I would do it a different way,
with my philosophy and my personality. I think that he,
using the Republican Mayor to look at the policies that
affect Staten Island, other than development policies
which he certainly hasn't done, but bringing monies for
different things, I will do, as a Democratic Borough President
and the Democratic mayor. He's been effective doing that.
That's what I would do. Some of the specifics, we'll have
to take a look at that, what he's doing and what he had
planned to do, and we will. But, the policies I have mentioned,
we're going to change, which actually he should have.
Of development, he should have done this. He can say rezone
the South Shore, but in reality he has not, because the
issue of school seat certification, he should have done
that, that's the core of the issue of reversing that policy,
and I will reverse that policy. That's really his issue
through his Planning Director and the Board of Standards
and Appeals, the issue of where to build a house in relation
to a school seat being empty, is his issue, he should
have done that. In other words building a home right next
to a school that's overcrowded, that should not be right,
just because there's one school seat vacant five miles
away. That policy he should have reversed. He should have
been an advocate for strengthening our hillsides laws,
he's not, he's nowhere to be seen, that's my law, it's
a Council law, I understand that, but as the Borough President
he has that bully pulpit to say, You know something, that's
a good law on the North side of Staten Island, and we
ought to move that out to Lighthouse Hill and Dongan Hill
and Emerson Hill and Ward Hill. He should have been doing
that, and I will reverse that, I'll advocate for that.
All of those things that he should have been doing, I
KROESSLER Another question? I've got one.
O'DONOVAN I knew it. I knew it.
KROESSLER I heard Congressman Jerry Nadler talk recently
talk about building a new rail tunnel under the harbor,
and I wondering since the working waterfront has been
a big part of Staten Island, have you have any thoughts
on this major transportation possibility?
O'DONOVAN Yes, I do. Jerry Nadler is an expert on trains,
and transportation issues of trains, whether it's passenger
trains or freight trains, the whole synergy of railroads
as it relates to cities and freight. I'd love to see his
basement. He must have some train set. I tell him that
KROESSLER Well, he doesn't need a basement, he has the
train set of Greater New York to play with.
O'DONOVAN He's a wonderful advocate of moving people
and cargo by rail, and light rail, and I like that philosophy.
On transportation, I have to tell you, we're up to here
on the traffic, and it's all the tentacles of the octopus
which leads up to the head called overdevelopment. Before
I get to the train issue, let me tell you something about
traffic, and what I have done and where I believe we should
go. Obviously the HOV lanes, which are relatively new,
we should have more of them. We should look at Hylan Boulevard
and Capodanno Boulevard, because they're working. We must
look at putting more money in the budget, as Borough President
I'll advocate for that, for more public transportation,
more express buses, particularly as it relates to the
South Shore. Now we have an administration that says we're
going to give half for public and half for private franchises.
Let me tell you something, franchising agreements cost
a lot of money, the cost is probably more, they break
down, the drivers, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're
bad. Public transportation you have a qualified driver,
a driver who takes a test, they're under tight scrutiny,
good, brand new equipment, a fair, safe, good ride. We
need public transportation on this island and less of
a privatization issue which only takes care of a few friends.
We need good public transportation, provide a good ride,
a good wage, a reasonable ride. Peter Vallone and myself
and the other Councilmembers on the Island argued for
and got a reduction in the fare from $4 to $3, Vallone
wants to bring it from $3 to $2. I agree with that. HOV
lanes, good public transportation, a cheap, easy, safe,
good ride. These are things we should do. I've just introduced
and the City Council has passed legislation which says
we should have a pilot program that says right on red.
Now, we can turn right on red when posted, we can't do
it otherwise. Look, if it's dangerous, then we don't do
it. But you can do it in every county and every state,
in New Jersey and Florida and California where you have
tremendous traffic, red on red. Obviously you can't do
right on red where Hylan Blvd meets New Dorp Lane, but
then we'll post no right on red. But it's good for business,
I think it's a good safety issue. We should have a pilot
program, I'm waiting for the state to approve it, a six
month pilot program. If it can't happen we don't do it.
At least we tried. If we have the budget for a traffic
officer on a tremendous intersection like Hylan Blvd and
New Dorp Lane from now to forever to move that traffic
along, then we have to do it. These are some of the issues.
We need price fixing for trucks. You know in the morning,
in the afternoon, when it comes to rush hour, the trucks
are amazing. We need the price fixing program the Port
Authority wants to implement, they're dragging their feet,
if you're a truck driver then you have a lower price if
you go off hours, without rush hours. That will go a tremendous
way for doing this. I'm against some of these wacky ideas,
like loops, tunnels, twinning of the bridges. So those
are the measures I will try to implement as far as traffic
goes. On the tunnel, it's being studied now. Moving freight,
moving people, a tunnel either from Bayonne or from the
yards here into Brooklyn, it's an idea, it'll get a lot
of trucks off the road. Whether it should go to Staten
Island or Bayonne, I'll reserve my thoughts until I see
what the study says. I do have some concerns, the logistics
of it. If it's a tunnel you won't see it but there has
to be an entrance and an opening, you know. If there's
enough property, enough land, if it can be safely done,
the noise, the environment, things like that, and so I'll
reserve my opinion until I see Jerry Nadler's study, the
EDC study. Moving freight, moving by light rail is good
philosophy, I just want to see how it affects us here
on Staten Island.
KROESSLER Well, we have been talking for almost an hour,
and I have one last question. Since we are in a library,
at the College of Staten Island, Councilman O'Donovan,
what are you reading?
O'DONOVAN I have to tell you this, I love libraries,
my chief of staff and myself have hung out in the Dongan
Hills Library, St. George Library, which I funded a number
of years ago, for redevelopment, I carry a library card,
I return my books on time, I just funded the Mariner's
Harbor Library, for about $2 million, $600,000 in this
budget for the books, brand new library.
KROESSLER And when you go to the library, what do you
O'DONOVAN I'm not hedging on that. I'll tell you what
I'm reading right now is the city budget, and it's very
thick and very big. I read a lot, when I'm on vacation,
my wife's a voracious reader, and I like to read, I'm
wading through, because my time is limited, I won't tell
you where I read, is one of the histories of the Marine
Corps, by Lt. Colonel Josh Alexander, I like military
history, particularly the Vietnam War, biographies of
live unit actions, since I was there, I like to see some
of the flavor of the other men and women who served in
other parts of the theater, Louis Lamour, Last of His
Breed, a wonderful book about an Indian shot down, a Native
American test pilot shot down in Siberia and how he escaped
from Siberia by going back to his native ways, and the
Russians sent a Siberian Indian after him. Wonderful book.
So I read an awful lot, I like biographies, particularly
military biographies, right now I'm reading that history
of the Marine Corps. When we get done with this budget
and this election I'll read a lot more.
KROESSLER Well, thank you very much for coming to the
CSI Library, Archives and Special Collections.
O'DONOVAN It's a wonderful place. Folks, join up.