Only one incumbent, Democrat Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, is running for East Hampton Town Board this year, after Councilman Fred Overton decided not to seek re-election this spring. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez is joined on the Democratic ticket by Jeffrey Bragman, an attorney who has lived in East Hampton 30 years.
The Republican challengers are Paul Giardina, who served as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Radiation and Indoor Air New York Branch Chief, and Former East Hampton Village Police Chief Jerry Larsen.
The candidates sat down for a lively debate Oct. 16 at the East Hampton Village Emergency Services Building sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and the East Hampton Star.
Mr. Bragman is a familiar face at town and village planning boards, often representing neighbors of large development projects and asking the boards to consider the environmental impacts of those projects.
“East Hampton is not a brand name. It’s not a reality tv show, and it’s not even the Hamptons,” he said in his opening statement. “I know East Hampton is a real community with real people with some real challenges. I’m running for one reason. East Hampton is my home and I want to protect it.”
Democrat Kathee Curke-Gonzalez lives in Springs, where she raised two children and served on the school board for nine years, the last two as president, before she became a councilwoman.
“As a mother, I’m both excited and a little fearful about the challenges they will face,” she said of her kids’ coming of age in East Hampton at this time.
Paul Giardina said that he protected water during the Three Mile Island disaster during his time at the EPA, and has “45 years of experience as an environmental leader and engineer.”
“Our water is getting worse and the environment is suffering. Local business is suffering,” He said. “Water quality, housing, beach erosion, the opioid epidemic. I’ll get it done. I promise.”
Mr. Larsen, an Independence Party member endorsed by town Republicans, now operates a security and property management company with his wife, Lisa. Together, they raised six children in East Hampton.
“Strong leadership is needed to lead the town into the future,” he said in his opening statement.
Moderator David Rattray first asked if the town’s rental registry, implemented in 2016, is working, and what changes to it they would make.
Mr. Bragman said real estate agents should welcome the registry.
“I think short-term rentals are dangerous,” he said. “We’re a rural community and people live here in real neighborhoods and want to protect them. It’s essential to maintain the family and rural character that keeps us out here.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she had volunteered to work with Councilman Fred Overton to co-sponsor the registry.
“It’s a tool that code enforcement can use to protect community character in neighborhoods,” she said.
Mr. Giardina said that he believes “Airbnb is something new that wasn’t anticipated with any great thought” when the rental registry was enacted, and added that he believes the registry needs to be updated to confront the reality of the rental market now.
Mr. Larsen said he wasn’t in favor of the rental registry, but would have preferred the town had enacted a tenant registry.
“People who are renting their homes are trying to make ends meet,” he said. “No one rents their home to someone who they think is going to destroy it. We need to hold the tenant responsible.”
“I’ve talked to code enforcement. This tool is not working,” he said, adding that other offenses are often pleaded down to rental registry violations in town justice court, artificially inflating the number of rental registry violations.
“Look at the numbers. Do the research,” he said. “The number of citations issued is less than the number of convictions. Explain that. I think I just have.”
Getting Rid of Ticks
On controlling the abundance of disease-carrying deer ticks, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she supports hunting deer to help cut off the ticks’ food source, and is happy that Suffolk County now has $100,000 in funding to expand tick testing, and that Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center now has a nurse available to answer their help line five days a week.
Mr. Giardina said ecological imbalance caused by humans is the source of the large deer population.
“We’ve seen the enemy, and the enemy is us,” he said, summoning the famous quote from the comic strip Pogo.
Mr. Giardina said he believes all options laid out in the town’s deer management plan should be followed through on, including sterilization of deer and the four-poster insecticide station that coats deer with permethrin.
“We have to not only preserve the white-tailed deer, but thin it. I’m for Chip & Dale and Thumper as much as for the white tailed deer. The real issue here is us. We’re going to solve this ecological imbalance ourselves,” he said.
Mr. Larsen said he believes “nothing’s been done” with the town’s 2013 deer management plan, and added that he doesn’t believe the town government even knows how many deer are in East Hampton.
“They have plans, they have visions, and they never execute anything,” he said. “I’m gonna keep bringing that up. You’re in for a long night.”
“I’m not in favor of expanding hunting,” said Mr. Bragman. “I like walking in the woods with my dogs and I don’t want to encounter hunters.”
He added that he hasn’t personally experienced many problems with deer.
“They eat my geraniums occasionally, and I’m ok with that,” he said. “Do we really have a deer problem? I don’t think we have the answer yet. I don’t like culling the herd. I thought sterilization was inhumane and cruel. The white-footed mouse is also a vector that transmits ticks to people.”
Septic Rebate or EPA?
Mr. Rattray asked the candidates if they thought installing new low-nitrogen septic systems is a proper way to spend Community Preservation Fund money. Voters in the five East End towns last November overwhelmingly supported using up to 20 percent of CPF money for water quality programs.
Mr. Giardina said he believes the correct way to preserve groundwater is to preserve land.
“For every one acre, you purify 1.3 million gallons of water per year,” he said.
Mr. Giardina said he believes the town should make use of the EPA state revolving fund money to install updated septic systems, and “use CPF money for what it was originally intended: take land, preserve it, and use it to recharge the aquifers.”
Mr. Larsen said that only 16 people have showed up for the town’s rebate program, which was enacted in late summer of this year, and he likes Mr. Giardina’s idea about using EPA money. He added that he believes East Hampton is dragging its feet on putting together a Montauk municipal septic system.
“They have a vision plan, but they don’t execute. If we were a football team, we’d e done,” he said.
Mr. Bragman said he’d looked into the Republicans’ plan to use the EPA revolving fund, and said working with that funding source is “extremely cumbersome and very competitive.” He added that it would involve the town borrowing $150 million.
“Do you really want to have the septic police come to your house, mandate you fix your septic system and have to repair it or they take away your certificate of occupancy and take on a $21,000 debt?” He asked. “I read the plan. Democrats use science. That’s not vision, Paul and Jerry…. The only way I think you can make that work is to borrow $150 million and put it on the shoulders of the taxpayers.”
Mr. Giardina said his plan doesn’t include forcing people to fix their septic systems, and added that elderly people can get the work done and have it paid for when their house is transferred in the future.
“Is that a loan that attaches a lien to their property?” asked Mr. Bragman. “That really looks like, surprisingly for Republicans, a tax. That’s an awe-inspiring approach for a small town like us.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the board she sits on has made water quality their number one priority, and the septic upgrade rebate program they enacted is “the first one on Long Island.”
“I’m very proud of our record on this,” she said, adding that the town has preserved 300 acres of land during her tenure.
“I guess we’re filtering a lot of water, thank god,” she said.
“We obviously need more,” said Mr. Larsen of affordable housing. “The current town board hasn’t really produced any substantial results.”
He added that the last affordable housing proposal he could find was the manor project on the town’s tennis courts on Accabonac Road, which was brought to the town board in 2014.
“In 2014, they said it would take 18 months to produce,” he said, adding that he’d driven by the site earlier that day and just found weedy tennis courts there.
Mr. Bragman said “Democratic administrations that have served this town are the only governments that have produced affordable housing,” adding that he believes projects must be small-scale and reflect the look and feel of the community.
“The time from start to finish is frustratingly long,” said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who added that the town is already involved in more than 500 affordable apartments and is currently planning 60 more, including 12 apartments at the tennis courts, 39 units in Amagansett and 9 units in coordination with the Sag Harbor Community Housing Partnership on Route 114.
She said she’s also interested in looking into legislation allowing more than four unrelated people to live in some housing areas set aside for seasonal and work-force housing.
“Each of the five hamlets needs to step up and be part of the solution,” said Mr. Giardina. “You cannot be a NIMBY. We need a minimum of 1,000 new housing units.”
“Don’t use government funds,” he added. “I’ve talked with large builders and land owners. Let them make a buck on supporting our high school kids, seniors and our workforce.”
Engaging Latino Voters
On bringing Latino residents into the political process, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the East Hampton School District’s hiring of Latino liaison Ana Nunez in 2012 made a big difference in helping new immigrant families become a part of the school community. Ms. Nunez made personal phone calls and held small group meetings with Latino parents, and gradually worked to build trust between the school district and immigrants.
Mr. Giardina said he and his running mates have spent a lot of time talking to Latino business owners throughout the campaign, and many said they felt like the community at large blamed them for drug problems.
“If we’re going to involve the Latino community more in government, we need to reach out to business people,” he said.
Mr. Larsen said that if Latinos are afraid to come to town hall “we need to go to their community. That’s what we’re doing, and once we’re elected, we’re going to keep doing that.”
Mr. Bragman said he believes the Republican candidates for town board have “embraced Donald Trump” in their advertising.
“I heard Manny say it’s very unfortunate what’s going on in Washington. It’s not unfortunate. It’s un-American,” said Mr. Bragman. “I reject (Donald Trump) emphatically. They should as well.”
Mr. Giardina said his team made clear they were Republicans when they met with Latino business owners and “were welcomed with open arms.”
“Jerry, Manny and I are out there representing ourselves as people who unite people,” he said.
Mr. Giardina said that, while stumping door-to-door throughout town, he met two parents in one day who said they’d lost a child to a drug overdose.
“We must plan for prevention and treatment,” he said. “On January 2, 2018, I will be making my opioid policy a reality.”
Mr. Larsen said he believes the Democratic candidates “are nice people, but lack experience.”
“Manny, Paul and I have decades of leadership experience,” he said.
Mr. Bragman said he doesn’t believe in NIMBYs and he believes East Hampton can work together to get things done.
“We may be a small town, but we can do big things,” he said.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez ticked off a list of things done by the town board during her tenure, including funding Meals on Wheels, supporting the Eleanor Whitmore Child Care Center, expanding mental health services and upgrading the town’s YMCA, providing transportation for veterans and creating a $2 million affordable housing fund.
“There’s more work to do,” she said.