East Hampton’s town board will face a political shift leftward regardless of who wins the two seats up for grabs on Nov. 5, and that changing tide was an undercurrent throughout a spirited and congenial League of Women Voters debate, held Monday night at the Cedar Street Firehouse in East Hampton.
Longtime East Hampton Village Administrator Larry Cantwell is running unopposed for town supervisor on the Democratic line (longtime Springs town board critic and carpenter Martin Drew announced last Thursday that he’s waging a write-in campaign for the supervisor seat. Mr. Drew said he’d vote for Mr. Cantwell if he wasn’t running himself, but he didn’t want the race to go without competition). The two seats not up for a vote are held by Democrats.
This year’s town board race will likely prove a referendum on current Republican Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s controversial leadership style. Mr. Wilkinson was first elected four years ago in the midst of a budget scandal that caused the resignation of the previous town supervisor and left the town $26 million in debt, and the past four years have proved tense ones, as Mr. Wilkinson and his two running mates cut many longtime social programs and proposed controversial revenue-generating tactics in an attempt to bring town finances back in line.
Republican Councilman Dominick Stanzione is the only one of Mr. Wilkinson’s original 2009 “Wilkinson Team” who wants to stay on the board this year, and he’s joined on the Republican ticket by Fred Overton, who has served as East Hampton Town Clerk for 14 years.
The Democrats have fielded two candidates who also have longtime experience in town: Job Potter, a real estate agent and former councilman who served two terms, and Kathee Burke Gonzalez, who works as an advertising executive and has served on the Springs School Board for nine years. She is currently the Springs School Board president.
The candidates were most at odds over whether to continue to take Federal Aviation Association money at the East Hampton Airport in Wainscott. Both Democrats said they want to stop taking the money and both Republicans worried that the lack of FAA funds would force the town to close the airport.
If the town decides not to take the funding, it would have more control over what types of airplanes can land and could place a curfew on the airport’s hours of operation. The noise from helicopter traffic en route to and from the airport has made East Hampton many enemies among neighboring towns along the helicopter flight paths.
“The airport belongs to the Town of East Hampton. We should have as much control over it as possible,” said Mr. Potter, who is opposed to taking the FAA money.
Mr. Stanzione, who serves as the town board’s liaison to the airport and said he’s intimately familiar with the fiscal health of the airport, said he doesn’t think the airport would survive without the funding.
“I’m absolutely committed to taking the funding,” he said. “I will not allow that airport to close.”
“It would be fiscally irresponsible for us not to take FAA money,” agreed Mr. Overton.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she wants to let the grant assurances the town made when accepting the federal money expire at the end of 2014. She added that she supports more noise studies.
“This is a quiet community,” she said. “We need to limit the hours and type of aircraft.”
The candidates’ quality of life concerns also proved nuanced.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she thinks the code enforcement department should hire an investigator to be more proactive in enforcing laws that are already on the books, leading Mr. Stanzione to plead that the Democrats’ “thrashing of town employees at political expense has got to stop.” He added that he hopes the town’s public safety administrator, Patrick Gunn, stays on in a new administration.
“I believe Mr. Gunn has gone on the record as saying his department is reactive. We want code enforcement that is proactive,” countered Ms. Burke-Gonzalez.
Mr. Stanzione said he believes his opponents just want the town to enforce existing laws, while he’s running on his record of drafting a law to require taxi companies to register with the town and his draft rental housing registry, as well as the town board’s work to limit overnight parking of commercial trucks in residential areas.
“The Democratic side never said there’s not a need for new legislation and we never said bad things about town employees,” said Mr. Potter, who added that 100 employees lost their jobs during Mr. Wilkinson’s administration.
“The night club scene in Montauk is out of control,” he added. “That’s going to be a top priority for a new administration.”
Mr. Overton, who lives in Springs and deals every day with overcrowded houses where commercial trucks are parked overnight, said he believes the code enforcement department needs to hire an investigator. He also said he wants the town to instate a zero tolerance policy for alcohol at beaches, particularly at ones where lifeguards are on duty.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.
The candidates all said they support more mental health services and services for young people and seniors, many of which were cut during the Wilkinson administration. But Republicans are less willing to spend money on the services than Democrats.
“The fiscal situation the Wilkinson administration inherited required cutbacks in services,” said Mr. Overton. “We need to look for additional funds.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said East Hampton High School, which serves students from every hamlet in town, sends 30 students each year for psychological evaluation at Stony Brook University Medical Center because there are no critical mental health services available at Southampton Hospital. She said those students are often transported to Stony Brook in the back of a police car in handcuffs because the school can’t afford to bring them there. She said most students are sent back to school the next day with an order to seek counseling, but the Family Service League, which does much of that counseling, has a three to four month waiting list.
“The East Hampton Schol District is bringing this to the front of our attention, but the town has a role to play,” she said.
Mr. Potter said he believes the town could provide a counseling center at its Accabonac Apartments affordable housing complex.
“Layoffs were inevitable. It has hurt,” he said.
Mr. Stanzione said the town is currently paying $3 million per year toward the debt on deficit financing it received from the state to pay off the budget shortfall. That $3 million could do a lot of good if it could have been spent on human services, he said. He said the town needs to look to public-private partnerships to help with mental health issues.
East Hampton Star editor David Rattray, one of debate moderators, asked why the current town board leadership introduces important legislation in last-minute “walk-on” resolutions, and why they don’t give agendas for work sessions to the public, a practice that began with Mr. Wilkinson’s administration.
Both Democrats said they want that process to stop, and Mr. Potter said two major initiatives were introduced as walk-on resolutions at last Thursday’s town board meeting. One, he said, was a welcome request to the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue the town’s favored options for shoring up downtown Montauk, but the other was to hire an engineer, at a cost of $80,000, to study fencing at the airport. Mr. Potter said he believed the airport money was likely to apply for an FAA grant, which Democrats oppose.
“Eighty thousand dollars could build a fence,” he added.
Mr. Stanzione said it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that he was advocating for the fence because he’d been arguing for it for a year.
Mr. Overton said his office prepares the town board agendas, and board members frequently don’t give him items they want on the agenda until the last minute.
“It’s very difficult for my office to keep my promise to you of open and transparent government when I can’t get cooperation from councilpeople,” he said. “When you do elect me, I will do my very best.”
All the candidates said they are in favor of a “soft” solution for the Army Corps project in downtown Montauk, either by building a dune and putting sand on the beach or by putting sand-filled geotextile tubes on the beach and putting sand over them. None are in favor of putting boulders under the sand.
All candidates are in favor of creating a town manager position and all said they are in favor of hiring USDA sharpshooters to thin the town’s deer population.
Mr. Overton and Mr. Stanzione took advantage of their closing statements to remind the public of the fiscal missteps of the town’s last Democratic administration.
Mr. Overton, a Navy veteran who was an electrician and an International Harvester dealer before he was town clerk, held out his hands for the audience to see.
“Look at my hands. They’re the calloused hands of a working man,” he said. “I like to say we have two sitting Democrats on the town board. We don’t need two more. Let me be your eyes and ears on the board.”
Mr. Stanzione said he was running on his record of independent leadership.
“The last time there was an all Democratic board, we had a $26 million deficit and it took investigations and arrests to clear it up,” he said.
Mr. Potter said he hopes the public will look at the candidates as individuals.
“It doesn’t matter which party we belong to,” he said, adding that he wants the town to focus on preserving land and building affordable housing.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the Springs School, one of the most financially strapped districts in town, has prepared her for tight times.
“In Springs we throw nickels around like they were manhole covers,” she said.