BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
It is not common to see a City Councilman riding around town on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, rocking out with his guitar at Astoria Park or speaking his mind via social media.
In Astoria, however, that is the norm because Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) is well known for all those traits and much more.
He sat down with the Queens Tribune at his favorite spot in Astoria, the Igloo Cafe, where he reminisced about his 12 years in office as the Councilman for District 22, which encompasses Astoria, Long Island City, Rikers, Randalls and Wards Islands.
“It is so hard to sum up 12 years and what makes public service such a noble cause when done right,” Vallone said.
He said his favorite part about the job was visiting the schools in his district, whether it be for the many Career Days, read aloud sessions or graduations.
Even though Vallone was a prosecutor for years leading up to him becoming a councilman, he said helping others through public service is more rewarding because you do not have to ask for a fee once the case is over.
He said his father, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. and his grandfather, the late Judge Charles Vallone, have been his guiding light and inspiration to help others.
“My father taught me public service,” Vallone said. “It wasn’t something I was sure I wanted to get into; but when I did, I loved it.”
“As a public servant, you are helping people, serving the public, trying to make it a better place for you and your kids,” he added.
Vallone’s priority in the Council has been public safety, which is no surprise, as he has been Chair of the Council’s Public Safety committee for all three of his terms.
“It is something I am most proud of, because crime is down 35 percent,” Vallone said. “People forget what it was like when we started.”
Vallone has fought against cuts to the NYPD and has demanded that Albany pass tougher laws against sexual offenders, especially those that threaten children.
One of the biggest challenges to public safety came as Vallone sought his first council win.
On Primary Day in 2001, Vallone said he was campaigning in front of the PS 85 Judge Charles J. Vallone School, when two planes hit the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
The incident led Vallone to an historic moment in the Council.
“I had the first hearings in the history of the City on anti-terror,” Vallone said.
By implementing ways to respond to emergencies with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Vallone said he is proud of the work they did together.
“We have a better response system now than we ever did before,” Vallone said. “It was a huge responsibility.”
Since then, he said there have been 16 or so attempted attacks on the City, but they have been stopped because of the safety measures implemented over the last 12 years.
In order to keep the neighborhood safe, since cuts to the police dept. have been on the rise, Vallone created the Neighborhood Watch program in Astoria, which he said is an absolute necessity in Queens.
“The neighborhood has to be the eyes and ears when the police can’t be,” Vallone said. “There are so many crimes that citizens can help prevent.”
Even though Vallone said he does not know the future of the program, Councilman-elect Costa Constantinides said he is a member of the program and will work to continue to find funding for it.
Constantinides said “public safety is number one” on the list of his priorities.
Just like the topic of safety resonated very well with Vallone, so does the topic of graffiti.
Vallone was coined as “The Man Who Hates Graffiti,” by the New York Times in 2006.
“I wish we could clean it all up, but we made a big dent,” Vallone said.
He said it took him five years to pass tough laws against vandals that make it illegal to carry or sell graffiti tools to anyone under the age of 21 (such as spray paint, broad tipped markers, etching acid), forcing large businesses to remove graffiti from their premises and the phased-in elimination of solid roll down gates across the City.
Vallone said part of the theory to eliminate graffiti is not letting low-level crimes fester.
“It’s a gateway for kids to enter in the life of crime because if you are out with like-minded people at two in the morning, it is very easy to jump from graffiti to drug use to car break-ins,” Vallone said.
“Once criminals see that crime is tolerated, more crime happens, and there is no better way to see crime is tolerated if they see graffiti on the walls,” he said.
Vallone said he is in the process of adding to the list of illegal graffiti tools.
His father, former Council Speaker, Peter Vallone Sr. called his son “the anti-graffiti king of the City.”
Graffiti and litter go hand-in-hand for Vallone.
Vallone wrote the Plastic Bag Recycling Act, which established plastic bag recycling in the City.
“I hated graffiti and litter since I was four,” he said.
Through the years, Vallone said he has worked to pass legislation that would double the fines for store owners and residents who use the City’s garbage cans for residential and commercial uses.
“Some store owners take bag after bag and dump it into different garbage cans because they do not want to pay for private pick-ups,” Vallone said.
With the constant growth of Astoria in terms of its residential and economical development, Vallone spoke at length about saving Astoria by issuing a comprehensive study of his Council District, so that over-development is halted and the character of the neighborhood along with its historic areas is preserved.
Even though the community did not support the rezoning at first, Vallone said he pushed hard for it and later drafted zoning changes that the City Council approved.
“Now this neighborhood will retain its character and all new development has to be in character,” Vallone said.
On the topic of health issues, Vallone has fought several battles to bring awareness to the hidden dangers in our food and water. He sponsored the law that enforces the Dept. of Health to ban harmful trans fats in City restaurants, which passed in 2007. That law has recently received national recognition, as other cities nationwide are following suit.
“I am just a kid from Astoria, but I wrote the trans fat bill, which the whole country is now looking into,” Vallone said.
Another hidden toxin Vallone spoke in great depth about is a piece of legislation that would remove fluoride from our drinking water.
“It is absurd that the government would put fluoride in our water supply,” he said.
Vallone said passing this legislation will be huge, because worldwide people are understating fluoride is toxic.
Along with the food and water intake, Vallone was prompted by the concerns of Astoria residents about placing cell phone antennas in residential neighborhoods, so he wrote a law that required the Dept. of Buildings to maintain separate records for all permits that are issued in relation to cellular technology.
“I was also one of the first to call attention to the cell phone towers,” Vallone said. “You cannot just put them up because it is cheaper in residential areas.”
Legislation sponsored by Vallone mandates community notification before antennas are erected, as well as another bill he wrote that would prohibit antennas from being placed near schools.
As for school security, Vallone paved the way in 2008 to install security cameras in schools on a City-wide level, starting with local schools in his district, which were intended to reduce violence in public schools.
“Every time you try to put cameras anywhere, people say it is controversial,” Vallone said.
Even though Vallone’s Director of Communications, Michael Pantelidis, said it was hard to pick just one accomplishment of Vallone’s to highlight, he spoke about the Councilman’s push to add a skate park to Astoria Park, which features a 21,500-square-foot skate park.
Vallone said the skate park, which was constructed in 2010 by the Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and funded in part by Vallone and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, accommodates all levels of skating and now the kids have a safe place to skateboard.
“That is an example of something that most elected officials wouldn’t have done because most of the people surrounding the park opposed it,” Vallone said. “But when I go there now, the kids thank me.”
“The kids aren’t out in traffic and they are not drug dealers,” he said. “They are our neighborhood kids who are trying to just skateboard.”
Even though Vallone will not be in office to see the finished product, Vallone said he has been pushing the Dept. of Parks to transform the Astoria Pool to an ice skating rink during the winter months and the abandoned diving section of the pool into a performing arts space.
As for the future, Vallone said he does not know where he will end up, but he plans on spending a lot of time with his two daughters, who study at Notre Dame University.
“I can not imagine staying out of public service for a long period of time and hopefully there will be a way to continue it,” he said.
With his term ending in January, Vallone said it was bittersweet to see his staff members take on other great jobs.
Pantelidis said Vallone made working in government fun.
“He was so involved and took care of his district while passing meaningful legislations,” he said.
As for the future of council district 22, Vallone said he is at the full disposable of the newly-elect Councilman. He said Constantinides is a hardworking and nice man.
“I will do everything I can to help him keep this neighborhood moving in the right direction,” he said.
Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Tsakhuja13.