Critical tipping point issues like the lack of affordable housing and climate change were on the minds of Southampton Town Board candidates and questioners in the League of Women Voters of The Hamptons, North Fork & Shelter Island’s Oct. 4 debate between candidates for two seats on the board.
There is only one incumbent in this race, Tommy John Schiavoni, a Democrat and former social studies teacher from Sag Harbor who is seeking his second term in office. Democratic Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, who is completing one full term after winning a special election in 2016, has declined to seek re-election. Mr. Schiavoni’s running mate is real estate attorney and Southampton Town Planning Board member Robin Long.
The Republican candidates are Cynthia McNamara, chair of the East Quogue Citizens Advisory Committee who was involved with the 2019 effort to incorporate East Quogue as a village, and Ann Thomas, a 30-year resident of Southampton who worked in institutional risk management on Wall Street.
Ms. McNamara said she was inspired to run by the lack of attention she says the current town board is giving to members of Citizens Advisory Committees.
“I want to bring back public advocacy and I want people to be heard,” she said.
Ms. Thomas said her key issues are tax assessments, housing and strengthening local businesses.
Ms. Long, who served as chair of the Suffolk County Board of Ethics and on the Southampton Town Housing Authority, said she intends to lead the way in ethics in government.
Mr. Schiavoni said he plans to build on the town’s work in providing access to affordable housing and clean water programs and to working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on implementing the Fire Island to Montauk Point project to shore up the South Shore against erosion and rising seas.
The candidates had a lot to say about affordable housing in the hour-long Zoom debate, moderated by League Chapter Co-President Susan Wilson.
“Our housing crunch is profound. The town needs to step up and provide affordable housing,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “Since I’ve been in office, we passed an accessory apartment law that allows people throughout town to add accessory apartments to our homes. That allows homeowners to get some rental income and also allows younger people to stay in the area.”
Mr. Schiavoni added that he’s looking forward to the promise of the Peconic Bay Housing Fund— a bill authorizing public referendums on the creation of the funds was signed into law by New York Governor Kathy Hochul just days after the debate.
“This would give us a sustained funding source for shared equity and a variety of programs,” said Mr. Schiavoni, who said he’s seen estimates that the funds could bring in $35 million for East End towns to use for affordable housing each year. He added that he believes the town should be pushing for home ownership.
Ms. Thomas said she thinks the term “affordable housing” has a negative connotation, and she prefers to call it “transitional housing.”
“We should be examining all viable properties, rather than spot zoning, and make sure it is spread out throughout town,” she said, adding that she hopes the town keeps water quality and traffic in mind when planning for housing. She also said she believes the town has money for these programs “without raising taxes.”
“Every part of our town must contribute in their own way to solving this problem,” said Ms. Long. She said it was crucial, in addition to building new developments, for the town to look into how to make its existing housing stock more affordable, a process that is currently underway with a town housing report.
“We need to see how we can assist first-time homebuyers in getting their houses,” she added.
“Our land use boards are part of the problem,” said Ms. McNamara. “Developers know you can get a variance to throw a 3,00-square-foot house and a pool on a quarter acre lot. People know they can get these variances because they’ve been getting them for years… We need to make sure our land use boards stick to our zoning districts.”
She added that, as someone who grew up here and has friends in the fire department, “they don’t want to be the worker bees shoved in boxes. They want a home.”
Ms. Wilson, the moderator, asked the candidates what they would do to address climate change in light of the fact that Moody’s Analytics now uses municipal risk from climate change in its ratings.
Ms. Thomas said she believes the town should electrify its vehicle fleet and that she wishes there was more access to natural gas on Long Island.
Ms Long said she’s been heartened to see builders coming to the Planning Board with plans that look to take advantage of green technology.
“We have to respect the private sector, which has to come along with us,” she said. “They have been not only cooperative, but have been advancing ideas beyond our requests. I want to thank the developers we’re working with for having a sense that what is right for the environment is good for the town.”
Ms. McNamara said she’s in favor of a solar array planned at the town’s capped landfill in North Sea, but she believes the town should not mandate energy upgrades.
“It’s nice to say you want to ban things, but when it starts affecting small businesses, that’s a problem,” she said. “If you want to incentivize or give rebates, I’m for that, but when the technology is there they won’t need to be mandated because that becomes a logical choice.”
Mr. Schiavoni approached the question first through the lens of resilience to the effects of climate change.
“We need to make infrastructure changes,” he said. “Our roads are only engineered to handle two inches of rain in 24 hours. The waters off the northeast are warming quicker than other parts of the world. We have a responsibility to act locally on this issue.”
Mr. Schiavoni added that the town has been aggressively pursuing green energy, including creating a Community Choice Aggregation program to automatically opt-in PSEG-Long Island ratepayers throughout town to purchase their power from green sources. Individual customers would be able to opt out of that program. He added that the town had passed code changes to allow houses to have battery storage capacity.
“In the United States, we have about a half-hour of capacity if something happened to the grid,” he said, adding that battery backup systems are crucial to changing our reliance on the electric grid.
On improving the public’s relationship with the town police department, as outlined in the town’s Police Reform Plan drafted earlier this year in response to a New York State mandate in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Ms. Long said she thought the process has “been a godsend. It’s shown everyone can work together.”
She said she hopes the community and the police department continue to keep open lines of communication, and she would like to see more diversity in new police department hires.
Ms. McNamara said there was “nothing I heard that made me go ‘wow’” in the discussions, but “they were a great place for everybody to come together and be heard.”
Mr. Schiavoni, who was on the town committee that drafted the plan, said that Black Lives Matter protests throughout town last year “went without incident, and that is not by accident. That is because our police and the protesters were in communication. That shows the professionalism and the leadership of our police department.”
He added that the town currently has a police body camera pilot program underway, and is working through issues related to the required storage of the footage on those cameras for use to be retrieved as evidence.
“The future of law enforcement is body cameras,” he said. “It protects all involved, as well as law enforcement.”
Ms. Thomas said she believes the police are “just amazing on the street solving our problems,” and that she thought it was good that nuanced discussions and detailed grievances had been heard throughout the process of drafting the plan.
The candidates seemed taken aback by the question of whether they would vote to mandate Covid-19 vaccination for town workers.
“I didn’t expect that one,” said Ms. Long of the question. “I believe masking is essential, especially if people are not going to get shots. I personally could not wait to get my vaccination. I sat in my car after my first shot and cried with joy that I was able to get it. But mandating it for everyone — I have issues with that.”
“I am absolutely against mandating Covid vaccination,” said Ms. McNamara, who added that she would also not vote for a mask mandate.
“If people want to wear masks, they should be able to wear masks,” she said.
Mr. Schiavoni said masks have been mandated at town hall since 2020, and the town has been taking guidance from the Suffolk County and New York State health departments on vaccine mandates.
“I would look for some kind of unanimity in policy statewide and areawide,” he said. “I hope that people get their vaccines. We know they work.”
Ms. Thomas said she believes “new medication that’s coming out of Moderna in pill form will “alleviate some of this requirement.”
Moderna does not have a pill form of the Covid-19 vaccine, but another company, Merck, requested emergency use authorization Oct. 1 for an anti-viral pill, molnupiravir, to treat Covid-19. This pill is not a vaccine. It is an experimental antiviral treatment for people who have already contracted Covid.
“I would not mandate vaccines,” said Ms. Thomas. “Masks — I almost think that’s institution to institution. I’m totally happy to honor whatever institution is mandated.”
“I believe we have a critical choice to make. We need to look at facts,” said Ms. Thomas in her closing statement. “I’m not a typical politician and I don’t owe anyone favors.”
Mr. Schiavoni, describing himself as a “native of Southampton Town, a plumber, husband, father and retired social studies teacher,” listed a wide variety of endorsements he’s received from other local elected officials and said he hopes to continue the work he’s begun.
Ms. McNamara said that, when she became the chair of her local Citizens Advisory Committee, there were 12 to 15 people coming to each meeting, but now they’re lucky to get a quorum.
“When chairs of CACs are being removed because the don’t have the same ideas (as the town board) this is a problem,” she said. They’re taking away the one committee they have that’s in their local community.
Ms. Long promised, if elected, to “always speak honestly and in truth to power, always do what is right for you even if it’s not right for me” and to uphold the Constitution and represent all people of the town.
Election Day is Nov. 2.