During the holidays, I was watching the movie, “Back to the Future.” In the middle of a commercial, I changed channels and happened upon Councilman Thomas V. Ognibene debating on an issue of concern to our community. I thought to myself, much like the character Marty in “Back to the Future,” where would we be if, nine years ago, the residents of the 30th Council District had not elected Tom Ognibene?
Nine years ago, the City of New York went through a change – a change that finally gave our community a Councilman we could call our own. For years, Middle Village, Glendale, Ridgewood, Richmond Hill and Woodhaven were all the “tail ends” of other districts that extended into Corona, the Rockaways, or Sunnyside and Woodside. As a result, our community never received its fair share of services. That is why we advocated for Charter review and Charter change. The outcome of the Charter change has been a legacy of services and commitment cut short by an ill-advised term limits law.
On November 6, 1991, the Chief Counsel to Senator Serphin Maltese and Counsel to the Juniper Park Civic Association, Tom Ognibene, a 6'3″ giant of a man with a goatee and a twinkle in his eye became our Council Representative under the new Charter.
Frankly, we didn't know what to expect, but after seeing what type of life Tom Ognibene had, we knew that dedication and commitment, and hard work and diligence would produce results for us. Boy, were we right.
Before we get into his varied list of accomplishments and achievements, I think it would be helpful to know a little bit more about Tom Ognibene. Not the guy that we see debating on New York 1, or walking our streets, but about his background, and who he was before he became the Minority Leader of the New York City Council. *
Tom Ognibene grew up on West 139th Street in Manhattan, son to Josephine, who was a hard-nosed school principal, and Morris, his father, a paint contractor. He attended Stitt Junior High School, where already it appeared he would excel in his life. Tom continued on to George Washington High School where at the age of 15, he graduated and was on his way to college at New York University's Bronx Campus (now the Bronx Community College). Unfortunately, Tom's father took ill, and Tom left college to assist his family. Tom maintained his desire to continue his education and later went on to become a Dean's List Graduate from C.W. Post College in 1966. Upon graduation, he volunteered service to his country and became a member of the U.S. Army Armor School Officer Candidate Class. He was an honors graduate and then served in the United States Army Armor Corp from 1967 to 1970. In 1967, Tom married Margaret Bollmann who was to become his life partner. When he left the service in 1970, they moved to Ridgewood.
Tom worked full time during the day with the telephone company and continued to pursue his education at night by attending Brooklyn Law School while supporting his wife and two children, Guy and Eve. In 1974, Tom graduated with honors and in 1975, opened his own law practice. It was at that time, in 1975, that Tom realized he had a calling for public service. He then wrote a letter to Serphin Maltese, then Chairman of a political party, advising him that he was interested in Serf's political philosophies and assisting in the movement. That letter lead to a 25-year relationship that still stands strong today.
When Serphin Maltese was elected to the State Senate in 1988, Tom became his Chief Counsel. It was there that Tom met Dennis Gallagher. He also worked as the Counsel to the New York State Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs and Counsel to the State Senate Committee on Consumer Protection. A year later he became Counsel to the Juniper Park Civic Association. Then, in 1991, Tom, at the urging of Senator Maltese, threw his hat in the ring for the newly created 30th Council District. Tom, with Serf’s approval, chose Dennis Gallagher to be his campaign manager and Chief of Staff., a relationship that is still strong today.
In late 1991, then Mayor David Dinkins put forth a proposal that could have devastated our middle class residential community. At that time, a Dinkins administrative official was advocating placing homeless shelters in the middle of our community. The quote that appeared in the paper was “Communities that have never seen this stuff before are going to take their lumps.”
The Dinkins Administration proposed placing a homeless shelter off Metropolitan Avenue by Admiral Avenue for 250 potentially drug-addicted, mentally ill, homeless men. Tom Ognibene was the force behind the defeat of this proposal. One could only imagine what would have happened to real estate values and the quality of life in our community had this ill-conceived proposal been put into effect.
The Dinkins Administration was planning an onerous tax increase for small commercial establishments known to us as “mom and pop” stores. Believe it or not, Dinkins wanted to place these stores in tax class four, instead of class one or two. Had Tom Ognibene not defeated this proposal, local stores that thrive on our commercial strips and provide invaluable services to our community would have had no alternative but to close. They would have been placed in the same commercial tax class as the Empire State Building, a Macy's or a Home Depot. We all know that, in a community like ours, the lifeblood is the commercial strip. If our commercial strips ever fail, so do the communities.
Immediately after his election, Tom Ognibene was faced with his first challenge. Metropolitan Avenue between 80th Street and Cooper Avenue had been the site of over 23 accidents within a six month period and had seen numerous lives lost. The location was known in the community as the Metropolitan Avenue Death Curve, and for 8 years prior, the Community Board, other elected representatives and the local civic associations were unable to convince the Department of Transportation of the need for change. Within weeks of an onsite inspection, Councilman Ognibene devised a plan that proposed a simple and yet effective solution. He suggested that the Department of Transportation put a center median in the middle of the road, grooves in the roadway and signage to alert people of the hazardous curve. Since then, the road has been safe, even on some of the most treacherous rainy and snowy days.
There may have been no issue that galvanized the community and led to a more spirited debate than the issue of Chancellor Fernandez's Rainbow Curriculum. As many of you may remember, this curriculum was designed to teach the acceptance of homosexuality during a child's formative years, as early as kindergarten & first grade. Our school board president, at the time Mary Cummins, former president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, rightfully opposed this curriculum and lead a firestorm in the media to oppose it. Councilman Tom Ognibene was the first elected official with the moral courage to hold City Council hearings and show that the school board was not acting on a whim but truly represented the parents in vehement opposition to this proposal. In a town hall meeting at Christ the King High School, 1,500 parents flooded the school grounds, each arguing vociferously in opposition. It was at this point that the tide turned against Chancellor Fernandez. The Rainbow Curriculum was exposed and books likes “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy's Roommate” were kept off the required reading list in kindergarten classrooms.
Middle Village, clearly one of the most charming small town communities left in the City of New York, had a severe problem with the Middle Village South streets. The Departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation gave cost estimates for repair that exceeded $8 million. Councilman Tom Ognibene was the voice of reason and stepped in with a proposal to pave all existing streets and to break down the capital project into different fiscal years so that it would be economically reasonable to complete and which would allow for the beautification of an area that had been neglected for years. Since that time, Middle Village South has received many capital projects including sewer projects, renovation of Middle Village Playground, new street tree plantings, and over 90% of the streets have been paved. Had the Councilman not used the common sense approach to government, this project would still be languishing on Community Board 5's wish list.
One issue that affected almost every homeowner in the District was the issue of water meters. Complaints inundated the Councilman’s office from homeowners who had received outrageous water bills, indicating erroneous readings, and charging exorbitant amounts. Oftentimes, people did not get billed for a year or two, then would receive whopping bills that they couldn't possibly pay. Tom submitted legislation that mandated quarterly readings and billings. His legislation proposed the Forgiveness Program which protected property owners who had received unreasonably high bills, either because of an error on the part of the Water Department, or because they had undetected leaks.
Tom's legislation also eliminated the estimated billing system that was in place. Tom created mobile teams of Department of Environmental Protection members to do community-based outreach at Junior High School 93, Christ the King High School and in his District Office in Middle Village. Needless to say, once all of his legislation was put in place, homeowners began receiving bills that were correct, timely and reasonable.
In the Next Juniper Berry Issue – Councilman Ognibene Helps Rebuild Community. The revitalization of Juniper Valley Park, end to Middle Village flooding, help to our Senior & Youth.