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Letters May 21, 2009

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Protect Health Interests


To The Editor:

Karl Grossman’s column in last week’s Express tells of HR 676, the US National Health Care Act – the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act. He asks if this “health care dream” will, “as it should”, become reality. This can only happen if we insist that our elected representatives do their jobs and accurately represent us. Last summer, the NY State Assembly passed a Resolution unanimously supporting HR 676 and sent it to all US Congresspersons in NY. Congressman Tim Bishop recently told me he was unaware of the Assembly’s Resolution, yet he totally dismissed it. He said that, if it was passed unanimously, it wasn’t read carefully enough to reveal the “language” by which the bill would provide health coverage for all “residents” of the US. Is he that much smarter than our State Assembly?

Congressman Bishop is playing politics with our health and not representing our best interests – or our stated (in polls) wishes. Since 2003, when HR 676 was first introduced, Mr. Bishop has offered different excuses to the not-so-few of us (representatives of League of Women Voters, NAACP, OLA, Suffolk Independent Living Organization, Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force, doctors, nurses, dieticians, and others – all his constituents) who have personally visited him asking him to co-sponsor the bill. First, he said we couldn’t afford this reform; then he said he thought a private-public partnership would work. Now he says he believes a single payer system is the way to go, but he won’t sign HR 676, the only single payer bill, because it covers all “residents”. This game of politics threatens the health and well-being of us all.

The Congressman admits to “co-mingling” the issue of health care with the issue of immigration. He knows this is wrong because they are two separate issues. My daughter sometimes takes the bus home from her summer job in Sag Harbor, sitting among day laborers, regularly employed workers, and anyone else using the County’s public transportation. If the “resident” sitting next to her didn’t seek treatment for his cough because not all “residents” have health coverage and he couldn’t afford it, then my daughter is at risk for exposure to TB or another infectious disease which she could then bring home to our family, our circle of friends and co-workers, even the public schools. This is purely a public health issue.

There are other reasons Tim Bishop is wrong. Residents who are immigrants – legal or otherwise - are not the problem with our health care system; they use LESS health care than native-born citizens. And, health care providers cannot act as immigration officers. Fifty million citizens are currently uninsured; for every 1% increase in unemployment, 1 million more lose their insurance. At any given time, 80 million people under 65 (one in three Americans) are uninsured; every year, 22,000 people DIE because of that. Many of us face financial ruin if we get sick or injured. A colleague put it like this, “When all is said and done, it’s so important not to give care to ‘illegal’ immigrants that it’s worth depriving 50 million citizens of health care.”

Recent polls show solid majorities support Medicare for All (62% general public, 59% physicians), but we’re a majority silenced by the health insurance industry while it robs us blind. That’s the real problem, not health care for all “residents”. Let’s not remain silent. Let’s say, “We’re angry and we’re not going to take it any more!” Tell Congressman Bishop to protect our best interests – our health – and co-sponsor HR 676. That’s what we elected him for.

Elaine Fox, M.D., MPH



Remember and Wear a Poppy


Dear Editor:

The measure of a man may be his willingness to serve his country. The measure of a country may be its willingness to honor those who served to protect the free world. Each year the American Legion Auxiliary reminds Americans of their debt to the veterans by offering memorial poppies made by disabled veterans as part of their therapy. Disabled and hospitalized veterans make the official American Legion Auxiliary poppy throughout the year in hospitals and special convalescent workshops maintained by Auxiliary volunteers. Working with their hands provides physical and psychological therapy as well as a small income for these veterans. Each poppy is painstakingly made and never sold but given in exchange for a contribution. Funds contributed for the Memorial Poppy are used exclusively for programs related to veterans and their families.

Since 1919, the poppy, a small symbol of great sacrifice, has been worn over the hearts of Americans who make a personal statement, “America We Remember.”

We remember and honor the sacrifices of men and women who died in defense of our nation. We remember our commitment to assist all veterans and their families.

The Chelberg & Battle American Legion Auxiliary of Sag Harbor will be distributing poppies along the parade route on Memorial Day and at the Legion Hall on Bay Street. 

Please support our veterans, and let us never forget our obligation to those who have given so much and served so gallantly to protect this great land of ours and those of us who live here. It’s a small way to show our respect. Remember and wear a poppy, for “Freedom isn’t Free.” 

God bless our troops.


Deborah Guerin, President

American Legion Auxiliary

Chelberg and Battle Unit #388


Volunteers Set Pace


Dear Editor:

Last Sunday’s meeting of 20 volunteer organizations at the Whaler’s Church, organized by Save Sag Harbor, was an inspiring reminder of our community’s extraordinary level of grass-roots activism, commitment, and capacity for innovation.

On a host of key issues, from “greening the Village,” feeding the poor, and helping cancer victims, to strengthening local businesses, protecting the Bay, and finding safer paths for walking and biking, Sag Harbor volunteers are setting the pace for the entire East End.

This kind of voluntarism is actually a very old tradition here, long observed, for example, by our many volunteer fire department members and ambulance corps members, as well as by century-old volunteer organizations like the John Jermain Library Fund and the Ladies Village Improvement Society.

As we move beyond the issue of code revision, grapple with the financial crisis and a host of other issues, it is great to know that we have all these private sector resources to call on. I hope this is just the first in a series of such meetings, and that the outcome is a new shared vision of Sag Harbor’s future.


James S. Henry, Esq.

Mayoral candidate

Sag Harbor


Lessons in the Cleanup


Dear Bryan,

I want to extend a huge thanks to all those who came out in the drizzle on Saturday and Sunday to clean up Town Line Road. An amazing group of volunteers mucked about for hours, picking up truckloads of trash (so much that large loads will have to be hauled away this week). Spokespeople and 725 Green both had volunteers out there, and BikeHampton and Summer Color gardens graciously lent us trucks.

For those who have never ventured up there, let me tell you, this is not just litter. The area has been turned into a dumping ground and a shooting range. We hauled sofas, beds, dressers, television sets, circuit boards, full garbage bags, clothing, mountains of cans, bottles and trash, along with hundreds of shotgun shells. This is an eyesore, of course, but more importantly, it means that enormous amounts of lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxins are getting into our water, soil and air. These materials cause cancer, nerve damage, fetal deformities, liver damage… need I go on? Clearly, this isn’t acceptable. Now that the area is cleaned up, I hope that East Hampton and Southampton will help keep the area clean and take steps to stop the dumping.

One other comment: We had a number of young people out there on Sunday, and it was interesting to see their reactions. They said it was sobering for them to see that amount of trash and to learn just how dangerous it is. At the end of the day, when they were dirty, tired and wet, several said they were glad to have done it, glad to have made a difference. Our schools need to be sure that our children are learning the lasting effects of their actions on the environment, pro and con.

Many thanks,

Gigi Morris

Sag Harbor

Gratto Talks Budget with CONPOSH

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“I have a terrific job … but sometimes I feel like an umpire,” said Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, as he spoke to a mixed audience at a CONPOSH (Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor) meeting in the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church last Sunday.

In addition to CONPOSH members, among the attendees were members from the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), Sag Harbor Village mayoral candidate Mike Bromberg and school board candidates Elena Loreto, Walter Wilcoxen, Gregg Schiavoni and Edward Drohan. The purpose of the meeting, however, was a specific one: to discuss the 2009-2010 school budget, which is up for a vote on May 19.

When crafting a budget, Gratto said it is all a balancing act. He noted that while some parents, for example, would like to see a completely new auditorium constructed at Pierson, other taxpayers wonder why more drastic cuts weren’t made to the budget this year.

“The question isn’t the cost per student. The question is: Is the school district providing the programs the community wants in the most cost effective manner,” said Gratto. “We need to realize one extreme or the other doesn’t serve the community well. We can’t have an abundance of programs … [nor] can we cut the tax rate down as much as [some] people want … I feel like the steward of taxpayer dollars and I take that responsibility seriously.”

Since taking office last year, Gratto said he has strived to maintain the school’s academic rigor while creating economic efficiencies. Last September, Gratto saved the school district around $310,000 by consolidating three business positions into two, combining the athletic director and head of buildings and grounds positions, eliminating and renegotiating special education contracts, reducing BOCES services and switching telephone providers. Gratto built-in almost $700,000 in cost saving measures for the 2009-2010 budget. These steps include cutting purchased BOCES services by $278,825, reducing discretionary spending by $151,111, purchasing a bus and van resulting in $126,549 of savings and decreasing dental insurance costs by $17,899.

The 2009-2010 school budget is around $29 million. The taxpayer’s portion of this sum, Gratto reported, will be slightly offset by additional federal monies. He said the school district will receive $141,594 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to help renovate the auditorium, though the total project is budgeted at $195,000.

This extra federal support, he explained, will help lower the tax rate increase from 4.35 percent to 3.79 percent for residents on the Southampton side of the school district and from 4.33 percent to 3.77 percent for those on the East Hampton side of the village.

Members of the audience questioned the budget increases incurred by teacher and teaching assistant salaries as well as monies set aside for teacher’s retirements. Sheila Goldberg, a retired educator and Sag Harbor resident, countered these concerns.

“A lot of people get angry about taxes before the budget,” she said and added that the school budget remains one of the only financial plans the public is allowed to vote on. Goldberg mentioned the state legislature is exploring enacting a tax cap on school district tax levies or creating a “circuit-breaker” on property taxes.

If the tax cap was enacted this year, the cap would be set at 4 percent said Gratto. The “circuit-breaker” would effectively cap an individual’s property taxes. The cap would be based on the taxpayer’s annual income. Although these ideas are being bounced around in the state legislature, Gratto said they are years away from implementation.

In the here and now, Gratto is looking for other ways to save costs for taxpayers and improve programs. He said the district is courting the idea of creating a joint pre-kindergarten program with the Bridgehampton School District, which already has an active pre-k course. Elementary school principal Joan Frisicano has already discussed the concept with Bridgehampton superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood and delivered a cursory presentation on the idea at the Wednesday Board of Education meeting.

Gratto believes the school can absorb an additional 20 to 25 students without increasing staff or incurring additional costs. With some parents feeling the pinch of the Ross School’s $30,000 annual price tag for high school, Pierson could soon be opening its doors to more out-of-district students.


Letters December 25

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Ligonee’s Importance


Dear Bryan,

Bill Brauniger, in his letter to the Sag Harbor Express, December 18, writes, “[Ligonee] brook is not a natural feature and may well add to the flow of contaminants, commonly found in storm water run-off, to Sag Harbor Cove,” and so he suggests, “Given this, perhaps the most environmentally positive thing to do with the ‘brook’ would be to return it to its natural state by filling it in.”

Filling in Ligonee was tried. In 1969, some Sag Harbor citizens took it upon themselves to stop the flow of Ligonee Brook and bulldozed an earthen dam to close the north end of Long Pond. They did this thinking the extra water depth would increase water percolation into the aquifer below the pond. But what happened was almost instantly neighbors complained of flooding and a naturalist pointing out that vegetation important for wildfowl was drowned. It’s a long story, which was resolved in 1973 when spring rains increased the water pressure; the earthen dam caved in, and Ligonee flowed again.

“Ligonee Brook, or the Alewive Drain, connecting Long Pond with the Cove, was a fish run so long ago no one can say whether it was a natural brook, or in part artificial” is a portion of what historian, Harry D. Sleight, wrote in Sag Harbor in Earlier Days on the subject of natural versus man-made. We know William Wallace Tooker wrote, “The brook is not natural but dug by the fisherman.” The closest evidence I can find of such an early act is in the Southampton Town Records. In 1793, the town trustees gave John Jermain permission “to dig across the Road that leads from Sagg to Sag Harbour And across the road in order to let the waters of Crooked Pond and Little Long Pond into said [Otter] Pond….” Following this permission there is no mention that letting of the waters into Otter Pond ever happened.

Just ten years later, in 1803, the New York State legislature defined the border of Sag Harbor as following the course of “old Legonee creek or brook” as we know it today. “Beginning at a road leading from Sag-Harbor aforesaid, to North-Sea, upon the old Legonee creek or brook; thence running with the said creek or brook to middle line and old boundary between the great south and north division; from thence [east] on the said middle line until it strikes the line between the towns of East and Southampton…”

Though Ligonee has been enhanced over history, for me the most interesting and convincing evidence that Ligonee Brook is natural is the remains of an oxbow carved by Ligonee’s water flowing to Sag Harbor cove. No man or slave would have dug this “S” shaped oxbow no matter how much rum he’d partaken in. Nature took centuries to make it. When the LIRR laid out the railroad bed in 1869, they cut off the oxbow so that the tracks passed over Ligonee just once rather than three times. The severed oxbow loop can be seen on the west side of the tracks somewhat north of Middle Line trail.

There are enough stories and records about Ligonee Brook, Sag Harbor’s western border, to fill a book, and so I hope that Sag Harbor takes pride in Ligonee’s history and respects its function of draining excess surface water from the ponds.

Sincerely yours,

Jean Held

Sag Harbor


For Sal Vacca


Dear Editor:

My sister Rosemary Ward and I would like to thank everyone connected with our father’s peaceful passing. We are first of all deeply appreciating the manner in which Sal Vacca lived his full life of 92 years. His defining moment arrived when he met our mother, Alice Juliano Vacca. We don’t know if it was love at first sight, but it shined on brightly from that moment to this. There is a special bond between a father and his children, but when the father is deeply in love with the mother of the children, the bond that is created as a result is nothing short of eternal. We could not have chosen more perfect parents.

There is no way to adequately express in words the character and the class that Sal Vacca exemplified in the way he lived his life. For those who knew him, no explanation is necessary. For those who did not, none is possible. He lived by the Golden Rule and treated others with the same respect that he appreciated in return. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was a dedicated husband, father, friend, and public servant. He also practiced a deep devotion to the Creator of all life. I personally acknowledge and revere such a Creator because no man could be as truly blessed as I am on his own merit.

Rosemary and I would like to thank Dad’s doctor, Richard Panebianco for recognizing that to treat our father’s cancer at his advanced age would have undoubtedly created a host of complications, making the high quality of his remaining days unlikely, if not impossible. There is no way for us to express the depth of our appreciation to East End Hospice for the manner in which each individual lovingly cared for Dad’s needs, enhanced his quality of life, and respected his dignity without fail. East End Hospice is truly an organization of angels.

Our father touched so many people in a positive way that we can’t begin to mention by name everyone who went out of their way to make his passing peaceful. However, we do want to express our gratitude to the Sag Harbor Fire Department for giving our father, Sal Vacca, the most phenomenal bon voyage imaginable. Only Rosemary and I know to what lengths the Fire Department went to honor our father, and we can say without exaggeration that these extraordinary Volunteers treated our father as if he were Royalty.

In conclusion, as much as we appreciate the human touch, we appreciate just as much whatever opened up the sky at the cemetery and let the sun shine through for the service there. As dreary as the weather and the occasion seemed, there would be no raining on Dad’s parade. It was as though our father, Sal Vacca, could find no better way to say “thank you” from his broader perspective. Personally, I have no doubt that this is true.


Bobby Vacca

Rosemary Ward


Assessment Doesn’t Make Sense


Dear Bryan,

The Village Board of Sag Harbor works very hard and does some great work on behalf of the village but the idea that we should abolish the practice of keeping our own separate tax rolls completely baffles me. Just a few years back the board had a complete reassessment done of Sag Harbor. Not only that but since then multiple reassessments have been done for multiple properties. At that time, the board stated as today: “It’s not going to affect them as much as they think.” Well, it did affect many property owners adversely and the greatest share was the “blue collar people”. These are people who have lived in Sag Harbor all their lives and have owned homes here for many years. They have paid their dues and made this village the great place it is. Right or wrong, their properties had lower assessments than others that have newly moved here and the assessment hit the “blue collar people” very hard who can least afford it. It was an informal homesteaders discount — which states like Florida have and we don’t, officially — that was completely eliminated by the new assessment. Additionally, just the cost of that reassessment increased our taxes.

 Now the board wants to eliminate that recent assessment and adopt East Hampton’s assessments. They want East Hampton to reassess because they feel their assessments are inferior. Obviously, this begs the question why would anyone want to throw away the newest, greatest for something they believe is inferior? That question aside, this will once again hit the “blue collar people” the most and not by lowering the taxes I can assure you. This is also the same East Hampton that just increased our taxes by about 30 percent, which can hardly be classified as no small amount. This reassessment will also cost money and that will be passed along by an increase in our taxes. So basically, the board wants to throw away all the money, time and effort that was spent on our reassessment a few years back, consolidate with the East Hampton assessment, convince East Hampton to reassess us again, completely eliminate any informal homesteaders discount, create another round of grievances, petitions and supreme court appeals, increase our taxes at the very least since we will have to pay for this while the economy is being likened to the Great Depression, home values are plummeting, wages are not increasing and what you can buy with a dollar is getting less and less.

The only people I see clamoring about all of this is the board. We have a complete reassessment of Sag Harbor in place that is up to date and good. The public is not demanding the elimination of redundancy. Anyone who wishes to grieve can. I am completely baffled by all this and can’t help but feel there is lack of transparency here because none of this makes sense.

Bruce Fletcher

Sag Harbor

Real Life Courtroom Drama Turned Into a Farce

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By Raphael Odell Shapiro

 Starting tonight at 8 p.m. the First Presbyterian Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor will be transformed into a courtroom, thanks to a creative team comprised of a dermatologist from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan and a federal judge. Playwright Adrienne Foran and director Manuel Cofresi have collaborated to bring to the stage a fictionalized retelling of an actual court case in “The Cat, the General, the Wife, the Judge, and Calzone.”

Writing has always been a passion of Foran’s, who in addition has a certificate for screenwriting from NYU. She most recently adapted and directed an adaptation of a Chekhov story entitled “The Chorus Girl,” which was put on at the HB Studio in Manhattan. But it was at a playwriting workshop at Hunter College last year that inspiration struck.

“The idea I had when I went was useless,” laughed Foran, sitting at a table in the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church, where directly above her the set of her very first original play was being assembled on the wooden proscenium. Foran described how she had then heard the incredible true story of a five-year-long divorce case from her friend and attorney, Manuel Cofresi.

“And I thought to myself, well this has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” said Foran, “I can use this.”

According to Foran, Cofresi related how when he was still in private practice, he was hired to represent a woman (the “Wife”) in a court case against her husband (the “General”) who was suing for divorce after she supposedly hit him. The battle lasted years, and involved a cast of characters including a cat psychiatrist during a heated conflict for custody of their cat (the “Cat”) and a trio of jailed hookers, who have become a Greek chorus of sorts in Foran’s farcical retelling.

The playwright has been very involved during the rehearsals, giving creative feedback and providing a few on-the-scene rewrites. The show first had a staged reading at the Helen Mills Theater in New York City this past May, but the opening at the Old Whalers’ Church marks its premier unscripted performance.

Foran described how she finished her play, recounting how she brought the rough scripts to dinners at her sister and brother-in-law’s house and handed out copies around the table for other guests to read, so she could hear her characters come to life.

“So, people stopped coming to the dinner parties,” she joked.

Sister Diane Boyd and her husband Michael are the show’s producers, and part-time Sag Harbor residents.

Foran could not be more excited about the opening at the church. “We have a great cast,” she said, speaking of the collection of seasoned actors, including some local residents, up-and-coming young stars, and even a New York City police lieutenant, who will be playing the role of attorney Donald Calzone, Esq.

She also couldn’t be more happy with her choice of director in Cofresi, who made his directorial debut with the staged reading at the Helen Mills. “We figured he could direct a courtroom,” she said. “He’s motivated everyone, and done a great job.”

Cofresi’s own life story is one worth telling. An orphan from Spanish Harlem, he was raised at the Little Flower House of Providence and later moved to the St. Vincent Home for Boys in Brooklyn. He would eventually graduate law school, become a trial lawyer, work for the New York district attorney’s office, and in 1995 was appointed a United States administrative law judge.

And now? He’s directing, and having the time of his life. Said Cofresi, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience.” The rehearsal process is a particularly unique one for the judge, who in a sense is seeing his own memories replayed before him on stage. “I was the real Donald Calzone back in those days,” he said, referring to the character in Foran’s play based on him.

Cofresi apparently hasn’t missed a beat in his switch from the courtroom to the rehearsal room. “Because I am a federal judge, it’s easier to direct this kind of play,” he explained, “procedurally and substantively.” Though Cofresi admitted that the story is at it’s heart tragic, Foran has managed to turn it into a comedic drama.

“She took the story and made it into a raucous comedy,” he said. “It’s the combination of our talents that’s bringing it to the theater.”

But does Calzone (or Cofresi) win the case? To find out you’ll have to travel to the Whalers’ Church tonight, Friday or Saturday night at 8 p.m. It promises to be a nail biter.


Educate Yourself

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Next Wednesday Sag Harbor residents have an opportunity to educate themselves on a project that is sure to turn their lives upside down over the next nine months. We are referring to the remediation of the former KeySpan site, home of the old, great big, blue gas ball on Long Island Avenue and Bridge Street.

The remediation of the site is no small ordeal. Expect noise, expect to be disturbed and expect to find new ways to navigate around the village. Mind you, we have no choice in this matter. The project is going to happen whether we like it or not.

But you do have a choice in whether you are educated as to what is happening at the site. Next Wednesday consultants from National Grid as well as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will be on hand to answer any question you might have concerning the remediation project. If you do not avail yourself of this opportunity, then you should not complain when the project begins.

Sag Harborites like to be educated on issues that affect their community. So please go to this public availability session on Wednesday and ask a lot of questions. Ask about the possibility of odors emanating from the big tent that will cover the site. Ask about the trucks that will be traveling throughout our village and how safe they are. Ask about just how loud the excavation will be.

Most importantly educate yourselves so you know what is happening in your own community. Is that so much to ask?  

The Old Whalers Festival 1969 (Bruce Backlund)