Candidates Robby Stein, Bruce Stafford, John Shaka and Sandy Schroeder at a roundtable discussion.
By Stephen J. Kotz
The four candidates for Sag Harbor Village Board gathered in The Sag Harbor Express office last Thursday to outline their reasons for running and discuss how they planned to approach some of the key issues facing the village in the coming years at a roundtable discussion.
The election is Tuesday, June 17, with voting from noon to 9 p.m. at the firehouse on Brick Kiln Road.
Sandra Schroeder, a retired village administrator who fell short in a bid for mayor last year, is making her first run for a trustee seat, as is John Shaka, an active member of the group, Save Sag Harbor. Bruce Stafford, who served one term, from 2009 to 2011, is seeking to reclaim a seat, and Robby Stein, who is finishing his fifth year on the board, is seeking another term.
“The waterfront and water quality are important to me,” said Ms. Schroeder, echoing a concern also raised by Mr. Shaka and Mr. Stein. She also cited traffic, disappointment that the village was unable to settle a contract with its police union, and the need to invest in infrastructure, including the Municipal Building, Long Wharf and the sewage treatment plant.
“We need new things and we need new thinking,” she said, “and someone who is looking to the future at where we want to be.”
“I love this place,” said Mr. Shaka, who owns a painting business and has lived in Sag Harbor for 15 years. “The reason I’m running for trustee is I want to keep it beautiful and livable.”
Mr. Shaka called for better communication between the village and the school district to solve problems like traffic tie-ups at Pierson High School during drop-off and pickup times; a sharper focus on the environment, especially water quality; better efforts at historic preservation, citing the John Jermain Memorial Library expansion of an excellent example; and traffic calming, an initiative he has been deeply involved with in recent months.
Mr. Stafford, a landscaper who was born and raised in Sag Harbor, cited his local ties, including 36 years of service with the Sag Harbor Fire Department and his leadership role as chairman of the board of the Sag Harbor United Methodist Church.
He said there was a need to hold the line on taxes and cited his efforts to rein in spending while on the board. He agreed that traffic is an issue but noted that options are limited because village streets are narrow because they “were made many, many years ago for horse and buggy.”
Calling Sag Harbor a great place to raise a family, Mr. Stafford added, “this is no longer our little home. It has been found. I’m just trying to keep it as long as possible.”
Mr. Stein, a therapist who now serves as deputy mayor, said there were many key issues facing the village, and cautioned against expecting easy fixes for any of them.
He said he was “passionate” about finding ways to manage “water and the health of the harbor and the way water is absorbed by this whole village.”
Mr. Stein said he would like to see the village review the code to see that it is keeping up with the times. The village, he added, needs to determine what infrastructure projects it will tackle first and where it can find new sources of revenue. An immediate challenge, he added, is that once the village police contract is finalized, the village will be headed right back to the bargaining table because of the short term of the new deal. He noted that negotiations have not been particularly cordial and said it was important to stabilize the contract for the long term because police costs account for more than half the budget.
“I think we really have to look at what our priorities are,” he said. “The character of the village is something we want to protect.”
When it comes to safeguarding water quality in the bay, Ms. Schroeder said a systematic plan needs to be put in place to install larger catch basins and dry wells to prevent as much initial runoff as possible. She also said she expected the village would eventually have to undertake a major upgrade of its sewage treatment plant.
The village will have to work with its neighboring towns and Suffolk County to tackle water monitoring and pollution abatement solutions.
“Sag Harbor can’t do it all by ourselves,” she said.
Mr. Stein, who has focused on runoff and water quality issues during his time on the board, disagreed.
“You can’t build big enough catch basins to hold the rainfall,” he said. It would be far more effective to try to retain as much rainwater on-site through porous natural solutions like rain gardens, which are typically planted depressions, which allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground, he said.
He also disagreed that the sewage treatment plant needs to be expanded, saying it is operating at only about 30-percent capacity now.
Mr. Shaka said he was equally concerned about nitrogen seeping into the bay from overtaxed septic systems and said the village needs to collect baseline data of the situation by conducing regular water sampling.
He agreed with Ms. Schroeder that the village would be hard pressed to correct pollution on its own and said it would have to forge alliances with neighboring communities and levels of government to tackle the problem.
Mr. Stafford said the village could convert a portion of the Cilli Farm into a drainage and filtering area.
“Right now, it’s just a brushy pile of nothing down there,” he said, “and we’ve owned it for how many years?”
The ongoing contract dispute between the village and Sag Harbor Police Benevolent Association was also a source of concern.
“The bottom line is taxes,” said Mr. Stafford. “The smart thing to do is wait and see what the arbitrator is going to come back with and eventually put on a referendum and let the village taxpayers decide” if the village should maintain a department.
“I like having a police department,” he said, “I like having two on at one time.” But he added that the PBA has been unwilling to work with the village and suggested that the village would be better off going with a reduced force and hiring more part-time officers.
“If it goes to arbitration, you are in trouble,” said Ms. Schroeder. “Arbitration rarely benefits the village.”
Mr. Stein said the problem went deeper than negotiations. The village is limited because it can only hire officers from a local Civil Service list or the county list. He said the department would be able to hire young officers at lower wages if it could use the Southampton Town hiring list.
He said it was important that the police pay be controlled much as the village is controlling spending elsewhere.
“It has to be a consistent piece of the pie,” he said, adding that police will have to ask for smaller raises and contribute to their health care costs in the future.
“I like having an affordable police force,” said Mr. Shaka. “Let’s wait until the arbitration is in, but I can tell you what isn’t affordable—if police have 4-percent raises every year.”
All candidates, save Mr. Stafford who praised Mayor Brian Gilbride’s pay-as-you go approach, said the village would benefit by borrowing money now, while interest rates are at historic lows, to tackle major infrastructure projects, like repairing Long Wharf.
Mr. Stein said the village should lobby East Hampton and Southampton Town for a larger share of Community Preservation Fund money, which, he said, might be used to buy easements from waterfront property owners to plant buffers to protect the bay.
“There’s no property here,” he said. “We aren’t going to buy anything else. There’s only one thing left on the East End and that’s the water.”
Sag Harbor needs to ramp up its code enforcement and revisit its zoning code, the candidates agreed, if it wants to protect its character.
Mr. Stein said the zoning code should be updated to limit the construction of oversized houses on small lots, as well as not overly restrict commercial uses.
“Code enforcement would be a good place to start,” said Mr. Shaka. A leader of the fight against a plan to redevelop the Harbor Heights service station with a convenience store and other amenities, Mr. Shaka said such plans should be stopped in their tracks.
Mr. Stafford said he was particularly concerned about illegal rentals and overcrowding in homes.
All four candidates agreed that there could be better communication both among board members and with the public.
Mr. Stein called for a better website and regular newsletters to taxpayers. The board should also hold monthly work sessions, he said.
“If nobody says anything you don’t hear anything,” quipped Ms. Schroeder, who said the board needed to be willing to listen to people who may have more expertise than they do.
“If you get enough people talking, you’ll solve your problems,” she said.