In his own state of the city address Tuesday evening, Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) offered up a ringing defense of Mayor Steve Noble’s progressive “One Kingston” agenda and called on Kingstonians to embrace local government as a force for positive change and economic growth.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” said Scott-Childress, who replaced fellow Democrat Bill Carey as majority leader late last year. “And the Kingston Common Council, working with the Mayor, has made a lot of good things possible over the last two years.”
Scott-Childress touted many of the same achievements referenced many of the same achievements Noble underlined in the mayoral state of the city speech delivered at last month’s council meeting — reduced tax rates and a flow of new residents, new private investment and state grants into the city.
But Scott-Childress also addressed head-on one of the most controversial initiatives of Noble’s tenure a resolution passed in February 2017 that declared Kingston a “welcoming and inclusive city” for all, including undocumented immigrants. Derided by opponents as a “sanctuary city” initiative, the resolution codified a longstanding unwritten policy that prohibited Kingston police officers and other city employees from inquiring about immigration status during routine interactions like traffic stops and taking witness statements.
The resolution, passed by a divided Common Council, generated intense criticism from some city residents and featured prominently in arguments leveled against the administration during November’s Common Council elections. In his address, Scott-Childress called the resolution “one of the most important items in our recent history” and linked its passage to the economic growth of the city.
“We understood that new business and new residents are crucial to both our economic health and our cultural vitality,” said Scott-Childress. “And since the passage of the resolution we have seen our economy grow.”
Scott-Childress also took aim at what he said was an increasingly nasty tone in both national and local politics. Scott-Childress said that some city residents had resorted to made-up facts, personal insults and rumor-spreading to achieve political ends — tactics he called “counterproductive.” Scott-Childress said the same kind of cynicism had led some to regard government as a “pirate” squandering taxpayer money in “the whorehouses of waste and the saloons of corruption.” Scott-Childress said history has given Americans reason to be wary of government, but added “… to condemn all government is nonsense. The time is now to change the way we think about each other and our connections.”
Teach, and talk
Scott-Childress said that the lack of faith in local government should be addressed with education and better communication between City Hall and city residents. As an example, he cited payment in lieu of taxes (Pilot) agreements intended to encourage development by offering investors tax breaks on new job-creating ventures. (Pilot agreements for proposed boutique hotels and other projects in Kingston have come under fire, characterized by many as tax giveaways for wealthy outsiders.) Scott-Childress acknowledged that “there are good Pilot agreements and there are bad ones.” But he said some of the criticism stemmed from a lack of understanding of how the tax breaks work and why they are necessary.
“The city must do a better job of explaining the tools and practices of local government,” said Scott-Childress. “How can we ensure that all our residents understand that [Pilot agreements] can be vital tools for improving our local economy, creating jobs and providing essential services?”
Scott-Childress argued that a similar lack of communication and understanding had played out in the handling of two hot-button neighborhood issues, the proposed installation of a gas regulator station on Washington Avenue and a proposal to create 66 units of low income senior housing at the site of the former city alms house on Flatbush Avenue. Both projects have generated significant local opposition and both, he said, would benefit from better understanding of how various city boards and commissions operate and better communication between residents, government and developers.
“[The] neighbors [of the alms house and gas regulator projects] have not felt properly heard or properly included in the process,” said Scott-Childress. “Let us dedicate ourselves to ensuring that the city works for all of our residents.”
Scott-Childress also laid out an agenda for the council in the coming year. In addition to addressing infrastructure concerns, he placed improvements to Dietz Stadium, repairs to the Pike Plan, development of a city-sponsored mediation program for neighbor disputes and exploring the possibility of public Wi-Fi on the council’s to-do list.
Traditionally, the council’s minority leader makes their own speech to the council laying out legislative priorities and usually outlining an opposition viewpoint to the party in power. This year, for the first time in recent memory the council convened without a minority leader. Democrats currently hold eight of nine seats on the Common Council. The ninth is held by Seventh Ward Alderman Patrick O’Reilly. O’Reilly is not enrolled in any political party and declined to take on the minority leader role.