Professional Nudge

Paul Feiner, the Sometimes Controversial— But Never Boring—Greenburgh Town Supervisor



 

Professional Nudge

Greenburgh’s unconventional town supervisor is a man of the people—unless you work for the county government.

W
atching or reading the news lately is enough to make many of us feel like tracking down our elected officials and giving them the what for. In most communities, the average Jane or Joe isn’t likely to have much chance to do that, but Greenburgh’s roughly 90,000 residents don’t have to work too hard to find their town’s highest elected official to vent their feelings. 

Greenburgh’s town supervisor, Paul J. Feiner, is nothing if not accessible. Unlike, say, a doctor, he makes house calls and, unlike the average contractor, he frequently responds to calls and emails on the same day. “I think people should treat an elected official as a service provider,” says the lanky, 52-year-old father of one. “It’s really important for people in government to treat every constituent as a customer.”

Besides his office phone number (914-993-1540) and email address  
(pfeiner@greenburghny.com), Feiner, a Democrat who is not beloved by his own party (more on that later), gives out his home number (it’s listed: 914-478-1219) and his cellphone number (914-438-1343). “His car has a big sign on top, like a pizza-delivery shop sign, with his name and phone number on it,” says Sherrie Brown, Feiner’s wife of 13 years. And we’re not talking about him decorating a car-pool vehicle. Though the town supplied a car for his predecessor, since he took office in 1992, Feiner has driven his own 2001 Mercury Sable to save Greenburgh money. The supervisor also has returned about $8,500 of his salary since 1999 to the town for not meeting the goals he has set.

Wonder how Feiner feels about a certain topic? Check his blog (pfeiner.blogspot.com). He posts regularly, sometimes several times daily. Readers can share their thoughts, too, and can choose to do so anonymously. “People can write anything about me or the town,” Feiner says. “No censorship; there are some people who only write negative things—that’s democracy!” Elapsed time from early-evening query to answer: under 30 minutes.

Getting some face time with Feiner is no problem, either. No one guards his office door to vet who gets in to see him, with or without an appointment. “I’m as accessible to somebody who is homeless as I am to somebody who’s a millionaire,” Feiner says. If that somebody doesn’t reach him at Town Hall, not to worry. Most Sunday mornings for the past 24 years, Feiner has set up a card table in Dobbs Ferry’s Stop & Shop, right in front of the recycling machines.

Democratic Greenburgh Councilman Kevin Morgan recalls that, when he worked as a policeman, he was once sent to the supermarket to ensure Feiner didn’t get beat up by some particularly irate constituent.  “People vent to him and he lets them have their say, almost to a fault,” Morgan says. “I thought being a cop was dangerous. Politics is worse.”

Feiner, a Scarsdale native who never has lived outside the county, says he enjoys his full-time job so much that “it has become almost like a hobby”—a hobby that apparently takes up much, if not all, of his time. His typical day begins at 6 am and ends around midnight. It somehow also includes a six-mile run. Feiner, a fitness enthusiast who bikes, hikes, and swims regularly, has competed in the New York City Marathon and several local half-marathons. And every day he drives his nine-year-old daughter, Julia, to and from school in his car with the “Paul Feiner Problem Solver” sign and reserves the late afternoon to be with her. “I make it my business to spend some time every day with her,” he says. The third-grader learned to ride her two-wheeler this spring by hitting the road with her dad on the Bronx River Parkway’s bicycle Sundays. Brown, who practices public-service law in Manhattan, says she is “the yin to his yang. He likes to swim laps, I like to sit and relax.” If there was ever a movie made about her husband’s life, and Brown doesn’t seem to think that’s out of the question, she’s already mentally cast Tom Hanks in the lead role.

Brown and Feiner adopted Julia from Russia in 1999. Adopting Julia was, Feiner says, “the best experience, the highlight of my life.” The usually articulate politician stumbles trying to verbalize his feelings about his daughter. His voice cracks with emotion as terms like “cute,” “spunky,” and “fun” tumble out.

Julia already has joined her father on the campaign trail and has gone out ringing doorbells with him. Though she once announced that she doesn’t like politics, Feiner says, “Now that she’s getting older, we’re talking about it more and she’s getting a better appreciation of what government is and what politics is.”

Feiner was just a few years older than Julia when he focused on his career path. “First I wanted to be a rabbi because I wanted to help people. Then I decided that, in politics, I could do more than help one person at a time; I could help thousands of people at one time.” His grandfather, who sponsored about 10 families to come to the United States from his native Poland, was a source of inspiration. Ogden Reid, a former Democratic U.S. congressman and ambassador to Israel, was another inspiration. In 1968, the 12-year-old Feiner volunteered to work on Reid’s reelection campaign, stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, and handing out leaflets throughout the county. The boy was impressed by Reid’s respectful treatment of others, from junior campaign workers to constituents. The former congressman is pleasantly surprised by the long-lasting impact he had on Feiner but feels that his example was all in a day’s work. “In politics, you make contact with people in a lot of ways,” Reid says. “If you make contact and in some way make a difference, people always remember and are exceedingly grateful.”

After working on two Reid campaigns, Feiner stepped up his political activism as chairman of the Teen Democrats of Westchester. A 2006 New York Times article referred to Feiner as someone who “comes up with proposals as often as Mickey Rooney once did, though his are not aimed at prospective brides.” From his earliest days in public service, Feiner has had plenty of ideas, and a surprising number of them have come to fruition.

Fueled by his passion for bicycling, he urged the county to establish its first bikeway, along the Bronx River Parkway. “I was a total nudge,” he admits. Feiner organized letter-writing campaigns, circulated petitions, called the legislators at home, and persuaded the local newspaper to endorse the bike trail idea. “I just kept persisting until they gave in.” The legislators approved the bikeway, on the condition that Feiner wouldn’t show up at a meeting for six months. “They got sick of me,” he says with a laugh.

Everyone from his spouse to his colleagues to his political associates says persistence is one of Feiner’s signature characteristics. For some it’s a plus. “He truly wants to do what he thinks is right,” says Tim Hays, a former Greenburgh GOP chairman and current Hastings-on-Hudson Republican Committee chairman. “He’s uncorrupted. I do like him.”
Others aren’t as enamored. Lois Bronz, the Democratic county legislator from District 8, which includes Greenburgh, describes Feiner’s style as “his way or no way. He’s difficult to communicate with if you don’t agree. He shuts people out if they do not agree.”
Feiner admits that he can be relentless. “I just keep working on what I believe in until it happens,” he says. “People throw darts at me, and I just go to the gym and forget about it.”

Before running for public office, Feiner, who earned degrees at Fordham University and St. John’s Law School, worked to establish the Bike-It Sunday program on the Bronx River Parkway, to have the Scarsdale Town Club open its membership to women, and to start a commuter bus service from his hometown, Scarsdale, to Manhattan.

As an elected official—he was first a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators from 1983 to 1991—Feiner has championed issues from banning pesticides on town property to using solar energy to partially heat town hall to lobbying Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to support stem cell research. Some of his ideas are controversial at first, but many eventually become mainstream. While still a college student, he successfully sued the Westchester County Legislature and the Village of Scarsdale to end their closed-meetings policy. “A few years later, ‘open government’ became something that everyone was talking about,” he notes. And he points out that Greenburgh was the first town to have a part-time paid energy coordinator. “Energy conservation was a fringe issue when we started it more than five years ago. Now energy conservation is something that everybody accepts as something government should get involved in.”

Recently, Feiner’s recommendation to abolish county government has been creating a stir. He first brought up the concept as a county legislator in the 1980s. He argues that local or state governments could handle many of the county’s responsibilities, which he maintains would result in lower taxes. “His current idea is interesting, but it has to be studied,” Reid says.

Bill Greenawalt, a fellow Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Feiner in the 2005 primary, calls the plan to eliminate county government “extraordinarily strange. It doesn’t make economic sense, because the county programs are run extremely well. You have a lot more chiefs and a lot less service for the money if you have them handled by each of the towns and villages. And it’s an attempt to deflect attention from the twenty-one to twenty-two-percent tax increase. To take attention off the tax hike is quixotic and irresponsible.”

Though abolishing county government is unlikely to drop off Feiner’s radar, he’s not likely to focus on it in the near future. He’s got other matters to attend to—like his re-election. “With the economy so bad, I’m going to go door-to-door to just ask people how they want the town to handle it,” he says. “Would they prefer a tax hike, or cuts in services? I’d like to make them partners in the decision-making process.”

No Republican candidate has run against Feiner for the position since 2003. “We could have run Ronald Reagan or Rudy Giuliani, in their primes, against Feiner and they would have lost,” Hays says. He doesn’t predict that the party will have a competitive candidate for the next go-round, either. “Paul will never be defeated by a Republican.” About 60 percent of Greenburgh’s voters are registered as Democrats.

Nevertheless, Feiner isn’t exactly the darling of the local Democratic Party. He says that’s because the party leadership likes to be in control. “I do what I honestly feel is right. If I disagree with the leadership of the party, I’ll disagree. I don’t feel I have to clear my views with anybody.” The Democratic Party endorsed his opponents in the past two primaries. In 2005, Feiner bested Greenawalt by just 173 votes; he won by a wider margin in 2007, against Suzanne Berger, who garnered about 34 percent of the ballots cast.

“The party apparatus has never really been that supportive of me,” he says. “Some years they’ve been a little friendlier than others, but for most of my career I’ve been an outsider.” County Executive Andy Spano, with whom Feiner has been feuding over the issue of abolishing county government, declined to comment. 

Morgan’s explanation for Feiner’s political longevity? “More people love him than hate him.” Enough people to get him elected to a higher office? Feiner doesn’t know.  What he does know, however, is that “it’s difficult to run a successful race unless you are rich or have access to rich contributors.” He cites an ethics reform bill passed by the town board last year, which prohibits incumbents from accepting donations from a broad swath of the population.

So, for now, Feiner’s sticking with local government, in which he feels he can have the most impact, and where he can feel pride in the laws he helped to implement—even if they may limit his own opportunities.

Elzy Kolb is a veteran writer, editor, and copy editor, and long-time Westchester resident. She became curious about Paul Feiner during his 2007 re-election campaign, when “I’m with Paul” signs seemed more common than dandelions on Southern Westchester lawns.


Caption: Greenburgh’s town supervisor is known for championing the “Feiner” things in life.