As someone who has been involved in Queens’ civic and political life for years – he was, once upon a time, the youngest member of Community Board 7 – state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Whitestone) has long known that Queens gets the shaft when it comes to city resources.
And, as a legislator in the City Council and now the state Senate, Avella said he has long been involved in a battle to secure more funding for the borough that, for example, houses both of the city’s airports but gets very little when it comes to offsetting the traffic quagmires and pollution that stem from them.
But it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy devastated the borough that Avella, who sat down with The Forum last Thursday, witnessed an unprecedented lack of respect from City Hall for Queens – and it prompted him to decide to try to leave Albany for Kew Gardens.
“Queens has always not gotten its fair share of city services, and after Sandy I saw that even worse,” said Avella, one of three Democrats vying to replace Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. “I thought, ‘I have a real opportunity to help my fellow Queensites.’”
Once pitted against five other Democrats for the position, the field has dwindled and Avella is now running against former Councilwoman Melinda Katz and Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), as well as Republican Tony Arcabascio, for the position that Avella argues could be far more powerful than it has been.
“She’s a very nice individual, but she’s been an absentee landlady,” Avella said of Marshall. “There’s no initiative, no fire to represent the borough.”
While the Bloomberg administration has clearly wanted to do away with the borough president positions and has continued to slash funding to them each year, Avella said that he would attempt to create a more powerful borough president by introducing legislation – which the City Charter permits the presidents to do, but which rarely happens.
“Why does nobody do that?” he asked. “I want to introduce legislation left and right.”
Avella’s interview with The Forum spanned a wide variety of topics, from him wanting to focus on community planning – meaning working with people on community boards and other civic leaders and residents to bring development to neighborhoods that want it and keep it away from those that don’t – to wanting to increase diversity on community boards. A critic of mayoral control – which Bloomberg managed to get passed by state legislators almost immediately after taking office – and said he would want to work with city officials on overcrowded classrooms throughout the borough.
As for the Panel on Educational Policy – the 13-member group that votes on educational issues, including school closures and which is dominated by representatives picked by the mayor, Avella said “it’s gotta go.”
Provided the PEP remains – and it likely will – Avella said he would want Dmytro Fedkowskyj, Marshall’s PEP appointee, to remain a member of the group and praised him as a welcome independent voice on the body.
He also said “stop-and-frisk has to go.
“I don’t want to handcuff the police, but stopping innocent people on their way to work is just wrong,” the legislator said.
The senator said he wants to work on bringing hospitals back to a borough that has experienced the closures of four hospitals since 2008.
“Nobody should be more than five minutes from a hospital, and that’s not the case in South Queens and the Rockaways,” he said.
Avella and his opponents have clashed frequently, and the senator said he’s especially critical of Katz’s and Vallone’s votes to extend term limits and another to approve a 25 percent pay raise for the Council. Avella, Vallone and Katz served in the Council at the same time.
“They both have raised more money than I have, but I’m an independent guy – I know I’d be outspent,” Avella said. “Vallone has raised $1 million, and Melinda is close to that. You don’t raise that without strings attached.”
By Anna Gustafson