The President/CEO of the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency, James (Jim) Cavanaugh, has been pulling double-duty as the acting Commissioner of the Planning & Development department. His appointment by Mayor Mike Spano came in August after the retirement of former Commissioner, Lou Albano.
Cavanaugh’s Political Past
For decades, one could find Jim Cavanaugh’s footprints throughout governments in Westchester County and beyond. Starting in the late 1980’s, he parlayed serving as New York State Senator Nick Spano’s press secretary into his own political career. In 1994, he became the town of Eastchester’s elected Supervisor. And during his ten-year tenure, faced criticism when his party named him Chair of the Westchester Republican Committee, replacing outgoing chairman, Nick Spano.
Then, in the early 2000’s Cavanaugh took to Manhattan with an executive position at the Battery Park City Authority. There, he met now-wife Wilson Kimball. However, both left the government-run planning agency after a scathing oversight report showed gross misuse of funds by the organization. However, Cavanaugh rebuts the Inspector General’s findings as, “close to being slanderous.”
Cavanaugh returned to Yonkers with a position under former-boss Nick Spano’s lobbying firm, Empire Strategic Planning. Though, both he and Wilson Kimball found themselves directly in government again soon.
Nick’s younger brother, Mayor Mike Spano, appointed Cavanaugh as Deputy Mayor of Yonkers where he served for four years. Likewise, Wilson Kimball briefly served as the Director of Downtown Waterfront Development, before her Spano-appointment to the Planning & Development department. First, as a Deputy Commissioner for a year, then the full Commissioner for the next seven.
In recent years, both have changed positions again. In 2020, Spano tasked Kimball to lead the Municipal Housing Authority. That agency manages the vast network of city-owned residential buildings as well as the related Section 8 housing voucher program. She was also appointed the Chair of the immensely powerful Zoning Board of Appeals in 2022.
Cavanaugh similarly transferred from a literal City of Yonkers government position to a quasi-governmental agency. In 2021, Mayor Spano appointed him to be the President/CEO of the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency. These state-regulated organizations operate under a government-run board, but act as a private business, similar to the aforementioned Battery Park City Authority. However, its main function is to entice investment by negotiating land sales and tax abatements to private developers.
Appointment to Planning
After two years in that role, the Mayor added to Jim Cavanaugh’s responsibilities by giving him an entire City department to run. On August 14, without any formal announcement, Cavanaugh took over the vacant Commissioner position left by the retiring Lou Albano in the Department of Planning & Development.
This department oversees a range of services like affordable housing, community and economic development, as well as traditional planning functions. Those planning functions consist of land use and environmental studies, project site visits, and the formulation of strategic planning initiatives.
Speaking with the Mayor’s office, they noted that both Commissioner Albano and Director of Planning, Zach Nersinger, exited the department around the same time. Therefore, because of Cavanaugh’s experience, “the Mayor moved quickly to fill the gap with someone who didn’t need to be brought up to speed.”
The administration also confirmed that Cavanaugh is receiving the same salary of the former Commissioner, $197,737 per year. Because of this, Cavanaugh voluntarily chose to put his salary from the YIDA on hold at this time. Per the annual report for fiscal year 2022, Cavanaugh was paid $75,750.12 for his President/CEO role in that agency.
Questions on ethics
While he reportedly is not “double-dipping” across two government-supported salaries, his lead role in two agencies wholly dependent upon one-another raised a simple question. Is this legal?
We reached out to the NYS Comptroller’s office who has oversight over all of the state’s IDA’s. Though our direct question on whether or not an IDA head could also lead the related planning department went formally unanswered, the City of Yonkers was quick with a response.
There is no conflict or prohibition in maintaining YIDA president while serving as Commissioner. Joan McDonald, for example, is the County Executive’s Director of Operations, and she also serves as President of the County IDA. You’ll find similar situations in other IDAs in New York.
Taking the Westchester County example at face value, there still exists another potential ethical conflict. Between the IDA, Planning Department, MHACY, and Zoning Board of Appeals, there is one married couple controlling it all. Considering these organizations have influence upon one-another, the distribution of power is virtually non-existent. Perhaps, in the third-largest city in the state, despite Cavanaugh and Kimball’s acknowledged experience and expertise, there may be others capable of sharing the responsibility.
However, as previously stated, this is only an “acting” appointment of Jim Cavanaugh to the Planning Department. And it may never become his permanent job. The City of Yonkers did publicly post the job listing for this position online just three days after the Mayor appointed Cavanaugh in August. Although, they removed that job posting just two months later with no new candidates yet named. With the future of the position uncertain, the administration only stated that, “Mayor Spano will be evaluating all of his cabinet positions prior to the new term, and this position will be part of that process.”