In short fashion, Joe Sack will make a decision whether to commit another four years of his life to public service; the first-term city of Rye mayor will announce if he plans to run for re-election.
Part of that decision will include reflecting on his three-plus years in the mayor’s office, and how much of his agenda was realized. “I have to make a decision soon,” he told the Review in an exclusive interview this month. “I’m proud of what I have been able to accomplish with my colleagues, and I don’t have anything more to prove.”
According to Sack, the biggest thing he has learned at the helm of city government is the need to represent all of Rye, not just certain factions. “On council, we don’t have the luxury of being advocates for personal agendas,” the Republican added.
It has been an eventful few years.
As mayor, Sack received the most exposure for his stare downs with Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino over the redevelopment of Playland, the historic amusement park that is owned by the county, yet sits alongside one of Rye’s residential neighborhoods. Plans to transform the space into a modern era, year-round destination with potential quality of life impacts for nearby residents led Sack to publicly and legally contest Astorino’s vision, which had been in the works since the county executive took office in 2010.
“That was my moment of truth for being mayor of Rye,” recalls Sack of his toe-to-toe battles with the most powerful Republican in Westchester politics, and the presumptive 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee. “At end of the day, it was…very easy… to stand up to Astorino… because I was doing it in the best interests of Rye. Even though it may not have been good for me personally, if that was a test, I would think I passed it with flying colors.”
Sack, 48, believes his first term as mayor has been a success. “I would have to give an A grade to the full City Council,” he told the Review when asked to grade himself.
But as the political landscape starts to take shape in the coming weeks, however, the majority of the four-member “Rye United” team is likely to part ways with Sack; leaving him to seek re-election, if he so chooses, without any members of that 2013 Republican ticket that swept into office.
“The worst thing that can happen is I lose,” he says about his chances, “and in that case I go on with my life.”
This year’s Rye City Council race is a pivotal one, as a reinvented Democratic Party, under the leadership of Chairwoman Meg Cameron, looks to capture majority control of city government for the first time since 2009.
Sack, now a 10-year veteran of the council, downplayed the momentum of the opposing party, despite the fact that two Democrats—Emily Hurd and Danielle Tagger-Epstein—won election in 2015, and the party hopes to carry forward that energy this year, where four council seats, including the mayor’s, are in play.
“The worst thing that can happen is I lose, and in that case I go on with my life.”
-Mayor Joe Sack, on seeking re-election
It is likely that the upcoming election will become a referendum on Sack and his polices, but the mayor says he’s comfortable running on his record.
He adds that it’s easy to forget that nearly four years ago faith and trust in city government were at an all-time low. “The truth is things were not good,” he said in reference to constant infighting amongst the City Council and numerous scandals—Rye Golf Club, Rye TV and the police uniform bid—that had tugged at the integrity of the city, with each of them pointing back to Scott Pickup, the embattled city manager and adversary of Sack’s.
In 2012, as a councilman, Sack helped shed light on the fraud scandal that was in the works at the city-run golf club. He blamed the Republican administration of then Mayor Douglas French for not having the chops to fully investigate the situation when it was uncovered that the club’s general manager, Scott Yandrasevich, had been bilking the city and its residents out of money.
“Quite frankly, that was what catapulted me into office,” he said of his 2013 mayoral run.
A subsequent investigation by a city-commissioned consulting firm and the Westchester County district attorney’s office led to the conviction and imprisonment of Yandrasevich, while the city was also able to recover $1.55 million from its insurance carrier.
Within months of taking over the mayor’s office in 2014, Sack, with the backing of the City Council, orchestrated Pickup’s resignation. After an extensive search, the council found his replacement the following year in Marcus Serrano, who had been serving as village administrator in Dobbs Ferry.
“Quite frankly, I’m most proud of helping to install in the city manager’s spot someone who is open, honest, gregarious, hardworking [and] the right person at the right time,” Sack said. “Marcus has been great in his leadership for the city.”
Another calling card of the Sack administration has proven to be the hiring of Police Commissioner Michael Corcoran in 2016. The mayor helped push through the hiring by altering the city charter to allow for City Council involvement in a process which was previously under the sole auspices of the city manager. The move drew a cantankerous outcry from some former elected officials and residents who viewed the change as a power play by the mayor.
But with Corcoran’s overwhelming success to date, Sack says he feels vindicated.
Having Corcoran in place, the City Council was then able to transform its emergency services by establishing a Department of Public Safety, encompassing both police and firefighting services, with Corcoran as its designated public safety commissioner. The plan, which required a public referendum, passed by an overwhelming majority of Rye voters last Election Day.
But with those defining moments have also come regrets and missteps along the way.
And none loom larger, according to Sack, than the missed opportunities to increase field space and parking—two areas long lacking—in Rye.
Last year, the city had the unique chance to purchase public property across from Rye Country Day School, along Boston Post Road, that is currently owned by the Thruway Authority. The city, Sack said, could have bought the property by issuing debt for about $7.5 million with a goal of transforming the space into playing fields.
Similarly, an opportunity presented itself to buy up a span of contiguous residential lots along Locust Avenue, for roughly $6 million, that could have been utilized as additional parking for Rye’s overcrowded business district.
But the City Council balked on both fronts. “If I have disappointments… I didn’t push it enough. I wish I had,” he says regretfully.
Sack’s biggest mistake, he admits, was in the process of developing a revised ordinance for rock chipping.
In 2015, noise complaints were running rampant as residential development was in overdrive. Sack made the decision to create a committee to investigate the controversial problem and offer recommendations to the City Council. However, the council incorporated only some suggestions from the committee, ultimately opting for a less stringent law. The mayor told the Review that he may have given off the false impression that whatever his committee recommended would be implemented “rather than impress upon them what we needed… was analysis and options to pursue,” he said.
The latest political hot potato, which Sack fears the city Democrats are using as a recruiting tool for council candidates this year, is the Crown Castle telecommunications proposal to install wireless nodes atop utility poles throughout the city. Sack admits that the City Council lost control of the narrative—the public hearing has dragged on for nearly 11 months now—and allowed residents, concerned with property values and aesthetics, to go on the offensive in attacking the council over the matter while the city was mired in negotiations.
“People have criticized the process,” he said, acknowledging his frustration with the issue. “I think they’re off-base.”
But detractors would argue that the Crown Castle saga has exposed the mayor’s increasing impatience over the past year as evidenced by testy public exchanges with residents and spats on the dais with Councilwoman Hurd.
Although he’s had plenty of preparation for the role, being mayor has still been a learning experience for Sack, who spent six years as a councilman from 2008 to 2013 serving under two different mayors.
Sack first joined a Steve Otis-led City Council as the lone Republican in 2008. Through much of that first term, Sack was considered by many an antagonist, often stirring the pot with his colleagues on issues. He would argue that he was simply asking the tough questions, which contributed to him being re-elected in a landslide in 2011.
In retrospect, although they oftentimes didn’t see eye to eye, Sack said that Mayor Otis, now a state assemblyman, allowed everyone on his City Council to have their say and has tried to apply that as mayor himself. “I’ve appreciated very much Steve’s advice and input with which he has been very generous with,” he said.
But the same can’t be said for Sack’s immediate predecessor, French, who defeated Otis in the 2009 mayoral election.
From the outset, Sack and French repeatedly butted heads during their time on the council, including one memorable night in 2012 when the two made a public spectacle by trading barbs before the City Council television cameras.
“I haven’t heard from Doug since he left office [in 2013] which I feel badly about,” Sack said.
The city has reached out to French to have his ceremonial mayoral portrait hung in City Hall alongside all of the city mayors, but he has declined, according to Sack. “It’s a good opportunity for him to gain a little closure,” he said. “Maybe he didn’t have the type of experience that he wanted as mayor. Time is the healer of all wounds.”
When elected mayor as French’s successor in 2013, the question facing Sack was whether he could transition from the minority voice on the council to the consensus builder necessary for the city’s top elected position.
“I was unsure what kind of mayor he was going to be,” said former Councilwoman Laura Brett, who sat alongside Sack while he served in both capacities. “But he stepped into that role in a way that I found really impressive.”
Sack says he’s had “the time of his life” as mayor. But whether you see him campaigning this summer will ultimately come down to three things: whether it’s the right thing to do for his family; does he still find it fun; and can he still add value to the position.
“As far as I’m concerned, the greatest job in the world is being mayor of Rye,” he says. “As mayor, you get to work on issues that actually make a difference in people’s lives. I’m very happy and grateful to do that.”