By Andrew Rudansky
Perhaps not surprisingly, the “economy” was the buzz word of the evening at the Southampton Town Council candidates’ debate held Thursday, October 13 at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons (LWV), the debate was yet another chance for residents to see how this year’s candidates fared under the scrutiny of public questioning.
Most of the questions posed to the candidates dealt with issues pertaining to the handling of the budget, job creation, and the state of the town’s economic health. And it was clear from the start that the voting public had their pocketbooks on their minds, something none of the candidates failed to notice.
Four candidates, two from both of the two major political parties, are currently vying for the two open seats on the town council. Terms are for four years and the two seats up for grabs next month are currently held by incumbent Democrat Bridget Fleming, and long-time board member Nancy Graboski, a Republican who is not seeking re-election and whose term expires at the end of the year.
With over 100 people in attendance, the debate at the Roger’s Memorial Library provided all of the candidates the biggest venue so far to present their message. In addition to answering questions submitted by the audience, the candidates also handled questions from a panel consisting of co-president of the LWV Judi Roth, Southampton Press editor Joe Shaw and Bryan Boyhan, publisher and editor of the Sag Harbor Express.
This election cycle the Democrats are again putting up Fleming, a Sag Harbor resident and former district attorney who has been a member of the town council for the past 17 months. They also endorsed small business owner and Northampton resident Brad Bender, who also received backing from the Independence party and the Working Families party.
In her opening statements, Fleming stressed that her experience as a district attorney prosecuting fraud in public programs, as well as her current tenure on the Southampton Town Board has made her an experienced candidate.
During his opening statements, Bender cited his credentials as a president of the Flanders/Riverside/Northampton community association, as well as his experience in the private sector as a local contractor.
“I know what it takes to run under a tight budget,” said Bender about his candidacy.
The Republicans have tapped retired police officer William Hughes Jr., and Southampton Town’s assistant town attorney Christine Scalera to run for the two available seats on the council. The latter was also endorsed by the Independence party.
In his opening statements, Hughes, a Hampton Bays resident, described himself as a family man, a decorated military combat veteran, and a servant of the community in various positions for over 50 years.
As the debates began Scalera, a resident of Water Mill, was noticeably absent from the proceedings; it was announced before the debate that she would not be attending due to a medical emergency.
Scalera’s bona fides come from her work as an attorney for the towns of Brookhaven and Oyster Bay as well as in Nassau County. She also served on the town council in Oyster Bay for four years.
Her presence was certainly missed by the Republicans, as Bender and Fleming created a united message for most of the evening, which more often than not put Hughes on the defensive.
It was telling that when asked what the two biggest issues the Town of Southampton faced in coming years, all three candidates in attendance first brought up the economy.
“The financial health of the town is the number one focus,” said Fleming, who mentioned the recent restoration of Southampton’s Moody’s credit rating as proof of a recovering economy under the policies supported by herself and town supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.
Bender also mentioned the economy as his number one priority, and promised to help Fleming and Throne-Holst in getting the local economy back on track.
Throughout the debate Bender mentioned that if elected he, along with Fleming and Throne-Holst, would create a Democratic voting-block on the five seat council that would effectively put an to end to Republican control and help stabilize the economy.
Hughes, a self-described life-long fiscal conservative said the town’s problems can be traced back to a glut of government programs. Hughes promised to reign in these programs while cutting what he called “excessive government waste.”
“We have to hold the line on spending,” said Hughes. “The fact of the matter is we have gotten into all of these problems because of spending.”
Although Scalera was not at the debate, she did make a prepared statement that was read to the audience by representative of the LWV Ann Sanford. In it she echoed the statements of the other candidates about the importance of fostering economic stability in the ensuing years.
“I also believe the town needs to take more seriously the idea of economic development,” said Scalera in the written statement. She went on to say that government regulations and taxes were hurting local businesses and preventing an economic recovery from occurring in Southampton.
“We need to find a way to better serve [small businesses],” she added in her statement. She also promised to hold the line on taxes, be prudent in regards to spending, and propose legislation on a debt service cap if she was elected.
All of the candidates in attendance were in agreement not to pierce the two-percent levy cap; a limit on how much the town can raise taxes each year.
“As long as we can maintain a zero percent budget year after year that is what we are going to do,” said Bender about enforcing the cap.
Fleming said she was in support of the levy cap, however she claimed it was only sustainable if the town got serious about trimming down the size of government staffs and government waste.
“We need to start looking [at layoffs] without looking at individual party affiliation,” she said. “We need to look at cutting jobs in a managerial style.”
Hughes said he was opposed to any firings in the government; instead saying the two-percent levy cap can remain if there were serious cuts to individual government programs.
“We need to tap into the experience of people who have worked in government for a long time,” said Hughes. He added that he did entertain the possibility of a long-term hiring freeze as a way to cut down on future spending and maintain the levy cap.
The issue of Southampton Town pushing older town cops into early retirement as a cost saving measure set forth in the 2012 budget came up fairly early in the debate. Hughes, a veteran of the police force was adamant in his displeasure with this idea.
“We are going to gut our police department of our senior leadership,” said a concerned Hughes. He said the experience of these older officers is more than worth the price the town pays for the salary, and he didn’t want to sacrifice the town’s safety to cut costs.
The retirements would only target members of the force who have served for over 25 years. Hughes suggested the town might cut into the size of the force based on a performance reviews and not “discriminate based on age.”
Fleming, supportive of the early retirement plan, responded that the measure as proposed would save the town $1.5 million, and the effectiveness of the police force would not be adversely affected by the departure of some of the senior officers.
She was also careful to point out that the plan was not a “forced retirement” but rather part of a deal struck between the town board and the Southampton Town police.
“What we would be doing is acting on a provision that we bargained for,” said Fleming about the retirements.
Agreeing with Fleming, Bender noted that younger officers were not being given promotions due to the long careers of older officers, a situation that he calls a “log jam” in the department.
Hughes went on the offensive when Bender mentioned that the retirement plans of the retired police were “a cushy deal.”
“Maybe if you wanted to retire as a Southampton Town cop you should have taken the test and joined us,” said a clearly irritated Hughes.
The issue of hiring a town manager to deal with many of these issues came up in the debate which sparked heated rhetoric on both sides.
Fleming and Bender were both supportive of the idea of finding a professional, non-partisan outsider to help get the town on sure financial footing.
“Having that in place is a win for the town,” said Bender, who added a caveat that the proposed manager had to be above all party politics for the proposition to be effective.
Hughes said that he was adamantly against inviting a town manager into town hall.
“The town manager usurps the power of the town board and the elected officials of the people,” he fired back at the Democrats.
Hughes went on to say that an outside town manager was unnecessary because the current town manager service administrator Russell A. Kratoville was doing a great job in shoring up the town’s finances. Hughes claimed that Kratoville had saved $800,000 for the town in the last 10 months.
Despite worries about the shaky economy, all three candidates agreed that if elected they would support a measure to purchase East Hampton’s share of the Poxabogue Golf Center on Montauk Highway in Sagaponack.
Currently the nine-hole course is jointly-owned by both towns; however East Hampton is looking to sell their share for increased liquidity. East Hampton is asking $2.2 million for its share of the golf course and facilities.
Fleming answered the Poxabogue question with a quick and unelaborated “yes,” a response that got several laughs from the crowd. She joked that the pancakes served at the restaurant located in the clubhouse alone were worth the asking price.
“We have the opportunity to buy this because East Hampton wants to get out from under it,” said Hughes about purchasing the golf course. “I think we should take advantage of the opportunity.”
An audience question presented to the candidates had to do with the introduction of third party billing in the Southampton ambulance districts.
Currently ambulance services in Southampton are paid for by the government through tax funds. The third party billing proposal, creating a professional ambulance service that would charge people per-use, generated mixed responses from the candidates.
Bender said the third party billing proposal was a creative way to fill the coffers of the emergency service centers.
Fleming said she thought the idea was intriguing as a way to cut costs, however she wanted to look over specifics before committing to anything.
Hughes was less sure of the third party billing plan.
“What we don’t want to do is scare elderly people who might not call an ambulance because they can’t afford the bill,” said Hughes, who added that he did like the economics of the idea.
The candidates faced several non-economic questions in the debate as well, including the issue of beach access and parking restrictions. When confronted with a question regarding parking bans on Noyac Bay Avenue and Noyac Road, all three candidates provided similar non-committal answers.
The candidates said they support full beach access; however they did not go as far as tackling the issue of parking limitations near beaches.
“It was never about the access … that issue was about parking,” said Hughes. “Each area must be taken separately for the good of the community as a whole”
Bender agreed, saying, “Unless there is a safety issue, it is essential to have beach access … but every [parking] spot has to be seen differently.”
The candidates also sounded off on the possible reopening of the Mecox Sailing Club under the Town of Southampton.
Bender and Fleming were both in direct support of the sailing club.
“I think the Mecox Sailing Club is wonderful part of our culture and history,” Fleming said. “We can’t lose opportunities to restore this in our community.”
“This has been an opportunity that has been missed by this generation,” said Bender, who lamented the original closing of the club.
Hughes was also in support of the restoration of the Mecox Sailing Club.
“The Mecox Sailing Club is a great use of our resources,” he said. “I think it should go through, there has been a tradition of sailing there for years.”
In addition to the two town council positions, also up for re-election this fall is current Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. She, along with former Republican Town Supervisor Linda Kabot were present at the debate.
Throne-Holst, a member of the Independence party who is also endorsed by the Democrats, is technically running unopposed due to the fact the Republicans did not put forth a candidate. Kabot, who entered the race just a few weeks ago, is mounting a write-in campaign against Throne-Holst in an effort to regain her former post.
Because Throne-Holst is technically running unopposed, she was not invited to participate in the debate. However, both candidates were given the opportunity to introduce themselves at the event. Kabot addressed the crowd by saying that she was running for supervisor in order to “provide voters with a choice.”
Also in attendance at the debate were various candidates for other government positions who are running in the November 8 election including candidates for town trustee positions, including Democrat Janet Beck and Republicans Ed Warner and Scott Horowitz.
Incumbent Southampton Town Justice Edward Burke, also running for reelection in November 8, was in the crowd as well.