Comply or Pay Penalties, High Court Tells Yonkers
The city of Yonkers finally met its day of reckoning Friday, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it must begin paying crippling fines as the price of its continued defiance of a housing desegregation plan.
The fines, imposed Aug. 2 by U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand, had twice been suspended as New York’s fourth-largest city appealed to higher courts. Now all avenues are exhausted, and Yonkers must either comply with the court-ordered desegregation plan, or begin paying penalties that City Manager Neil DeLuca estimated could put it out of business in about 75 days.
“The fines are going to run unabated as of today,” said Mayor Nicholas C. Wasicsko, who has pleaded with other council members to comply with the ruling. “If that doesn’t give the councilmen pause to think, I don’t know what will.”
At issue is the court’s demand that Yonkers allow 200 units of low-income housing and 800 subsidized middle-income apartments to be built in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Saying that he was willing to entertain proposals for “possible solutions to this crisis,” Sand began closed negotiations with the defiant councilmen and the city’s lawyers in the chambers of his Manhattan courtroom. But after more than an hour, the two sides were unable to reach agreement.
When asked whether they were coming any closer, Councilman Henry Spallone said: “No, absolutely not.” But city officials said they might meet again with Sand over the weekend.
The judge indicated that he might suspend a total of $192,000 in fines due Tuesday if he is convinced by the end of the Labor Day weekend that there is “a binding commitment to comply with the order of the court.”
Sand’s order doubles the penalties every day the city refuses to comply, until they reach a maximum of $1 million a day next Saturday. Yonkers was fined $12,800 on Friday. Because of the Labor Day holiday, it does not actually have to deliver a check to the court until Tuesday.
While ordering the city to begin paying the fines, the high court granted a reprieve to the four city councilmen who voted against the plan and were scheduled to have gone to jail on Sunday. They will have up to 90 days to present their arguments as to why they should not be jailed and fined $500 a day.
Supporters of the housing plan argued that the high court had strengthened their hand by separating the two penalties--allowing the fines against Yonkers to proceed while the councilmen pay none.
‘Martyrdom Is Crazy’
“Having (the councilmen) put in martyrdom is crazy,” said Michael Sussman, a lawyer for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “What the Supreme Court did was actually very brilliant . . . . Their personal interests are not at stake. The interests of the city, the survival of Yonkers, is at stake.”
But the opponents, who form a 4-3 majority on the council, said the decision only strengthened their determination to fight. “We will do what we have to do,” Spallone said. “I will continue to use the Constitution of the United States to protect the people that I serve.”
Gov. Mario M. Cuomo threatened earlier this week to remove the councilmen from office if they do not go along with the court order. However, he is not expected to initiate such an action before mid-September.
Call for Independent Panel
Among the proposals discussed during the closed negotiations Friday, Sussman said, was a plan that would take the implementation of the court order out of the City Council’s hands and turn it over to an independent commission. It would still be up to the council to approve the zoning changes, tax incentives and other measures needed for the housing to proceed.
The court order stems from a landmark 1985 civil rights case in which Yonkers, a city of almost 200,000 residents on the northern edge of New York City, was found to have intentionally segregated its schools and housing for at least 40 years. The case marked the first time that a court had linked discrimination in housing with segregated schools.
Yonkers integrated most of its schools but has bitterly resisted the housing order. Opposition has been so strong that the city has become what Sand described as “a national symbol of defiance of federal civil rights orders.”
In signing the order Friday to reimpose the fines, Sand provided for 44% of the funds to be set aside to operate the city’s school system. He also protected city bondholders by allowing Yonkers to meet payments on its municipal debt.
Board Controls Spending
Yonkers’ spending is overseen by a board that was appointed by the state after the city came close to bankruptcy three years ago. The Emergency Financial Control Board froze all discretionary spending, forcing the cancellation of some city-sponsored events and impoundment of certain city officials’ cars. The control board also threatened criminal charges against the four councilmen if the fines went back into effect.
Before the fines were suspended Aug. 8, Yonkers had paid a total of $12,700 and each councilman opposing the order had paid $3,500.