A little more than ten years ago, a debate began stirring over how best to develop a vacant lot in the heart of Scarsdale's commercial district. The village was mulling a proposal that would bring new shops, restaurants and apartments to the heart of the commercial district. But many residents were concerned about the scale of the development and its potential to alter the quaint, boutique-y character of the area.
Today, that lot houses the Christie Place luxury condos, the hit restaurant Chat and a retail strip that epitomize the charming upscale character of suburban New York.
But the debate that raged over the development revealed fissures in Scarsdale's decades-old system of running elections that were ostensibly free of partisanship, money, mudslinging, and other oft-criticized cornerstones of American politics.
Residents who were unhappy with the work village officials were doing organized a party and ran a slate of candidates in the 1999 village elections. One of the candidates, Joe Zock, won a seat on the Board of Trustees. The other candidates just missed. This may sound like run-of-the-mill local politics, but in Scarsdale it was a notable aberration from a tradition of stated nonpartisanship.
Since 1930, Scarsdale has operated under a unique single-party system. The Citizens' Nominating Committee (CNC), comprised of 30 members, selects a slate of candidates each year that run under the banner of the Citizens' Nonpartisan Party (CNP). Those candidates almost always run unopposed, and do little to no campaigning.
Tomorrow will be your chance to vote for them – or, technically speaking, whoever you want. If you happen to be among the three percent or so of voters who come out at all.
Bruce Wells, vice president of the Scarsdale Forum and the de facto campaign manager for the CNP, said the system works because it removes the politicians from politics, paving the way for qualified candidates who may not have considered holding office if extensive campaigning was involved.
"There's no campaigning, no fundraising, and no speeches, so we get a different type of person. Politicians are born to be politicians, and they make promises and kiss babies, but they're not necessarily the best people for decision-making. You want the policy people," Wells said.
If you think this sounds reminiscent of the Soviet politburo, you're not alone. Critics have pointed out a number of potential problems with the system,
In the early 1980s Paul Feiner, then a law school student and Scarsdale resident, led a push to form a viable opposition party.
"Contested elections are healthier because there's more oversight and there's checks and balances. There's also much less likelihood of waste and abuse. When you have uncontested elections, people aren't scrutinizing every penny. When it's heated, it's less likely you'll see that complacency or apathy."
The party was unsuccessful in winning any seats in the village, and Feiner said he was essentially run out of town because of his boisterous opposition to village tradition.
"I couldn't have run for dog catcher," he said. Feiner compared the system to that of the Soviet Union, saying it allowed for a small group of insiders to handpick like-minded candidates.
After his defeat, Feiner moved to Greenburgh, where he became Town Supervisor in 1991. He's held the position ever since.
Feiner said his initial opposition to the system was that it essentially excluded women from office because trustees and mayors were typically handpicked out of the top officers of the all-male Town Club, which Feiner said he helped integrate in 1977.
When he got involved, he felt that decorum and tradition seemingly trumped transparency and debate in Scarsdale.
"It's important for voters to have choices and for issues to be debated prior to election day," he said.
But he admitted that the non-partisan system works for Scarsdale residents, which may help explain the notably low turnout in most recent elections. Last year 3.7 percent of registered voters – 664 people – came out to cast a ballot. In 2008, turnout was only two percent at less than 400 people.
"People generally are satisfied with their services and busy with their professional lives, plus there's this image of exclusivity and wealth associated with Scarsdale and they want to protect that. People want to be proud of their community."
Wells also said that low voter turnout, and the general lack of opposition to the single-party system, can be explained by the village's premium services.
"A second party isn't needed unless people feel they're not being listened to," Wells said. "You can't have a single-party system and say, 'we know better than you'."
He added that in the decade or so since he got involved, village officials have become more open-minded and the culture of consensus has grown stronger.
Trustee Miriam Flisser is in the middle of her first term after narrowly losing a bid in the contested 1999 elections.
She told The Scarsdale Inquirer that village officials have a responsibility to work toward consensus.
"If the Board allows for fragmentation in the community instead of seeking a cohesive voice, it will create conflict and no positive outcome," she said.
Feiner explained that hot-button issues tend to stir up resentment toward the status quo, so contested elections are often the result of a timely controversy, like the Christie Road development.
Feiner forecasts that a recent federal ruling requiring Westchester County to build moderate-income housing in some of its most affluent areas – including Scarsdale – could be the next issue that spawns a heated election in the village.
At a recent Board meeting Trustee Richard Toder, who is up for reelection Tuesday, echoed the view that as a unique place, the village deserves a unique process.
"In Scarsdale we hold ourselves out to be different and, in fact, better, so maybe just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean that we should do it too," Toder said.
Wells said that critics who say the system is elitist or exclusive should take the time to participate.
"Get on the CNC, get in the Forum, be on the committees; get involved and be a voice. It's very easy to make a difference, and once you get involved you'll see how well the system really works," he said.
"It's not perfect, but it's better than anything I've seen anyplace else. It's 99-percent perfect."