John A. Degnan
|John A. Degnan|
|Mayor of Brewster, New York|
|Preceded by||John Cesar|
|Succeeded by||Jim Schoenig|
|Residence||Brewster, New York|
John A. Degnan (born 1960) is an American politician and the former mayor of Brewster, New York, a position which he held from 2005 to 2007. Prior to serving as mayor, Degnan served four terms as a village trustee. In 2008, he lost by a wide margin in a race for the New York State Assembly, and in 2007, he ran unsuccessfully for supervisor of Southeast, New York, though he came in a close second after a long and bitter race.
Degnan began his political career in 1999 when he was elected to the first of what would be four terms as a Brewster Village trustee.
In his first year in office, Degnan opposed plans by Putnam County to expand Brewster's social services center, expressing concern that an expanded center would exacerbate illegal immigration in the village and require taxpayers to pick up the tab for services provided to non-taxpaying day laborers. In 2000, though Degnan estimated that 300 day laborers could be found on the streets of Brewster in a given day, he again opposed a proposal by the Putnam County executive to construct a day laborer hiring center in Brewster for similar reasons. In time, Degnan would come to view a hiring center as a way to reduce the loitering and crime which many village associated with day laborers. But in 2000, he remained opposed.
In 2005, Degnan challenged the eighty-seven-year-old, six term incumbent John Cesar for the mayorship of Brewster. As a result of New York's electoral fusion system, Cesar ran as a Conservative and Independent; Degnan, on the Democratic and Republican lines. In the end, Degnan defeated Cesar, then New York's oldest sitting elected official, by 97 votes.
Mayor of Brewster
Upon taking office, Degnan helped lead Team Brewster which while Degnan was still a village trustee, had commissioned his sister, a member of the Urban Planning Department of Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to develop a master plan for the Brewster's revitalization. Team Brewster consisted of elected officials and concerned residents and met regularly to discuss ways to improve the village's infrastructure.
As mayor, the village trustees adopted a budget which raised Degnan's mayoral salary from $8,563 a year to $15,600. Degnan later said he believed higher pay was in line with the job's long hours.
The Brewster Master Plan
Upon becoming mayor, Degnan worked to implement the recommendations of his sister's Columbia master plan for improving urban design, governance, economic and community development, zoning, infrastructure, and finance. As a part of urban design, the plan recommended establishing "three nodes": a commercial and social area (a village green to be called the "Brewster Triangle"), a revitalized civic center, and a laborer employment center to serve the area's many day laborers and local contractors. This "three nodes" design was recommended as a way to "enliven and beautify the entire corridor" and to make the village more pedestrian friendly. Degnan made implementing the plan's recommendations a major part of his mayorship, in line with his broader objective of revitalizing Brewster and making it again the "Hub of the Harlem Valley."
Among the master plan's more controversial recommendations was its call to established an employment center to serve day laborers. The center was proposed as a way to reduce laborers' loitering downtown—long a concern of local residents and business owners—and to facilitate employment."The immigrant laborer community is a vital aspect of the overall workforce diversity and a source of economic vitality in the Village," the plan's authors argued. "This vitality can be harnessed and enhanced through investments in the laborer community. The principal way to achieve this goal is to create an employment center at a central and accessible location in the Village.". In addition to aiding laborers in the job attainment process, the plan's authors also suggested that the center could provide training opportunities for workers, language classes, social services, transportation and help with housing placements for all members of the Brewster community.
Support for the proposal among local residents was mixed, however. Proponents argued that it would help the community by reducing undesired loitering by laborers and by providing much-needed services to day laborers and their families. Opponents argued that it was an inappropriate and possibly illegal use of public funds, since many laborers were undocumented immigrants. Believing it would enhance the local economy, Degnan supported the proposed center, but registered his opposition to illegal immigration by signing a petition which called on the federal government to take action to address the problem.
The hiring center ultimately never got off the ground after the sites proposed by the village were rejected by the state in 2006 and when Team Brewster's plans for a privately funded center also failed to gain approval from the proposed site's landlord. Despite the fact that the center was not going to get off the ground, in his 2007 state of the village address, Degnan reiterated his view that a hiring center would be an effective way to help the transient and needy, to improve public safety, and to enhance the local economy. Among Brewster residents, the debate continued as well. In July, Assemblyman Greg Ball organized a "Stop the Work Station" rally even though no hiring center was actually planned. It drew local residents to speak out on both sides of the issue.
As a part of his efforts to revitalize Brewster, in 2006, Degnan bid $1.9 million on behalf of the village for 50 Main Street, a rundown building on the village's main corridor. Degnan and then worked with State Senator Vincent L. Leibell and his Putnam Community Foundation, a nonprofit housing agency, to restore the building. "It (the building) was one of the big elephants in the room. It reflected blight in the community," Degnan would later say, adding: "When you revitalize a community, you have to start with the housing stock." The restored building included both affordable housing for seniors and moderate-income families, as well as ground level retail space for commercial and village use.
Brewster police force
Degnan also oversaw the establishment of the Brewster Police Department during his time as mayor, the creation of which was a longstanding desire of his. While a serving as a trustee, Degnan fought with then-Mayor John Cesar create a new local government agency of code enforcement peace officers, with an eye towards turning it into a police agency. Although he was unable to convince the board to back out of a round-the-clock police enforcement contract with the Putnam County Sheriff's office in 1999, Degnan succeeded in 2003, and then as mayor created a constabulary force in 2006. The constables recruited were initially former police officers.
The constable program began in May 2006, but was temporarily put on hold after the first day when the officers discovered that theirhand-held radios could not reach other agencies. Several months later, with new radios in hand, the program was reinitiated thanks to the donation of a used police vehicle which boosted their communications capabilities.
The officers soon became concerned that they were not authorized to carry firearms, and temporarily stopped reporting to work in protest. Degnan initially resisted arming the officers, stating: "We're hearing that the professional police officers feel that the gun is mandatory. Right now, show us results with enforcing quality-of-life issues. Later we can talk about the evolution of the constabulary force." But following several high profile crimes in late 2006, Degnan changed his view. The officers were then armed and the constables officially became the Brewster Police department.
In the spring of 2006, in an effort to raise money for a $7.5 million overhaul of the village water system, the Brewster Village board of trustees approved a new rate structure for the village's water system designed to shift the cost burden toward high-usage customers. As a result of the new structure, most residents went from paying a flat rate of $600 a year to a fee based on usage. The new rate structure resulted in higher rates for many local businesses, whose owners protested the change as well as the fact it was retroactively applied. Amid the furor, officials determined that applying the new rates retroactively was illegal, and as a result, the village sent out revised bills correcting the error, prompting Degnan to respond: "We simply made a mistake and we apologized to the community." The new fee structure went into effect in 2007 and allowed the village to raise more than $1 million in revenues to put towards a new water and sewer system for the village.
|“||Our policies for enhanced quality of life are applied to all members of our community without regard to race, ethnicity or creed, so that we can ensure the health, safety and welfare of all. Faced with many challenges, including illegal immigration, our daily community life can only be enhanced by harmonious, humane approaches that remain within the law.||”|
|— John Degnan, State of the Village, 2007 |
Stating his belief that "the Federal Government is the only branch of government empowered to enforce immigration laws", Degnan secured assurances from US Immigration Enforcement officials and special agents that they would "only pursue illegals who commit serious crime". Degnan also later announced that the village of Brewster would be one of the first communities in the state to participate in the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g) that provides training for local law enforcement officers to work as ICE agents and file immigration violation charges.
Seeking to make it easier for local law enforcement officials to identify and deal with undocumented immigrants guilty of committing quality-of-life infractions, in 2007, Degnan invited an official from the Guatemalan consulate to the village to discuss providing local undocumented immigrants with photo IDs issued by their country of origin. "A photo ID issued by the country of origin - not at taxpayer expense - would go a long way in helping us enforce violations from indecent behavior to trespass and even public disturbance," Degnan would later say. He ultimately cancelled the invitation, however, when his opponent for Southeast town supervisor, Michael Rights, assailed him for being "soft" on illegal immigration.
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- Biography John Degnan for Town Supervisor."
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- "Analysis & Recommendations". Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. 2004.
- Brewster Master Plan. Brewster Master Plan, Chapter 10. Retrieved June 16, 2008
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