In their own words: 13th CD Q&A

Egidio Joseph Sementilli

The Bronx Times Reporter sent six questions to each of the candidates running in the 13th City Council District Democratic Primary on Tuesday, September 12.

In an effort to provide voters with more information to make better-informed decisions, questions and answers from the five candidates running can be found in this article.

On the ballot are John Doyle, Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj, Victor Ortiz, Egidio Sementilli, and Marjorie Velazquez.

BTR: Some community leaders in the 13th Council District recently disagreed with Councilman James Vacca’s stance on two important matters: the narrowing of the roadway on part of East Tremont Avenue and the size of the new wing of P.S. 14.

Vacca pushed the plans through despite community opposition. As a council member, how would you handle issues where there was no clear consensus?

Doyle: I testified against the road diet proposal when it came before Community Board 10 in May 2015. However my concern was centered on the process. We should have allowed for residents to give their suggestions for improvements first, before narrowing the roadway.

On the P.S. 14 issue, I initiated a Freedom of Information Request with the Waterbury LaSalle Community Association. I plan on hosting open town hall meetings in every community every year. This promotes accountability and information being shared with everyone. If we need to act on big issues, these meetings will provide the forum to have those needed discussions so we can arrive at a consensus.

Gjonaj: When there is no clear consensus among different parties, I believe it is important that we first listen to the community, and then bring together all parties to find where we agree and work together for solutions.

As council member, I would have met with the community board and brought in DOT officials to look at all sides of the issue and come up with a compromise.

In regards to P.S. 14, we must take into account whether the surrounding infrastructure can support new construction; otherwise any improvements will be a detriment to the community.

The community board voiced its concerns, but the decision was made without taking their input or the needs of the surrounding infrastructure into consideration.

Ortiz: I am against any proposed ‘road diet’ construction in the community. It prevents first responders from easier access to the community. Furthermore it creates a nightmare for commuters in the neighborhood. I would stop all funding for such activities.

Sementilli: I have opposed the ‘road-diet’ at the public hearings for the reason that it would impede traffic flow.

I would have handled it with complete public review and a round table with DOT to resolve the liability and public safety issue in creating a better result.

Victor Ortiz

I agree that we need more schools in our community. P.S. 14 was a planned development without prior discussion except for the public hearing after the plans were drawn.

The park separating the private homes should have been left alone to create a natural barrier that had existed there for years.

Velazquez: I believe the city should have had further dialogue with the community on their updated plans before just starting the project.

On the P.S. 14 annex, I believe our children need modern school buildings with the necessary classroom and extracurricular space, and shouldn’t be forced into portable trailers in a school yard.

Balancing the varying concerns of residents requires listening and engaging with all sides through multiple meetings and conversations, trying to find consensus.

BTR: Do you agree with Mayor de Blasio’s decision to create a panel to review possible ‘symbols of hate’ within a 90-days? Should the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle be on the table for review?

Doyle: I have no issue with a panel being set up to review these things but there are far more immediate needs in this city that need to be addressed.

Gjonaj: Mayor de Blasio is right to root out symbols of hate. However, I am afraid of this turning into a witch hunt. How will we create a score card for the accomplishments of historical figures? I do not think this is the right way to help our children understand the past. I believe we should be choosing education over destruction.

As an historical figure who discovered our great country, Christopher Columbus is important to American history and is a profound figure in Italian cultural heritage.

While many could have academic discussions on the explorer’s record, the idea that we should rip down his iconic monument is irrational.

In 1892 President Benjamin Harrison officially recognized Columbus Day on its 400th anniversary, encouraging Americans to celebrate the diversity of America. We should continue that sentiment today.

Sementelli: Mayor deBlasio is creating a panel of hate and separation to enhance division among our communities.

The Columbus statue represents pride and it must stay. One must remember that the statue was erected in 1892 after the largest lynching in America, of Italian citizens in New Orleans (1891).

Velazquez: I am not in favor of removing the Columbus Statue in Columbus Circle. Whether we review this issue through the mayor’s new panel or not, we need to consider the context.

Marjorie Velazquez

BTR: Recently, some developers, including Stagg Group, have been constructing apartment buildings they claim will be market rent, then turn them into homeless shelters.

What do you think of the city’s policy of leasing new buildings to house homeless people?

Doyle: I joined Councilman Andy King for a protest outside of Stagg’s development on White Plains Road recently. These ‘bait and switch’ tactics absolutely erode any sort of trust the community hopes to develop during the land-use process.

Gjonaj: The community must come first. Developers must present their plans, in their entirety, at public meetings, which will be documented so that they can be held accountable.

Additionally, community members need to be made aware of any building permits that are applied for before construction begins.

I will be looking into drafting legislation that will make it a requirement to notify community boards the moment a permit is applied for.

Ortiz: I believe that the Bronx has its share of homeless shelters. We do not need to subsidize anymore of our tax dollars to this cause.

However I would only reserve my vote for shelters that help veterans in our district. I believe that the veterans are the most underprivileged people in our society.

Sementilli: Recently, I stood with Councilman Andy King in a protest in front of a Stagg Project turned into supportive housing after telling the public it was built for market rate apartments on White Plains Road.

Velazquez: This kind of ‘bait and switch’ is not fair to our community. The process exists to give residents a voice in what happens in their community through our community boards.

BTR: It is documented that the Bronx plays host to more supportive housing than other parts of the city. Do you think this is fair?

Doyle: Of course it isn’t and unfortunately legislation in Albany to address this has languished for years.

I have been supportive of legislation to require notification before these facilities are built so we can have a honest discussion about which neighborhoods are already bearing their fair share.

Gjonaj: Just last week I filed a lawsuit that claims New York City is unduly burdening the Bronx with a disproportionate level of supportive housing facilities.

Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj
Photo by Walter Pofeldt

Specifically, I believe the city is in violation of its charter’s ‘fair share’ provision which requires the issuance of annual ‘beds to population’ index to assess the impact of city facilities on individual communities to ensure equitable distribution of supportive housing options throughout the city.

This inequity in supportive housing has undoubtedly placed a disproportionate strain on the Bronx’s housing supply, policing, transportation, healthcare and education system.

Ortiz: I support supportive housing for those who are disabled in our community. I believe that supportive housing has been overdeveloped in this district. I do not think it is fair to spend $1.7 billion dollars on this issue. The tax payers of New York City are overwhelmed with this issue. I would provide legislation to oversee any new projects in the 13th district to prevent any more supportive housing.

Sementilli: The politicians support developers and have created a friendly environment to build and that is why you have so many in the Bronx.

We need to build affordable market rate apartments that working families can afford instead of Manhattan-style prices

Mayor de Blasio plans to build 90 homeless shelters. It’s ‘pay back’ to the developers and the council must stop him.

Velazquez: I do not believe it is fair that the Bronx has more supportive housing than other parts of the city, and other boroughs should certainly take on their fair share of the supportive housing in the city. But my first and foremost priority is our district 13, where I do not want to see any more homeless or supportive housing units built.

BTR: Please provide a list of any endorsements.

Doyle: I have been endorsed by the NY Daily News, the Empire State Humane Voters, the Small Business Congress and Bronx Progressives (formerly ‘Bronx for Bernie’ (Sanders)).

Gjonaj: Labor Unions: 32BJ, Steamfitters Local 638. CSA, CSEA, Carpenters Union, 1199SEIU, PBA, UFT, UFOA, UFA, HTC, TWU Local 100.

Elected officials: Senator Jeff Klein, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Bronx Democratic Party Chairman and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, Senator Jamaal Bailey, Councilwoman Annabel Palma, Congressman Joe Crowley, Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, Councilman Andrew Cohen, Assemblyman Victor Pichardo, Councilman Rafael Salamanca, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Sementilli: None.

Ortiz: I don’t want any endorsements from special interests or any big names.

Velazquez: Council members James Vacca and Ritchie Torres, The New York Times, DC 37, Communication Workers of America District 1, Teamsters Joint Council 16, PSC CUNY, The New York State Nurses Association, Uniformed Sanitationman’s Association Local 831, New York League of Conservation Voters, Stonewall Democratic Club, Planned Parenthood NYC Votes, TenantsPAC, Working Families Party, Women’s Equality Party, Citizen’s Union, National Association of Social Workers NYC Chapter, NYC Chapter National Organization for Women, SSEU 371, Local 802 AFM.

John Doyle
Photo courtesy of John Doyle

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 260–4597. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.

More from Around NYC