Person of the Year

Glen Head’s undaunted activist

Agatha Nadel: The public face fighting private water

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Of all of Agatha Nadel’s attributes, the one that is often overlooked is her prowess on the tennis court, her husband, Lloyd, said. “People may not know this about her, but she’s a very good tennis player,” he said. “When she was in high school, she talked her way into playing on the boys’ team.”

Undaunted, Nadel worked to become one of the best players on North Shore High School’s men’s tennis team. “To have the wherewithal to do that in the ’70s was a big thing,” Lloyd said. “It’s a testament to her doggedness, and her willingness to reach the goals she wants to reach.”

That doggedness has been evident in recent years in Nadel’s pursuit of an entirely different goal: getting public water service for Sea Cliff and Glen Head. In May 2017, the state Public Service Commission approved a multi-million-dollar rate increase for New York American Water, a private utility that serves 4,500 ratepayers on the North Shore. As a result, customers in the Sea Cliff district saw steep increases in their water bills.

The day she received that first hiked bill, Nadel recalled, “something snapped.”

What followed was a months-long battle for her, involving research, meetings, rallies and letter-writing campaigns to alert her neighbors and elected officials about the company’s practices. In recognition of her efforts, the Gazette is proud to name her its 2018 Person of the Year.

A lifelong Glen Head resident, Nadel, 56, said that water prices have long been high in the area. “Our water bills were always higher than our friends’ that had the municipal water,” she said, “but I never thought it would get to where it is now.”

Fueling the fire

Nadel said she was incensed when she received her NYAW bill in June 2017 — $706 for the month, which equaled a quarterly bill from earlier that year. “The first thing I told my husband was, ‘We have to fight,’” she said, pounding her kitchen counter. “I said, ‘There’s no guarantee we’re going to win, but we just can’t take this lying down.’”

Nadel spent weeks poring over every document and newspaper article she could find about American Water’s operations and billing practices across the country. She read about community groups that had challenged the utility, trying to determine which tactics worked and which didn’t. In March, while on vacation, she and Lloyd stopped in Felton, Calif., to meet an activist whose group fought the company and won. When she learned that Great Neck had succeeded in changing its water service from private to public in 1985, she searched the town’s archives to “know their template.”

Nadel presented her findings at a meeting at North Shore Middle School in August 2017. She spoke passionately as she presented the facts and figures and demanded answers to her questions, her voice booming across the auditorium.

State Assemblyman Michael Montesano, of Glen Head, attended the meeting, and took note of Nadel’s grit. “What caught my attention was her level of knowledge, and her ability to articulate the information when explaining to us what the issues were,” Montesano said. “Everyone had their own personal tidbit, but Agatha put it all together.”

“Her persistence and her research has helped get us as far as we’ve gotten,” Lloyd said. “And she doesn’t just talk, she’s action, also.”

Gaining ground

In October 2017, Nadel and other residents formed an activist group, which eventually became known as North Shore Concerned Citizens, to fight New York American Water. Nadel sits on the group’s executive committee with Glen Head resident Lawrence Ruisi.

“Early on, what distinguished her was her passion for understanding what was happening, but she wasn’t just going to complain,” Ruisi said, “she was going to fix it.” He added that while each member brings something different to the group, Nadel is undoubtedly “the voice of the people.”

Despite her outspokenness, Nadel insists that she never intended to become the “face of the movement.” “I honestly prefer to be behind the scenes,” she said, “but that anger radiated and just sort of evolved.”

Over the past year, North Shore Concerned Citizens has made many advances in its quest for public water, but it has also had setbacks. In spite of this, Lloyd said, Agatha hasn’t lost her spirit.

“Everybody has their breakdowns,” Ruisi added, “but her relentless pursuit to get this done is undying.”

In August, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer held a news conference on the Nadels’ front lawn on Wedgewood Court, calling for a federal probe of the company. The moment signified that the group was gaining ground.

Ruisi noticed something else: the admiration for Nadel not just from the community, but also from her daughter, Samantha. “While Agatha was addressing the press, I was staring into the face of her daughter, and she was squarely focused on her mother,” he said. “The emotion in her eyes showed me how much appreciation she has for her. It was a look of incredible pride and love.”

A heart of gold

When passersby in the supermarket aren’t calling her “the water lady,” Nadel works part-time at the Glen Cove Senior Center. She also volunteers for the Family and Children’s Association’s Friendly Visitor Program, and spends time with a local senior once a week.

“Honestly, I would adopt her tomorrow,” Nadel said of the woman, her eyes brimming. She added that if she were younger, she would open a group home for the elderly. “I’ve always loved that segment of the population,” she said, “because my grandparents raised me.”

After high school, Nadel attended LIU Post so she could care for her grandmother. But that decision, it seems, could be attributed in part to her deep love for Glen Head. “It was a great place to grow up, and I feel very fortunate and blessed to have been able to move back here, and raise my kids here,” she said, “And that’s one of the reasons that keeps me in this fight.”

She continued, “Our group can’t win every battle — we can’t save the world or save Long Island or New York state — but we can save a little portion of our community. If we win the water, it will be our contribution to preserve it for the next generation.”

It will no doubt be a long time before a public takeover of the area’s water service occurs, but Montesano said that hasn’t stopped Nadel from keeping the fight alive. “She continues to pursue it because she believes it’s a wrong on the entire community,” he said. “She’s doing it for them.”