Mount Vernon, N.Y. mayoral chaos creates uncertainty

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A power struggle in Mount Vernon, New York, over who will replace a mayor forced out following a campaign finance scandal leaves the Westchester County city's near-term fiscal direction in flux.

The Mount Vernon City Council voted Friday to replace Acting Mayor Andre Wallace with Councilwoman Lisa Copeland. Wallace had assumed the mayoral post last month following the resignation of Richard Thomas after he pleaded guilty to stealing $13,000 in campaign funds and failing to disclose a $4,000 payment from his campaign committee.

Wallace is slated to still be on the general election mayoral ballot this November on the Republican line in the Democratic-strong city, which has a population of about 70,000 located just outside the Bronx. Shawyn Patterson-Howard edged Thomas in the Democratic primary held June 25.

City Council President Pro Tempore Janice Duarte told reporters Friday that the move stemmed from Wallace issuing a bid package for remediation of a municipal field without proper authorizations and approvals. Council attorney Richard St. Paul rejected arguments that a city charter keeps acting mayors in office until a newly elected mayor is sworn in.

Wallace told reporters he would ignore the city council vote and intends to remain as mayor. He and other city officials did not immediately respond for comment on Monday.

“The council has come up with their own theory which is incorrect,” Wallace said Friday. “They can take their theory to court and work it out in court, but right now I’m going to go back and continue to do my job as the mayor and move forward with the city of Mount Vernon’s business.”

Thomas, who was first elected in 2015, pleaded guilty in early July and under a plea deal agreed to pay a $13,000 fine and step down on Sept. 30. The city council however cited charter saying Thomas must automatically vacate the mayor position after pleading guilty, which was eventually upheld in a July 31 decision issued by State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Ecker.

The summer chaos in Mount Vernon is taking place on the heels of Moody’s Investors Service in January withdrawing its rating on $23.5 million of outstanding city debt due to lack of information about its finances. Moody’s previously rated Mount Vernon general obligation bonds at A2.

Professor Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz, said that risks stemming from turmoil in Mount Vernon City Hall could lead to increased finance costs while also creating a disincentive for investment. He stressed that strong mayor systems are important since having a “go to” person in a local government is important to the business and banking community.

“Lack of clarity about who is actually in charge makes a locality less attractive,” Benjamin said. “Political instability elevates risk.”

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