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What Were Croton Officials Thinking When They Faked Residents' Water Bills?

December 29, 2006

Although the odor still permeates the air, the dust from Croton’s officially imprimatured water bill hoax may have settled enough for Crotonblog to analyze the reverberations and implications of this example of fiscal bad management. Crotonblog offers this piece as a follow-up to the “What’s Up, Doc?” piece of December 22 entitled, “Are Croton Officials for Real? Or Do They Just Play at Being Officials on TV?

Every community is interested in the image and public face it projects, the way the world sees it. Croton boasts of its history as the starting point of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that supplied pure Croton water to New York City in 1842. Croton is proud of the massive Croton Dam, reputed to be the second largest cut-stone structure in the world after the Pyramids of Egypt (although the dam is not in Croton but actually in Cortlandt). Croton also basks in its cultural heritage. In the early years of the 20th century, it was a bastion in the fight for women’s suffrage. Making it a veritable “Greenwich Village of the North,” the bohemian journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, actors and artists who settled in Croton’s bucolic precincts made the world sit up and take notice.

But that proud history and heritage have all been eclipsed by one tragicomic managerial decision that left an ugly stain on Croton’s good name and now throws into question the administrative oversight of this tiny village of some 7,800 souls. Are the unelected, appointed officials of Croton autonomous, with the Mayor and members of the Board of Trustees serving only in an occasionally advisory capacity? Or are the elected officials truly in charge, in which case either the water-bill hoax had their blessing or it represents monumental aberrant behavior and notoriously bad judgment on the part of the unelected, appointed officials involved.

There may be some elected officials—but few residents—who will want to play down what happened and sweep it under the proverbial rug. Among the unanswered questions in this sordid affair is why the village government felt it had exhausted all traditional avenues of communication before concocting and resorting to an underhanded ruse. Did the village note in its monthly newsletter that certain residents were dilatory about responding to requests to set up an appointment? Did the village send certified letters to wayward residents to ensure that they had received proper notice and establish proof of receipt? Was the residents’ tardy behavior mentioned in public as a nudge at broadcast board meetings?

Did the village make arrangements to perform the desired installation at hours other than so-called “normal business hours” on weekdays to accommodate commuters who are away from Croton during the day? If so, did the village supply postage-paid reply cards on which residents could set their own appointment times? Or does the village insist that the Water Department’s working hours are so absolutely inflexible that “it’s our way or the highway”? (In this case, the highway turned out to be the low road.) Yet the village can respond to water emergencies 24 hours a day. There are many imaginative strategies by which the desired cooperation could have been achieved without resorting to the subterfuge of false billing.

One of our obligations as adults in our society is to set an example for young people. What kind of an example did village government set in this instance except to show young people that any means, however underhanded and reprehensible, are acceptable to achieve an end? If the net result of this incident is that young people trust government even less than they already do and become even more cynical about the world we are leaving them, then what happened has long-lasting and earth-shaking dimensions, and must be roundly condemned. It is bad enough that our national government used lies and deceit to trick this country into a futile and bloody war. Has deception as policy now trickled down to the ultimate local level, a tiny village? If so, then from top to bottom it is a dishonorable world we have made and which we will bequeath to our children.

The inevitable follow-up to the question asked in the title of this editorial is “And what has their hoax wrought?” To understand the magnitude and the consequent impact of this foolish decision to scare residents into compliance by using the power of government to manipulate the village’s supposedly impregnable record-keeping systems, Crotonblog has examined how the rest of the world saw the incident.

The story began, of course, with a December 21 report by Robert Marchant of the Journal News, a Gannett newspaper. Gannett just happens to be the largest chain of newspapers in the United States. Although The Journal News often has difficulty breathing life into pallid news stories originating in this part of Westchester, when the water bill hoax story fell into their laps, they knew they had a story with “legs,” and they knew exactly what to do with it. In newspaper parlance, they “fronted” the story. They not only put it on the front page, they made it the day’s lead (pronounced “lede”) story, positioning it “above the fold”—on the top half of the front page. This makes it visible to readers even before the newspaper is unfolded, signifying that in the editors’ eyes this was the most important news story of the day.

Associated Press writer Jim Fitzgerald also recognized it as a story of wider significance and rewrote Marchant’s account for a national audience. And what a national—or rather international—audience it turned out to be! Newspapers as well as radio and TV stations in the U.S. and Canada immediately picked up the embarrassing story and ran with it. It would be no exaggeration to say that the report spread like a California wildfire. Ironically, publicity hounds like Donald Trump cannot buy fast-breaking saturation exposure like this. His publicists would give their right arms for the kind of notoriety this story achieved. Even the respected financial magazine Forbes saw the hoax as an unusual action by a governmental entity and reported it.

It remained for the freewheeling blogging world to latch on to the story and provide the most pithy and scathing judgments on the Zambrano-Herbek folly. One blog labeled the story as “weird news” and described Croton-on-Hudson as “the village of the scammed,” a play on the title of the cult film classic, “The Village of the Damned.” Another advised readers to stay away from New York, calling it “The Vampire State,” twisting the state’s own self-applied motto, “The Empire State.” But the unkindest cut of all was the perhaps inevitable reference on one blog to Croton-on-Hudson as “Scrotum-on-Hudson.”

For all these reasons Crotonblog feels justified in asking Croton officials what they were thinking when they embarked on this Nixonian tactic. Can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued had any of the monopolistic public utilities—ConEd, Verizon or Cablevision—had tried to pull off a shabby stunt like sending fake bills as a device to get customers’ attention? Crotonblog’s reaction to the unseemly mess is to give the back of its hand to Messrs. Zambrano and Herbek. Nice going, fellas. You really did Croton proud. And, incidentally, you just happened to set a new record for adverse publicity. Even stories about child molestation by clerics don’t get this kind of attention.

To show readers of Crotonblog how far and how fast the story traveled, here’s a small sampling of the story’s embarrassingly wide exposure: Radio and TV: Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, 1010 WINS (NY), WTOP (DC), WJLA (DC), WRAL (NC), CBS2 (CA), CBS4 (FL), CBS5 (WI), CBS7 (IL), KSL-TV (Salt Lake City). Newspapers: Akron Beacon-Journal (OH), Albany Times Union (NY), Ann Arbor News (MI), Bay City Times (MI), Belleville News-Democrat (IL), Biloxi Sun-Herald (MS), Bismarck Tribune (ND), Boston Globe (MA), Bradenton Herald (FL), Casper Star Tribune (WY), Centre Daily Times (PA), Charlotte Observer (NC), Columbus Ledger-Inquirer (GA), Contra Costa Times (CA), Denver Post (CO), First Coast News (FL) as “strange and unusual news,” Flint Journal (MI), Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (IN), Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (IN), Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX), Grand Rapid Press (MI), Helena Independent Record (MT), Houston Examiner (TX) as “strange news,” Jackson Citizen Patriot (MI), Kalamazoo Gazette (MI), Kansas City Star (MO), Lakeland Ledger (FL), Lansing Bureau, Lexington Herald Leader (KY), Macon Telegraph (GA), Miami Herald (FL), Minneapolis-St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN), Monterey County Herald (CA), Muskegon Chronicle (MI), Myrtle Beach Sun-News (NC), New Orleans Times Picayune (LA), Newsday (NY), NY Daily News (NYCity), NY Post (NYCity), Saginaw News (MI), San Jose Mercury News (CA), Sioux City Journal (IA), South Florida Sun-Sentinel (FL), Staten Island Advance (NY), The State (SC), Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada), Washington Post (DC), Wichita Eagle (KS), Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (PA), Worcester Telegram (MA).

On January 1, 2007 1:27 PM, call me ahab said:

Once again I find myself writing a comment to about events in Croton after I’ve imbibed Champagne, or rather the leftovers after last night’s celebration. For as long as I can remember (and my memory goes back to a time when the Expressway bypassing the village was only a gleam in Nelson Rockefeller’s eye), Croton has had a penchant for regularly shooting itself in the foot.

With the faux water bill mailings, a story that got a lot of attention down here, Croton appears to have done it again. Whoever wrote the above masterful editorial must be an attorney. The case against the Village Treasurer and Manager was developed with such fine-tuned precision as to be worthy of Perry Mason. If whoever wrote it isn’t an attorney, I urge him or her to consider law school and a career in the law. Any jury would convict on the basis of his or her summation.

Weewill’s comment as a longtime trustee shows clear signs of occupational bias and an attempt to minimize the magnitude of the malfeasance to protect her friends on the board from the charge of inattention. For the Mayor and Trustees to expect Messrs. Zambrano and Herbek to check with them before undertaking anything as questionable as sending phony water bills can hardly be fluffed off, as Weewill does, by dismissing it as micro-management.

Micro-management is what President Jimmy Carter did when he insisted on seeing the White House tennis courts schedule each morning. If anything, expecting village management to keep their feet on the straight and narrow and to check with the Mayor and Trustees before making sweeping changes in policy is simply plain old common sense. Manipulation of the Village’s billing system bordered on violation of U.S. postal regulations, period. It is totally indefensible and puts Village instruments such as future bills in question. No wonder people no longer trust government.

I offer a final comment on the subject of the skate park fiasco, in which Croton’s Recreation Department was implicated, and the recreation room being constructed for teenagers in the Municipal Building basement. Since time immemorial adults have been dictating how and where young people should spend their free time. Why can’t Croton for once ask young people their ideas on what a hang-out spot for teenagers should contain? Instead of a mini-YMCA, maybe they’d opt for nothing more than a couple of couches, a computer, a TV and a hi-fi with a good sound system in a place to relax, kick back and party with friends.

There never has been a way for young people of the village to make their voices heard. Croton spent money to conduct an elaborate questionnaire about a community center that will probably never be built. Why doesn’t Croton take the trouble to find out what young people really want before forcing on them the previous generations’ idea of what they should want in the way of recreation?

On December 30, 2006 12:32 AM, KWilly said:

When this article mentioned about “what message does this sends to our kids”, as a kid none of my peers have been talking about this or care. In fact most of my peers don’t even know who Richard Herbek is let alone any of the village trustee’s. What we the youth care about is how we have little input on the things that effect our lives in this village such as a community center and the adults mark alot of our concerns lower then Metro Enviro because not enough of us speak out.

Another issue is that few of us are interested in these issues or are motivated enough to do something so most of us just do nothing. So far in recent memory Jack August and I are the only members of Croton’s youth to speak at a village board meeting and our parents are not even there with us so it is not them that is pushing us to go but it is our own interest that is pushing us to go. Although there is a perception out there that if you are a youth and you step up to the plate, you won’t be taken seriously and/or you will be talked down upon. When Jack and I have spoken at these meetings this has not been the case. The adults are ecstatic that we show up and they listen. Trustee Brennan after one meeting where Jack and I disagreed with him and despite us not knowing him, he spoke with us after the meeting. When he spoke with us he treated us like adults and he didn’t give canned answers. This type of activity needs to be praised and this is just one example of how when the youth of Croton speaks up we are not always ignored.

A reason why kids are not as interested in the issues posted about on CrotonBlog is because Metro Enviro and other issues we don’t care about get all of the play. When we the youth organized a Skatepark protest in wake of the news of the village’s bid to sell the park on Ebay we had many people show up and it was a success. We chanted and held signs which made us receive praise in the form of honking horns from oncoming traffic. I invited Ross to attend this protest and he did but yet he never covered the story because it wasn’t juicy enough for his adult audience and because he told me in an email “What’s the story. The stuff is sold.” The Gazzete which i did not notify about the protest showed up and we were on the whole front page of that weeks Gazzete and people are still stoping me to talk about the head turning article. Although i have many other thoughts about the youth, this is all i have to say for now.

  • Kevin W. Davis -

On December 29, 2006 1:21 PM, weewill said:

A word of caution from a loyal and ardent supporter of the Crotonblog. This editorial, in my opinion, is “overkill.” The water bill fiasco may have been ill-conceived but it’s hardly as egregious as this editorial makes it sound.

As a long time Trustee, I learned early and often just where a Trustee’s mission and responsibility begin and end. Under the Village Manager form of government, the role of elected officials is to set policy; not to interfere and micro-manage day-to-day affairs.

To do so wrecks havoc on a well-ordered operation that needs to be run by well-paid professional administrators. If the board has problems with the direction the professional staff takes, it can and should hold those professionals responsible.

Micro-management is fraught with problems. It encourages confusion and duplicity of directions and results in partisan, political decisions that are clearly not in the best interests of the village.


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