Touting a love for his hometown and a deep commitment to public service, Paul Aronsohn says he's hoping voters choose him on May 8 so he can see through some needed changes at Village Hall.
Most in politics jump from local to state to national, but Aronsohn's path has been decidedly different. A former aide in the Clinton White House with a stint at the U.N., and then Press Secretary to former governor Jim McGreevy, Aronsohn says his current political spot is the most fulfilling.
"I've had the opportunity to work national, state and local. I love this better because you work on issues that really matter to people on a day-to-day basis," he said. "These are your neighbors. If you love public service, being a councilman is great in-and-of itself but doing it in Ridgewood in a town like this, it's a just great experience."
First elected in 2008 with the late Annie Zusy and sitting mayor Keith Killion, Aronsohn says his qualities and skills can be of service to the village during undeniably challenging times.
"I bring common sense, I bring energy, I bring a recognition, and a real appreciation for what public service is," Aronsohn, a public relations executive for a pharmaceutical company, said. "We work for the taxpayers of this town, we work for the residents of Ridgewood and we need to be responsible. When it comes to the notion of public service, I get it, I believe it and I believe my actions prove it."
The East-Side resident is vying for a trio of open seats in the spring election. He recently , though is highly unlikely to find the same fortune from Preserve Graydon Coalition (PGC) or Ridgewood Residents for Valley (RRV), the other noted political groups in town.
During an interview with Patch, Aronsohn spoke on a number of issues, including taxes/services, raises, Valley Hospital, Graydon, business climate, public safety, flooding, and more.
On Wednesday nights, Aronsohn has often been the lone dissenting voice on the five-person council. He's recently been very public over his dislike of the budgeting process and has made no bones about his to staff, most notably Village Manager .
"I voted for a large increase," he said, referring to . The understanding, he said, was squared upon the premise services would improve for residents. "Now looking back we have this perfect storm of the , and services keep going down. That's not sustainable," he said, calling for government to "remind" itself how families confront financial hardship.
"We shouldn't immediately assume a tax increase," he said. "That's the wrong assumption."
Instead, Aronsohn has proposed a "zero-based budgeting" proposal, one he concedes cannot be realistically implemented this year given how far officials are into the budgeting process.
"Go into each department, start at zero and see if we need to fund it," Aronsohn remarked, saying a "complete" audit needs to be done to properly assess the needs of residents and to determine what can be eliminated. He suggested that approach start in the summer, once the 2012 budget is passed.
"This isn't a punitive thing – this is just good government, good smart government," he said. "You might find in one department you don't need three people but do in another."
Aronsohn also spoke of the retroactive salary increases that went into effect, raises he says contribute to the rising taxpayer burden annually.
Village manager's raise
"They become systemic and you now have to fund them year after year, including the village manager's," he said. Aronsohn was to non-union staff .
"It speaks to government that is disconnected from the people it's supposed to serve," Aronsohn said of Gabbert's salary increase. "No one gets a , particularly these days. It's real money – $20,000 every year."
One of his greatest concerns, he said, is the potential impact it would have in future negotiations Gabbert could undertake with unions. "He's lost standing in those negotiations," Aronsohn stated. "How can you look someone in the eye and say 'don't take a pay increase' when the village manager, the boss, just got a 12 percent increase?"
According to the councilman, statements made that the former council led by David Pfund offered Gabbert a raise and the current members were simply obliging a previous verbal agreement, are simply untrue.
"Not only was this 12 percent raise conceived by this council, but a few current council members actually proposed giving the Village Manager a 3-year contract and raising his salary over 30 percent over three years to an astounding $215,000 per year," he said (see attached PDF to the right), also objecting to the issuance of before the vote to raise his salary to a figure of $185,000.
Medical benefits, public sector pay
Aronsohn, addressing criticism on a blog and in Patch comments that he's a "partisan, pro-union shill," said he's publicly stated that public employees in 2010 should not have received any raises. In an interview, he said he didn't believe public employees in the state should make more than the governor.
"I understand there are people work hard and do good work in the public sector – this is not to punish them," Aronsohn told Patch. "It's just that we live in a 'New Normal' and we have been for a few years. We have to re-adjust and that's one of the reasons I'm a big advocate for changing the budget process."
Aronsohn also addressed criticism he's accepted health benefits from the village as a part-time councilman. The councilman said he's received publicly-funded health benefits from Ridgewood, which he called common practice for council members. He was grandfathered into eligibility before a new state law was enacted.
Once sworn into office in summer of 2012, no council member is eligible to receive health benefits through the village. Aronsohn said he supports the change in the law and has made arrangements to receive private health care coverage.
"In my mind, is the most important public safety issue we have," Aronsohn said, citing the in the village since he joined the council in 2008. "We need to be pre-occupied with it and try new things," he said, adding there are "no silver bullet."
Utilizing education, enforcement and engineering could yield positive results, the councilman stated, pitching an idea to cordon off parking lots when conducting pedestrian safety decoys.
"What works at this intersection may not work at that intersection. Aronsohn said the village should be "less shy" in approaching the county to help it work on problem roads.
The fact of the matter, Aronsohn said, is . We need to accept that flooding is going to be a problem," he said. "There are things we can do about it and certain things we can't do. Those things we can do, we must do and it."
He said must be done, and if he's elected, would see to it.
In a related issue, Aronsohn said communications before during and after the storm must improve. "I think we're going to be much better prepared next time around, he said, noting the emergency management staff did "an excellent" job. "In terms of cleanup, we got it wrong and we're working to fix it," he added.
Business owners sometimes complain the village's myriad of fees, inspections and ordinances create a negative business climate. Aronsohn says the village has created this notion, embodied in the last year.
"A lot of these folks are hurting," he said, referring to business owners. "We should do everything possible to help them within reason so they succeed. When they succeed, we succeed." He said outdated ordinance should be addressed, as well as the various fees imposed upon businesses.
Aronsohn also singled out the Building Department as a problem.
"We know it's broken," he said of the department. "The process doesn't work. We need to fix it," he added, noting he doesn't know if it's a staffing issue or one that's process-based.
Although parking has improved with the new lower rates in the lots, Aronsohn said he'd be interested in looking further into behind The Gap and at the Hudson lot.
Valley Hospital expansion
With an , Aronsohn said just because the does not mean the saga is over.
The councilman said the planning board should first . But it goes further, he said.
"We need to continue the conversation. I think that the mayor and council should be more proactive, play more of a leaderhip role in bringing the parties together...We need to have the conversation and find common ground."
"The is we want to drive membership, we want more Ridgewood residents to go and we should promote it more in town," Aronsohn said. He called for few changes to the controversial summer hotspot in the village.
"The only change I'm looking to make is to make it more accessible so more Ridgewood residents can use it."
Instead of , he advocated for adding more ways to clear the water. "I'd love to start using Graydon in the off-season for barbeques, parties and movies," he added. "It's a great community space, we should get more of the community there."
A long-time , Aronsohn has taken umbrage to the lower funding level in recent years. "It is a community space unlike any other in this town," he said. "It services the entire community...unfortunately for the last few years while the village budget has gone up, the library budget has been cut. And that's just wrong."
Ultimately, he said, there needs to be a more refined vision at Village Hall.
"There has to be more leadership coming out of Village Hall," Aronsohn said. "And we have to set the tone."
The other candidates in the spring election are Gwenn Hauck, Albert Pucciarelli, Russel Forenza, Jane Shinozuka and Mayor Keith Killion. Voters take to the polls on May 8. The three elected officials will serve four-year terms.