Faced with an impassioned opposition, and a petition drive that has netted close to 600 signatures in four days, the Putnam County Legislature dealt a blow Tuesday night to County Executive Maryellen Odell’s plan to have a politically connected start-up company sell advertising on the Putnam Trailway.
The Legislature, which had appeared likely to support Odell’s plan, and planned to do so without hearing from citizens, buckled under public pressure and opened up the floor to Putnam and Westchester residents, who told the panel that they did not want advertising on the county’s rail trail, sold by a company called Bikepath Country.
In a standing-room-only crowd in Putnam’s Historic County Courthouse, the Legislature voted to table the measure, and send it back to committee. Only Legislator Carl Albano, who supported the for-profit company’s efforts to sell advertising in the woods from Baldwin Place to Brewster, voted against the tabling motion.
“It’s fabulous,” said Deb Ramsey, a Croton-on-Hudson cyclist who launched the petition drive on Friday, and handed the Legislature 552 signatures Tuesday night. “It’s wonder to watch the legislative process, and see that they really stopped to consider what we were saying.”
Kent painter Jeff Green, who owns Taconic Arts and writes the News That Matters blog on Facebook, hounded the Legislature from the audience, urging the lawmakers to let the public speak before they voted – which went against the panel’s protocol. Green delivered a spirited speech, criticizing Odell for her promotion of the private firm, and volunteering to raise $1,500 to install mile-markers along the 11-mile trail if public safety was the reason for the signage effort.
Outside the Historic County Courthouse after the vote, Green was beaming.
“I think the public laid naked the legislators, and they tabled it so they could put their clothes back on,” he said.
The action came five weeks after Tax Watch broke the story about plans afoot to sell outdoor advertising along the paved path that runs 47 miles along the right-of-way of the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad, from the Bronx to Brewster. Westchester County in June killed its participation in the for-profit company’s plan after opposition arose.
In Putnam, however, Odell dug in her heels, and continued to promote Bikepath Country, a start-up company whose nine partners include Camp Kiwi owner Ivan Bellotto, former Carmel Town Councilman Richie O’Keefe, and Terrace Club owner Steve Smith, a Westchester County police detective.
O’Keefe acted strangely Tuesday when I asked him for his reaction to the Legislature’s surprising vote.
“Did you get a haircut?” asked O’Keefe, as he moved closer to me, sniffing the air. “You smell!”
Legislature Chairman Rich Othmer, R-Kent, at one point, urged his colleagues to support what he called “an experimental business,” which brought guffaws from the audience. At another point, in the face of more testimony against Odell’s advertising plan, he was clearly pained. He confided to audience: “I just wanted to kill myself.”
In the end, he caved to the public will, and announced he couldn’t vote on it Tuesday.
“I still favor it,” said Othmer, “but I’m not ready to vote tonight.”
The evening began with the Legislature meeting behind closed door to discuss amendments to Odell’s resolution, which has passed out of the panel’s Audit Committee last week, without the panel having seen the agreement.
There still was no contract when they arrived. And they emerged with a revised resolution that would have empowered Odell to work out a contract in the future.
Bikepath Country provided details of what the signs would look like, with 10 percent of the sign area reserved for advertising. The mock-up included logos from Gatorade and the Target department store. The mile markers would be 12 x 12 inches, so the numbers donating the miles would be quite large, and the ad space with be a 1.2-inch strip along the bottom.
Four legislators led the charge against the advertising program, with Legislator Dini LoBue, R-Mahopac, asking Chairman Othmer to suspend the rules to allow the people to speak. She also questioned the county’s failure to conduct an environmental review of the intrusion into one of Putnam County’s most beloved preserves. Other legislators opposing the Trailway ads were Sam Oliverio, D-Putnam Valley, Roger Gross, R-Southeast, and Anthony DiCarlo, R-Mahopac.
“This is a misstep in a long time of missteps,” said LoBue. “Where’s the fire? Where’s the urgency? We have our own sign shop in the county. We don’t need a for-profit company. It’s setting a terrible example.”
Legislator Sam Oliverio, D-Putnam Valley, who is considering challenging Odell in 2014, called Odell’s plan “an abomination.” He questioned the Request for Proposal process, in which Bikepath Country was the only respondent.
“Was it put out at the request of the company?” he asked.
Joining Albano in support of the outdoor ads in the woods were Legislator Joe Castellano, R-Brewster; Barbara Scuccimarra, R-Philipstown, Ginny Nacerino, R-Southeast, and Othmer.
Albano said he’d never been in favor of advertising on the Trailway, but figured this plan was worth a try if the county would get free signs and improve safety along the trail.
“There’s a Putnam County company willing to take a chance on it,” he said.
Whether the company is actually headquartered in Putnam was a matter of dispute. It’s near the Westchester-Putnam line, on the east side of Route 118 in Baldwin Place.
Several trail enthusiasts denounced Odell’s outdoor advertising plan.
“I value the fact that I can go to the trail and look at the trees and the birds,” said Judy Gordon, of Mahopac, who said she leads rides for Westchester Cycle Club on the trail.
George Baum of Kent, who arrived in his cycling jersey, suggested the legislators take pause and seek input from the folks who use the public facility.
“You can’t get a consensus without getting the stakeholders together,” he said. “It isn’t well thought out.”
Gerry Ravnitsky of Mahopac, meanwhile, questioned the ethics of Bikepath Country, which Tax Watch found has falsified its credentials on its proposal to the county, maintaining it was running sign sponsorship programs in two Florida communities since 2012.
“Has the county ever signed a contract with a company that provided falsified information?” he asked.
And Southeast resident Ann Fanizzi raised issues regarding the First Amendment, and Bikepath Country’s proposal to strictly limit who could buy ads, with no political or religious organizations or adult entertainment businesses allowed to advertise.
“What liability is there for violations of the First Amendment?” she asked. “Will the county become the morals police?”