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'Another option for leadership'

Valley Stream's Shari James set to challenge Bruce Blakeman for the town's 3rd Council District

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Standing in a stark white rectangular retail space, empty except for a small table and three folding chairs, Shari James, of Valley Stream, remarked that something about the South Franklin Avenue storefront had caught her eye.

James, 35, who is married and has a 12-year-old daughter and two stepsons, cleared a half-empty carton of Wendy’s French fries from the table’s surface before taking her notes out to speak. In the coming days, the one-room space — a convenience store, in one form or another, over the years — will become her campaign headquarters as she gears up to challenge Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, in November for the Town of Hempstead’s 3rd Council District seat.

A request for comment emailed to Blakeman’s office for this story was not returned.

“I think we’re going down a path where we have an unsustainable future,” James said of the reasoning behind her Town Council bid. She said that a century of near-absolute one-party rule — broken only in 2017 with the election of Democrat Laura Gillen as supervisor, and a handful of Democrats who have been elected to the Council — had led to an ossification of town services, and coupled with a lack of housing options, entire demographic groups are being pushed out of the area.

Described by colleagues as a “budget guru,” James said she is seeking to leverage her financial background in the public and private sectors to streamline the delivery of services at Town Hall — where typewriters are still used routinely — and to find additional housing options in the town, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country.

“Right now there is not enough housing for the full life cycle,” she said, noting that her stepson, having just finished college, was moving to Brooklyn because of a lack of affordable housing in the area, and her mother, now of retirement age, sold her home and is looking to downsize.

James — who manages a financial consultancy firm, and formerly served as a chief deputy Nassau County comptroller and as deputy comptroller and director of operations for the City of Long Beach — described the state of housing in the town as an issue of supply and demand, where the stock would have to be increased to decrease costs.

She acknowledged the issue has been the subject of intense discussion over the past few years, with numerous studies and debates over how much density is too much, and which type of housing is right for what area.

“We keep talking, and we’re talking, and we’re talking and we’re doing these studies, but when are we going to move forward and do it in a way that engages the community from the onset so we don’t have to go in circles?” she said.

James said she is not seeking to push development “down the throats” of residents. “That’s not the proper way to govern,” she said, but is instead seeking to find compromises.

“This is not, you know, the sixth borough,” she said. “So we need modesty [in housing] and, of course, we always need to preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

James said that another priority for her would be to address economic development in the 3rd Council District — acknowledging that economic development and housing are two deeply entwined issues — and that she would seek grants and other economic tools such as business-friendly zoning to incentivize businesses to come to the area, as well as make it easier for small, local businesses that are already here to stay.

“People will come if people are already here,” she said, “and if there’s a proper return for investors to invest.”

When it comes to Town Hall operations, while James said that day-to-day oversight is largely the jurisdiction of the supervisor, she would like to use her auditing experience to take a comprehensive look at town expenditures to see what could be streamlined, and implement long-term expense planning.

“What are you truly getting for your tax dollars?” she said. “How much does this service really cost me, from personnel expenses, to equipment costs and discretionary spending?”

James maintained, however, that she was not seeking to put town workers out of their jobs, only to increase efficiency. “People are the main drivers of how we deliver services,” she said.

Additionally, James said she would like to see more ethics controls implemented in town government, and while she was pleased to see the council pass an ethics package this winter, she would like to see it strengthened, and is amenable to incremental improvements as long as they are not part of a “shell game,” she said.

Other priorities for her, she said, include protecting the town’s environment, particularly its extensive shoreline; seeking to improve the state of town roads; and bolstering infrastructure against future storms — especially after her experience helping Long Beach rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.

Aside from her professional experience in finance, James is also on the boards of the Girl Scouts of Nassau County and the Cornell Cooperative Extension, is a fellow on the New Leaders Council, is an Energeia Partner, has organized an annual gift drive at the Valley Stream Community Center and is a former speaker and member of the New York State Government Finance Officers’ Association.

And while James said she is looking to improve town operations, she is seeking to keep her campaign positive, and does not wish to speak badly of her opponent, who in addition to serving in various elected and appointed positions in the town, state, county and city, has served on the Town Council since 2015.

“I’m just looking to give the community another option for leadership,” James said, “and I think I’m well-suited to do that. In fact, I know I am.”