Job Potter, Dominick Stanzione, Fred Overton and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez at Monday nights League of Women Voters of the Hamptons debate at the East Hampton Village Emergency Services Center.
By Kathryn G. Menu
Affordable housing, airport noise and funding and the potential for a new town manager position in the Town of East Hampton are just a handful of the issues debated Monday night by candidates vying for seats on the East Hampton Town Board this November 5.
Held at the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton Village the event was hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons (LWV) and featured panelists—East Hampton Star editor and publisher David Rattray, LWV community leader Estelle Gellman and The Press Newsgroup copy editor and reporter Virginia Garrison.
For Democratic Party candidate Job Potter, who also has the endorsement of the Working Families Party, moving to an Amagansett farm at the age of one was something that would shape his life, and lead him back to the South Fork after college.
Focused on land preservation and protecting the piping plover with organizations like the Nature Conservancy, Potter would go onto serve as an East Hampton Town Trustee, and as a member of the planning board before serving on the town board from 1998 to 2005.
Dominick Stanzione, the only incumbent running in the town board race with support from the Republican, Independence and Conservative parties, settled permanently on the South Fork in the mid ‘90s. Stanzione said he was “plucked out of anonymity” by current Supervisor Bill Wilkinson to help a new Republican administration deal with a fiscal crisis left by the previous administration. Stanzione said he helped Wilkinson design a $26 million fiscal rescue plan.
“If I had done nothing else for this community I believe I would deserve reelection by this community on that issue alone,” he said.
Fred Overton, Stanzione’s running mate who is also supported by the Independence, Republican and Conservative parties, has been in public service for 48 years, starting with his service in the Springs Fire Department. After serving in the Navy, Overton was also elected to the East Hampton Town Trustees, before serving as an assessor for 10 years in the town prior to his election as East Hampton Town Clerk 14 years ago.
Noting he has attended over 800 meetings, Overton said, “I think I am uniquely qualified.”
While Kathee Burke-Gonzalez has not served in government, the 20-year town resident has been a member of the Springs School Board of Education for nine years, just recently stepping down after serving for two years as the school board president.
Serving on the school board, she said, has given her nine years of budgetary experience, as well as the knowledge that comes with negotiating and ratifying union contracts. Her “participatory leadership style” is what Burke-Gonzalez credits with much of her success on the board.
Democratic, Working Families and Independence party candidate for supervisor Larry Cantwell, who is running unopposed, was in attendance at Monday’s meeting but as he is not facing a challenger was not invited to join the debate.
Opening the debate, Potter said the need for affordable housing in East Hampton is “tremendous.”
“I think there has been good success in building senior housing but there is nothing in the pipeline for working families,” said Potter. “The first priority would be to get more single family homes in the pipeline.”
Agreeing the need is “substantial,” Stanzione said it must also be recognized that for 20 years East Hampton has become one of the most expensive places “on the planet” to live. He also noted the mobile home park on Oakview Highway, one of the more affordable places to live in the town, has been left to deteriorate without proper enforcement.
Overton also agreed affordable housing is necessary, but took umbrage with the concept the town has stalled affordable housing initiatives over the last four years.
“The problems we are having now is a result of the four years of fiscal problems of the previous administration the Wilkinson administration had to deal with,” said Overton.
“We need single family homes and we need apartments,” said Burke-Gonzalez.
She advocated for public private partnerships to help fund affordable housing, and added that transportation alternatives need to be developed for those who work here, but who cannot afford to call East Hampton home.
“It is a five to seven year process to fund affordable housing,” she said. “We have to get started.”
The LWV has long advocated that East Hampton Town look at the position of a town manager — one who handles the day to day operations of the town and its budget but not the legislative tasks left to a town board or supervisor.
“I am fully supportive,” said Stanzione. “I am the only board member that made a proposal to make an immediate public hearing on the establishment of a town manager.”
Stanzione said one issue recognized over the “past several administrations” is that often politics can get in the way of town policy.
Overton admitted he is the only candidate to express reservations about having a town manager system in place for East Hampton Town government.
“After reading the information and listening to the Group for Good Government — and Dominick can be persuasive when he slows down a bit — after elected and with the new Democratic administration if Mr. Cantwell and the sitting board think it will be in the best interest of the town I will strongly consider supporting it,” said Overton.
Burke-Gonzalez also voiced her support for the concept, although she added that because the position is not funded in the proposed 2014 budget it would not be a model the town would be able to adopt come January.
“I think it is an ideas whose time has come,” said Potter. “We are a bigger and busier town than we were before. I have been with three supervisors and that is one very tough job.”
Beach erosion, and specifically how to protect downtown Montauk and its beaches from the impact of future storms, was another question raised by the panel.
While Overton said he originally supported a rock wall covered in sand, after listening to opposing viewpoints, he said he would consider what he called a compromise in the use of Geotubes filled with sand.
“I think that might provide the best, cost effective protection for downtown Montauk,” he said.
Cost aside, Burke-Gonzalez said she also supports a soft approach to protecting downtown Montauk, namely looking to increase the width of the beaches with sand and dunes.
“I think we all agree it is very important this money comes to East Hampton,” said Potter referring to the millions of federal dollars earmarked for the project.
“I am personally opposed to a rock wall,” added Potter. “I think it should be a soft solution and I think we have a lot to do in terms of long range planning with erosion and the rising sea level.”
He added he was disappointed the town has yet to move forward by hiring a coastal engineer — something the Army Corps of Engineers has recommended.
“Once again, I have to acknowledge the great work of Supervisor Wilkinson in initiating this tremendous opportunity to protect downtown Montauk,” said Stanzione.
Protecting Montauk, he added, is the first priority. Supervisor Wilkinson, said Stanzione, agreed to have the Army Corps look at another option outside of shoreline hardening.
“I have to tell you, if the Army Corps comes back and offers only a rock option we are going to have a tough decision to make,” said Stanzione.
Rattray queried the candidates about allowing walk on resolutions — resolutions introduced just before or during a meeting and occasionally without the knowledge of the full town board — and whether those resolutions flew in the face of a public process.
“I obviously believe in participatory government,” said Burke-Gonzalez. “Walk on resolutions have to happen at times, but it should not be common practice.”
She added no member of the board should be surprised at the board table by a resolution and that agendas for meetings should be posted days in advance of a public meeting.
Potter noted there were two walk on resolutions presented at the board meeting last Tuesday — one allowing the board to ask the Army Corp to take a look at Geotubes for downtown Montauk, but also a more controversial item to spend $80,000 to study the construction of a fence at the East Hampton Airport.
“We all know applying to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is certainly a controversial and questionable thing, so I think to spring two things like that on the town board is a bad practice,” said Potter.
Stanzione, who introduced the walk on resolution about the airport fence, said he agreed a full public agenda was in the best interest of the public. However, he added that he has been arguing for the consideration of monies for the design of a fence around the airport for a year now.
“It is certainly no surprise I have been pursuing that resolution for quite a long time,” he said.
For Overton, the current town clerk, this issue is particularly concerning because his office is responsible for developing the agendas for each town board meeting and work session. In theory, he said, every resolution should be available to the public the Tuesday before a regularly scheduled Thursday board meeting.
“I will tell you what happens — the council does not do its job,” he said.
“Now, when you elect me I will do my best to insist the council people observe that protocol and procedure,” said Overton. “It is very difficult for me and my office to make promises to you when I cannot get cooperation from the council people.”
Dovetailing on the issue of the airport, and whether or not the town board should accept FAA grant monies, the candidates were divided.
“The principal I stand by is the airport belongs to the Town of East Hampton and we should have as much control over the activities at the airport as the town possibly can,” said Potter.
With the increase in helicopter traffic, Potter said he would like to see if not accepting FAA grants will, in fact, give the town greater control in terms of restrictions once current FAA grant assurances expire in December of 2014.
“I am absolutely committed to FAA funding for the airport,” said Stanzione, the town board’s liaison to the airport for the last four years.
“I do believe taking FAA funding is the most fiscally responsible policy the town can accept on behalf of all of its residents,” he said.
“I will not allow that airport to be closed and not taking FAA funding makes it more likely the airport will not survive,” added Stanzione.
“That is what I am afraid of,” said Overton, “the ultimate goal to close the airport.”
Overton said he supports the current administrations path to look at alternative routes, but otherwise supported continuing to take FAA funding.
“I, too, am not looking to close the airport,” said Burke-Gonzalez.
However, she added, she believes allowing the grant assurances to expire is important, then gathering the community together to look at noise studies and talk about what restrictions, if any, the town board should consider.
“That would be done with community participation and by building consensus,” she said.
“We need to take on these various issues as a community,” said Burke-Gonzalez in her closing statement. “Our citizens should play a valuable roll.”
Overton noted with two sitting Democrats on the town board and Cantwell assured the supervisors seat that Democrats will have a majority before the town council race is even decided. He called for diversity.
“I would like to be your eyes and ears on the board,” said Overton. “We have two sitting Democrats and we don’t need two more as far as I am concerned.”
“I am running for reelection and I am running on my record,” said Stanzione, noting he has been the author of a number of town studies including the comprehensive deer management plan and most recently a sustainability plan co-authored by town councilwoman Sylvia Overby.
“The last time we had a five member Democratic board we ended up with a $26 million deficit,” said Stanzione. “I believe I have earned reelection and ask humbly for your support this November.”
“My belief is it really does not matter what party a person belongs to,” said Potter. “I urge voters to look at the four of us and select the two who will best serve the town board.”
“We have got to bring civility, respect and cooperation back to the town board,” said Potter. “It is the number one issue we have heard on the campaign and I absolutely believe that will happen come January.”