John Diaconis Runs for County Board of Legislators
September 7, 2015 John Diaconis is seeking election to District 3’s seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators. District 3 includes the towns of North Castle, Mount Pleasant, part of Greenburgh, and the villages of Briarcliff Manor, Pleasantville and Sleepy Hollow.
A life-long member of the Democratic party, Diaconis is receiving guidance from John Nonna, a friend, and former Legislator who was known to gather consensus in a non-partisan manner.
Diaconis’s career began in 1980, when he graduated from Drake University Law School. He says his most rewarding time was the five years he served on the Town of New Castle’s Town Board. After that, he served as New Castle's Town Coprosecutor for four years. He lived in New Castle for 20 years before moving to North Castle five years ago.
He says the best part of campaigning is meeting people, hearing their stories and learning about what they want. He is excited for the opportunity to serve, make a difference, and have the ability to reach more people. Diaconis says campaigning gives him a chance to tell the citizens what he’s about and what’s important to him, but he mostly likes the feedback and interaction. “Serving the public is the highest calling.”
The Board of Legislators meets once a week in White Plains, a five minute walk from Diaconis’s office for the last eight years. As a partner at Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, Diaconis counsels clients in the insurance and reinsurance industry, and defends municipalities in housing discrimination and employment matters. The law firm has a long tradition of partners serving the public in local, state and national politics. The late William Bleakley of Yonkers was a former partner of Bleakley, Platt & Schmidt and served as Westchester’s first County Executive from 1939 to 1941.
As a county legislator, Diaconis hopes to emphasize three issues based upon his experience.
"Keeping taxes as low as possible through true savings and efficiencies requires one to dig down, roll up your sleeves, and make tough decisions about what services we really need and what services we don’t need. Ways must be determined to make the budget more efficient through shared services. It’s easy to say ‘let’s have a zero tax levy’ as is said currently. But this is fictitious because it is based upon unsustainable debt."
Q. An important issue before the County Board of Legislators is the Miller House / Washington Headquarters in North White Plains. What steps would you take as a legislator to have the Miller House be renovated, opened and a vital part of the community again?
"People are concerned about budget shortfalls, and the infrastructure of bridges and roads that are not being maintained. There’s a concern that they are being neglected, just as the Miller House has not been taken care of for ten years.
"I haven’t been able to talk to the county people about the Miller House, even the current legislator hasn’t been available. I want to try to achieve a consensus regarding the Miller House and have the house fixed.
"For ten years, I’ve been a court-appointed mediator in a number of disputes in the New York Supreme Court Commercial Division of Westchester County. I do three or four mediations a year. I’m certified to do this because I spent a week at Harvard Law school learning mediation techniques and policy. Listening is a part of what you learn when you become a mediator. This comes in handy when campaigning as citizens have the opportunity to tell me what’s important to them and I listen to their concerns.”
Discrimination and Fair and Affordable Housing
"I am defending an affordable housing discrimination case against Great Neck, Long Island, facing the smartest and toughest adversaries that I’ve ever come across as a lawyer in practice for 35 years. This is not my first affordable housing case, I’ve represented the town of Yorktown as well. The allegations of the not-for-profit plaintiffs in both cases were attacking local zoning under the premise that the zoning is unconstitutional because there are age and residency preferences. The residency and regulations preferences were for fire fighters, school teachers, and volunteer ambulance corp members. That was a good thing, or so we thought. I was able to defend local regulations and zoning, and achieve successful resolutions in those cases.
"I agree with County Executive Rob Astorino on a number of the issues concerning the consent decree which says 750 units of affordable housing have to be built in Westchester County within the next few years. But there’s a dispute now as to whether 28 New Castle units should count towards the benchmark of 450 units. There is a motion for contempt arguing that Westchester County did not hit the benchmark of the required 450 units. This was because the New Castle units were counted towards the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) when they should not have been counted because of the delayed timing of the funding approval before the building permits had been issued. HUD says that Westchester County did not meet the benchmark.
"But why wasn’t the judge approached for a reprieve? The judge should have been told that we have a hold up in New Castle, where the 28 units are about to approved, but are not yet. I would have asked: can you give us an extra six months to comply with the consent decree?
"I will be the only person on the Board of Legislators who has actually handled housing discrimination cases. My strategy would be to stick to the four corners of the consent decree, get the 750 units built as quickly as possible, and dissolve the consent decree.”
"There is a Westchester County code of ethics that applies to the Board of Legislators that needs to be revised. I was fortunate enough to be appointed as co-chair of an Ethics Task Force, along with Board of Ethics Chairman David Simonds, by North Castle’s Town Board to review and revise the town’s code on ethics. A group of eight volunteers on the North Castle Ethics Task Force recently spent more than 40 hours each to rewrite the code from scratch over the last the couple of months. The committee was made up of current ethics board members and others who had legal backgrounds. An ethics code model was used from a town in upstate New York that had just rewritten its code. As well, the ethics codes from New Castle, Harrison and Pleasantville were reviewed. We took what we liked from certain towns, revised it, and then wrote some of our own code. We are now done with revising a proposed North Castle’s code and will present the revised code to the Town Board.
"Everything is included that needs to be disclosed; what requires recusal, what the constitution of the Ethics Board is; how many people are on the board, and limiting no more than three people from one political party. Limiting the political party members could be important because if there are five Democratic members on the board, someone could said it’s biased against Republicans. So we tried to mix up the board members’ party affiliations. The Task Force’s overall intent is to eliminate political influence on our various Town Boards, committees, and employees.
"We also labored on who has the ability to refer matters to the Ethics Board. Currently, ethics violations can be referred to the Ethics Board if two town board members vote to make the referral. We have suggested in the legislation that a member of the Ethics Board on his own can initiate an inquiry. We also recommend that an individual in the town be able to refer a matter to the Ethics Board. There would be a screening of any claim that comes in. The Ethics Board could dismiss a claim without a full hearing similar to what the Supreme Court does in certiorari proceedings.
"There’s also a recommended disclosure clause for every town employee and volunteer who has been appointed to a committee. The clause may say, “I don’t have any contracts with the town that would benefit me or my family.”
"We also suggested that the current Ethics Board should be dissolved and reconstituted from scratch.
"As there will be arguments for and against each of these recommendations, North Castle’s Town Board will ultimately make the decision as to how the new ethics code will be presented as legislation. A required public hearing will be held allowing for public comments.
"Then there will be an example of a good code of ethics that I could take to the Westchester County Board of Legislators, if elected, in order to revise Westchester County’s Ethics Code.”
In June, Armonk resident John Diaconis announced he is running for the office of County Legislator for District 3. For the past four years, Diaconis has served as the Treasurer of the Friends of Miller House/Washington Headquarters. He said he has witnessed many groups and citizens try to save the Miller House under the ownership of Westchester County. Despite these efforts, Diaconis said the plea to save the structure has fallen on deaf ears. Furthermore, he added, “similar instances of inadequate representation and lack of action exist throughout District 3.” With the encouragement of Republican, Democratic and non-affiliated voters, he seeks this office in order to redress this lack of action.
Upon his announcement of running for County Legislator, Diaconis resigned as Co-Chairman of the North Castle Democratic Committee. Prior to that, he held the elected position of Town Board member in New Castle.
Diaconis is a partner of Bleakley Platt Law Firm in White Plains. He also has more than 33 years of experience that includes tenure as Vice President of Hartford Financial Services Group.
Mr. Diaconis received his formal mediation training at Harvard Law School, Program of Instruction for Lawyers and at the Westchester Mediation Center, in conjunction with New York State Office of Court Administration. He is appointed to the Roster of Neutrals for New York Supreme Court, Commercial Divisions, for both New York and Westchester Counties.
Although Smith and Diaconis played out their positions on the Miller House/Washington Headquarters in public at a recent North Castle Town Board meeting and in the media, one can only hope that they can now sit at the same table to figure out what action should be taken to save the Miller House.
Diaconis said, “The Miller House/Washington’s Headquarter must be saved and preserved for future generations.”
Smith said he wanted to negotiate with North Castle as to where the Miller House will be renovated and relocated.
The Miller House will continue to be a topic of interest, especially for North Castle residents. If a solution can be found, this will help the 8,600 North Castle voters to determine who to support come the November election.
Whether there are shared services between the Friends of the Miller House and Westchester County, or if a private public partnership should be considered to resolve the differences, something must be done.
With that said, County Executive Rob Astorino has cut off the progress of the Miller House’s restoration in the past. All the laws and acts of the Board of Legislation are sent to the County Executive for his signature or disapproval. The County Executive’s veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the Board of Legislators.
When the Board of Legislators initially approved a $1.2 million budget to renovate the Miller House, Astorino vetoed the budget line. Astorino then ignored the Board of Legislators when the majority voted to override his veto.
Smith said the money that the Board of Legislators budgeted for the Miller House has expired.
Major Law Enforcement Organizations Endorse Diaconis for County Legislator
October 15, 2015 After picking up the endorsement of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s leading environmental advocates, John Diaconis’ campaign for the Westchester County Board of Legislators is continuing to build momentum by announcing it has received the support of two of Westchester’s major law enforcement organizations. The Westchester County PBA and the Affiliated Police Association have endorsed John Diaconis in his bid for County Legislator, citing his commitment to public safety for Westchester communities.
“We believe it is important that Westchester residents don’t sacrifice the safety of their communities for any reason,” says County PBA President Michael Hagan. “The County PBA is happy to support candidates, like John Diaconis, who will stand up for the men and women that make our neighborhoods safe. We look forward to having Diaconis as a supporter of law enforcement efforts on the Westchester County Board of Legislators.
"With the various constraints put on local governments, it has become more difficult to deliver the quality services to which Westchester residents are accustom. I believe that our elected leaders need to find better ways to deliver services efficiently without compromising the things that define our communities like public safety. I have always been committed to making sure we have safe neighborhoods for our families and children and will continue that commitment as the county tackles it’s challenges in the near future.”
Diaconis Calls For Action on Kingsland Point Park and Miller House
September 21, 2015 John Diaconis (D-Armonk) called for Westchester County to finally take action on much needed improvements on two of Northern Westchester’s local treasures: Kingsland Point Park in Sleepy Hollow and the Elijah Miller House in North Castle. In previous years, funding has been set aside for critical repairs at both county-owned facilities, but the projects have never commenced and calls for action in the past have gone unanswered, as the facilities have decayed over time.
“There is something puzzling going on related to these two projects because we have been told the funding has been set aside but still nothing has been done with either site,” said John Diaconis, a candidate for the County Board of Legislators in District 3. “I believe the County has made promises to fund these projects in an effort to create a perception of positive action without ever moving forward on the projects for years on end,” Diaconis continued.
The funding at Kingsland Point Park was requested for construction and management to replace a portion of the water service and associated plumbing as well as site work and landscaping. For the last few years, the park had to run a hose to a nearby fire hydrant to provide water since the local water main is broken. Additionally, the protective fence and corroding seawall are in need of repair and could be dangerous to park-goers.
The Elijah Miller House was the headquarters for George Washington during the Battle of White Plains, was the home of Patriot Ann Miller, and is also in dire need of repairs. Diaconis, who served as Treasurer of Friends of Miller House, explained, “Anyone who has ever built anything understands that you can’t just pick up a house and move it somewhere else. Moving Miller House, especially in the condition it is in right now, requires money, materials and manpower. It would be far more cost-effective for taxpayers if it was repaired and maintained at its present location.”
The Friends of Miller House offered a statement at a recent Board of Legislators meeting, “The desperate state the Miller House is in today is not due to its location, it is due to the continued neglect by its owner, the county of Westchester… We are now at the point where, if immediate action is not taken to repair the Miller House where it stands, it will literally fall down.”
Diaconis concluded, “The funding has been made available for years and the taxpayers have already paid the bill for the improvements. Holding these projects up any longer would only further damage two of Northern Westchester’s most precious assets. As a County Legislator, if we can’t afford something we want, I will at least have the courage to honestly tell that to my constituents.”
John Diaconis Seeks Office of Westchester County Legislator for District 3 By John Diaconis
June 2, 2015 During the last four years, I have been Treasurer of Friends of Miller House/Washington’s Headquarters and have witnessed significant efforts by many citizens and groups to save this historic shrine to those fallen heroes at the Battle of White Plains. In recognition of those efforts, North Castle’s Town Board by Resolution has called for “immediate repair and restoration” of the building “based on the deplorable condition of this important national historic site under ownership of Westchester County.” Despite this unambiguous communication, the Town’s plea to save the structure has fallen on deaf ears. It has been brought to my attention that similar instances of inadequate representation and lack of action exist throughout District 3.
Just this past weekend, the Historical Society’s request to view Miller House/Washington’s Headquarters as part of its community tour was rejected. As the bus drove by the Headquarters on Virginia Road, the citizens expressed shock at the condition of the landmark structure. One person called it a disgrace.
My grandfather emigrated to America in the early 1900s. Like the child of many new-comers, my father fell in love with our country. He enlisted in the Army, landed with his infantry division in France, and returned home at the end of WWII. Awarded the Bronze Star for this service, he went on to devote the rest of his professional life to teaching American History. A driving force in his life was respect for our Founders and the ideals they embodied, which he passed on to me. I recognize that the teachings of these great leaders from our past is a powerful force that binds us all together as one.
Miller House/Washington’s Headquarters must be saved and preserved for future generations. The time for action has long since passed.
Similar instances of inaction have been brought to my attention by citizens of District 3. And I have been encouraged by Republicans, Democrats and non-affiliated voters alike to seek this office in order to redress this lack of action. As an attorney steeped in municipal law and committed to public service, I am seeking the office of County Legislator for District 3.