On Monday night during the first televised debate between candidates vying for the East Hampton Town Supervisors seat, a brief sparring match erupted between incumbent Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Democratic candidate Zach Cohen over which candidate has the financial experience to shepherd the town through a multi-million deficit.
Outside of that interchange, while having largely differing views on the future of the town, the League of Women Voters-sponsored debate at LTV Studios in Wainscott remained largely civil between the opposing candidates.
Wilkinson, a Republican also running on the Independence Party line for his second term, couched the November 8 election as one that is just as critical as the previous two as the town faces a close to $30 million deficit left by the prior administration.
During his term in office,Wilkinson noted the town board has cut spending, offered now two years of property tax decreases for its residents and restored the $17 million pilfered from the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) to cover general expenses within town prior to his election.
“But much work still has to be done,” said Wilkinson. “We are at a critical time and the town cannot afford to slip back.”
Cohen has been involved with the town since 2002, when he joined the Nature Preserve Committee, which he has chaired since 2008. Cohen has served on the budget and finance advisory committee.
“My opponent came into office with a promise to do more with less,” said Cohen “I don’t see the more. In fact, we have far less then we did two years ago.”
Cohen noted the town no longer has leaf pick-up services, and the town’s recycling center in Springs is now closed on Wednesday. He also lamented the sale of the Poxabogue Golf Center to Southampton Town. What the town does have more of, said Cohen, is airport noise and crowded nightclubs.
Despite differing on several issues, Cohen and Wilkinson only really sparred towards the end of the evening when Wilkinson questioned Cohen’s resume when compared to his own.
“Sooner or later, this campaign will come down to resumes,” said Wilkinson. “We will make a selection on whose resume or body of knowledge is better.”
He pointed to the 30 years he served with the Walt Disney Corporation, leading its human resources department and said that has given him the kind of experience and insight to make good decisions of behalf of the town.
“We took a $27 million deficit and when the opinion of the world was East Hampton was near bankruptcy, turned that around in 22 months,” said Wilkinson.
“If he wants to get into resumes, I would be happy to go there,” said Cohen.
Cohen began reading emails sent to him by Wilkinson, auditors looking into the town’s finances and the New York State Comptroller’s Office, asking for his advice, as well as information Cohen had gathered in his own research as a volunteer working on the budget and finance committee.
Wilkinson responded by asking to see the emails, and later said Cohen was sent a cease and desist letter by the state comptroller asking him to refrain from referring to himself as a financial analyst for the department.
The debate was ended before Cohen could defend himself.
Earlier in the evening, the panel, which included The East Hampton Star editor David Rattray, The East Hampton Press editor Stephen J. Kotz and Susan Wilson from the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, asked the supervisor candidates beach access.
Preserving beach access, particularly in light of a recent lawsuit by a group of Napeague homeowners who have litigated to stop trucks from driving onto a stretch of beach historically kept open to beach driving, has been one of the most debated issues in East Hampton over the last year.
When asked about the town board’s commitment to fighting the lawsuit, Wilkinson announced the board would pass a symbolic resolution at its Tuesday meeting asserting its pledge to fight any attempts to take ownership of beaches in East Hampton away from residents. It was in fact adopted on Tuesday morning.
“This wasn’t about public access,” said Wilkinson of the lawsuit. “My God, the opposition has people that have campaigned for two years to keep people off that beach. This is all about jurisdiction.
Wilkinson noted the town trustees, not the town board, have jurisdiction over the beach and the board has been reluctant to violate that.
“Supervisor Wilkinson is rather late to the party,” said Cohen, noting the issue has been waging for the last year.
“One important difference is we have stated that is condemnation is necessary, we will do that,” said Cohen. “It is a strong strategic point because it tells other people, don’t even get started because all you will do is cause more lawsuits.”
Easily the most debated issue in this political season has been whether or not the town should accept funding from the FAA for the East Hampton Airport.
Cohen said he believes the town should have three goals in regards to the airport. First it needs to ensure there is minimal to zero tax burden places on residents to run the facility. Second, it needs to address the noise concerns plaguing residents of not just East Hampton, but Southampton, but thirdly must balance that with the understanding that people who use the airport must also be considered.
“One thing everyone has agreed on is a control tower would provide an increase in safe operations,” said Cohen. He added he would not take money from the FAA, which would extend federal controls over the airport past 2015, without first studying the effectiveness of the control tower, as well as completing a financial analysis of the airport.
Wilkinson said there is a legal debate that is ongoing on whether not taking FAA money would even have an impact over federal control, adding he believes the grant assurances through the FAA actually run through 2020.
Wilkinson added the board, through airport liaison Dominick Stanzione, have formed a noise abatement committee with the five East End towns, and have explored implementing a southern route into the airport over Georgica Pond
“The seasonal control tower has been put in the budget for next year, so hopefully that will have some impact on the 10-miles of airspace around the airport,” he said.
“The airport to me is something that is a precious asset we have in our community,” he added, noting it brings in 12 million into the local economy, and creates 90 jobs. It also provides a venue for Medivac services and would aid the town during an emergency, he said.
“I believe in taking FAA money,” Wilkinson added, noting it would cover basic maintenance at the airport and save taxpayers locally.
Cohen did counter that while some grant assurances do extend beyond 2015, the town could implement a curfew after that period if it did not take FAA money, and could prohibit plans that emit noise over a certain decibel level from landing in East Hampton.
“Part of the idea of a financial study is you can fund the airport without having taxpayer pay for it,” said Cohen.
The League of Women Voters has long pushed for both Southampton and East Hampton towns to create a town manager position, similar to East Hampton Village, in an effort to ensure continuity despite changes in power on town board. The creation of a town manager would have to be voted on by residents before the town could adopt that style of government.
Both Cohen and Wilkinson said they liked the concept, but were unsure given the financial crisis the town has been mired in that this was the right time to make such a big change in the way town government is run.
“People have said to me, you need a town manager when you leave and the person doesn’t have the same obsession you do,” said Wilkinson. “It is something worth considering.”
Cohen said that while he did question whether a town manager was the right step at this point, he has proposed replacing the town budget officer with a Certified Public Accountant, who would not be appointed politically as the budget officer is.