Mayor Andre Sayegh attempted to curb Paterson residents’ expectations for his administration in his first state of the city address on Monday evening.
“We have to have realistic expectations,” said Sayegh in opening his 53-minute speech at the Nu Majestic Theater on Broadway. “I’m a mayor not a magician.”
Sayegh had built up big expectations while campaigning for mayor last year. Many residents over the past year found out even little expectations — regular street cleaning and recycling pick up — were not being met by the mayor’s administration. He has promised to address lack of services by investing in public works.
“Rome was not built in one day and Paterson will not be rebuilt in one year,” said Sayegh.
The mayor spent much of the address focusing on the past fiscal year. He celebrated some of his signature accomplishments like switching municipal employees to the state health insurance program that is expected to save millions, creating a separate sewer utility to address a source of the city’s chronic structural budget deficit, and rolling out a mobile application for residents to report problems.
In his first year, Sayegh said his administration had to deal with a $54 million budget deficit. He appeared to issue a rare criticism of his predecessor, mayor Jose “Joey” Torres, for leaving behind the massive shortfall. He said past administrations “kicked the can down the road.”
The mayor also highlighted his effort to rebrand the city by creating a new logo and slogan.
“We have rebranded, but there’s more work that needs to be done,” said Sayegh in front of approximately 230 people at the theater. He has made it his personal mission to drum up positive media coverage of the city.
Some have criticized him for his numerous trumpery press conferences and ribbon cutting events. Sayegh defended his moniker of “cheerleader in chief” during his speech. “We’re writing a new narrative,” he said.
The mayor highlighted some of the projects to be funded by $130 million in state tax credits. He made specific mentions of the visitor center at the Great Falls and restoration of the Hinchliffe Stadium.
There was little that was new at the mayor’s address. His sole new proposal was the so-called Opioid Rapid Response Team. He said an application has been submitted for $600,000 in grant funding to create the team to tackle homelessness and drug addiction in the city.
“We’re aware of what’s going on in Broadway,” said Sayegh. Images circulated on social media earlier in the day showing addiction, homelessness, and despair in parts of Broadway.
Sayegh also suggested he might take steps to tackle gun violence.
‘I won’t stand for senseless gun violence,” said Sayegh. Three people were shot – one fatally — over the weekend.
The mayor’s state of the city address was attended by eight of nine City Council members. Sole member absent was Shahin Khalique of the 2nd Ward.
“Good things are happening for the city of Paterson. Still much more to do,” said council president Maritza Davila.
“It was a good speech highlighting some of the accomplishments we’ve had in the city,” said Al Abdelaziz, 6th Ward councilman. The mayor is addressing some “big ticket” items like the stadium, he said. “I think his energy is what we need right now.”
Sayegh’s speech was preceded by a three-minute video that focused on the Great Falls and the city’s diversity. The video, narrated by the mayor, received big applauses from the audience, mostly the mayor’s supporters.
The mayor’s style for the formal state of the city address was unusual. He did not have a written speech. He expanded on talking points from a stage without a podium. His audience appeared receptive to the informal style.
“I think he did well,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman. When asked if he had any criticism of the speech, “Not tonight. The proof is going to be in the pudding tomorrow with the consideration of Hinchliffe Stadium.”
Sayegh’s controversial Hinchliffe Stadium lease and redeveloper’s agreement are both up for a vote on Tuesday night.
Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilman, said she would have liked to see some of the mayor’s plans better developed. She wanted details on how the mayor would tackle homelessness and curb gun violence.
“He really tried to touch on everything,” said Cotton, a longtime Sayegh ally. The mayor said he wanted to add 100 more security cameras in the city through a federal grant and equip police officers with body cameras. He also proposed creating a citizen advisory board to review police conduct.
Sayegh’s police audit, promised in January after the death of Jameek Lowery, has been blocked by the City Council’s public safety committee. His audit is being perceived as a way to target police chief Troy Oswald, who has been lauded for going after all lawbreakers including police officers, seven of whom were arrested by the FBI.
Sayegh has fallen out with the chief.
“Where’s the detailed plans? How are we going to get there?” remarked Lilisa Mimms, councilwoman at-large.
The strongest criticism came from Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman. He was not impressed by Sayegh’s speech.
“It was generic. We, who are involved, heard this already, over and over,” said Velez. He wanted numbers like new revenue projections and jobs created since Jul. 1, 2018. “I think a lot of that stuff would have moved along if Jane Williams-Warren was still there or another mayor.”
Velez said he liked the three-minute video that came before the mayor’s speech.
“Paterson’s comeback story is going to require patience on your part and persistence on mine,” said Sayegh. “I believe Paterson has been on pause for too long. Let’s push the play button.”