Debate questions Riverdale’s privilege


Michael Serrano, The Bronx Journal Radio host, organized a July 11 debate among contenders for City Council District 11, planning to ask Andrew Cohen, Shelley Keeling and Cliff Stanton about everything from their need to spur communities’ clean up efforts to their opinions on stop and frisk.

But he opened the discussion by couching the conversation in the idea that nobody outside of Riverdale realizes “that there’s a campaign season” and opened one of his early questions by saying the debate over paving the Putnam Trail seemed flippant. 

The candidates seized on this and began debating whether Riverdale receives more attention or funding,  with Mr. Stanton’s supporters in the audience insisting it did. Ms. Keeling agreed.

By the end of the evening, Councilman Oliver Koppell stood among 60 attendees in Lovinger Theatre and demanded that candidates backup their claims of favoritism with an example.

The crowd of about 60 — many of whom were campaign workers — was orderly at the beginning. The candidates, none of whom have held an elected office before, introduced themselves. Mr. Cohen, an attorney, adjunct professor at John Jay College and Community Board 8 member, touted the union and politicians’ endorsements he’s received, arguing that he’s capable of coalescing support for the district.

Ms. Keeling, stood and spoke in Spanish as well as English, arguing that her ascent from living in public housing to owning a real estate company coupled with her experience as an educator and coach would help her understand the district’s diverse demographics.

And Mr. Stanton, who owns a food business and has served in parent-teacher organizations at schools, rehashed his childhood in Van Cortlandt Village and suggested the district needed new leaders.

Mr. Serrano asked about public safety tactics, concerns in schools and neighborhood upkeep without getting much disagreement among the candidates. All three criticized police stop and frisk tactics that infringes on the rights of minorities and youth. 

They all said more trashcans would help improve parks and outdoor spaces — Mr. Cohen said he’d add more on his first day in office, but Mr. Stanton  had other priorities. He put more receptacles third on his list, after teaching “personal responsibility and respect.” Later,  they each bemoaned the proliferation of state exams in public schools. 

When it came to charter schools, a topic asked about by a few audience members, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Keeling said they thought the city should give top priority to district schools and that the Department of Education’s policies of co-locating charter schools in existing school buildings was highly contentious — enough so that Mr. Cohen vowed not to support such proposals and agreed with a woman who said breaking up campuses, such as DeWitt Clinton High School, into smaller schools can be expensive because more administrators need to be hired.

Mr. Stanton said he believed district schools shared space more frequently than charter schools did and said he’d only had positive experiences with charter schools, as a former Tech International Charter School board member who helped bring the middle school to Kingsbridge.

They also disagreed on lulus, stipends given to council members for leadership positions that many have argued are distributed unevenly by the speaker. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Stanton critiqued the lulu system as the speaker’s way of controlling council members.

Ms. Keeling said she believes people should be paid more when they work more, adding that Americans take on enough unpaid or underpaid duties and rattling off statistics about discrepancies in average pay between men, women and minorities.  

However, the conversation quickly grew contentious when Mr. Stanton said many people in Norwood, Mosholu and Bedford Park feel resources aren’t distributed equitably across the district and that Riverdale receives the “lion’s share of the resources.”

Mr. Cohen said he had spoken with Councilman Koppell about how he allocates discretionary funding and he plans to continue a tradition he deems “fair.”

Ms. Keeling said complaints about unequal funding — either in where city agencies’ budgets go or in discretionary funding — should be directed toward current politicians, not her. 

“Riverdale sends 15,000 people to the polls. The other Assembly districts combined send 3,000. If that’s the best you can do, that’s the best you deserve,” she said.

When Zellnor Myrie, a Bedford Park resident, asked Ms. Keeling if she believed Riverdale’s higher voting rates entitled its residents to more services, Mr. Serrano interrupted.

Before Ms. Keeling could say, “no,” Mr. Serrano, also from the Bedford Park-Norwood area, stepped to the front of the stage and said, “Let me answer that for you real quick; “Who do you see up here?… Our participation is so low.”

The crowd began to grumble and complain about how Mr. Serrano had rephrased his questions when directing them to different candidates and not monitored response times.

Minutes later, Mr. Stanton responded to a question about land use by noting that Mr. Cohen had received a campaign donation from the CEO of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, which seeks to expand amid community opposition. 

Mr. Cohen then asked whether it was “appropriate to be taking questions from people paid by the Stanton campaign” when Anthony Rivieccio, Mr. Stanton’s consultant, complained about unequal upkeep of parks and the concentration of homeless shelters. 

By the end of the debate Mr. Koppell demanded that he be permitted to defend his record, saying, “Pitting one community against another is not the way, in my opinion, to win an election,” and asking the candidates to give proof of his preferential treatment.

Mr. Stanton said he couldn’t ignore this was the perception in the room without delving into whether it was an accurate perception; Mr. Cohen reiterated that he admired Mr. Koppell’s record; and Ms. Keeling said Mr. Koppell shouldn’t have allocated $1 million to Ewen Park because you cannot walk through it without encountering the “fresh” scent of marijuana smoke and that he wasn’t able to fund Rev. Diego Delgado-Miller’s request to start an English as a Second Language Program at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator because he’d directed too much elsewhere.