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Thiele Stands Alone; Russo, Pope Debate Finances At Debate

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New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. stood alone at the podium at a League of Women Voter’s sponsored debate in Bridgehampton on Thursday, October 23.

“If I put up a wild card and start debating myself, stop me,” he joked to the crowd of roughly 40 people.

Thiele’s dilemma was that his opponent W. Michael Pitcher did not attend the debate, to the surprise of league members and Southampton Press executive editor and debate moderator Joseph Shaw. According to published reports, Pitcher was detained at a family emergency and planned on attending a second debate at the Hampton Bays Senior Center on Thursday, October 30 at 7 p.m.

Despite Pitcher’s absence, Thiele was given an opportunity to address the audience and field a handful of questions by league members.

Thiele, a Sag Harbor native, has served on the New York State Assembly for 15 years. He is running on the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Working Families line in his bid to keep that seat following Election Day next Tuesday.

Pitcher is the Democratic challenger, a former reporter and newspaper editor on the East End and now legislative aide to Suffolk County Presiding Officer William J. Lindsay.

On Thursday night, Thiele said the State of New York was looking down the barrel of “one of the most serious financial crisises since the Great Depression” – a national crisis he said will hit New York particularly hard due to our reliance on Wall Street revenues. Governor David Paterson, a Democrat who was praised by Thiele, has already said the state is looking at a budget deficit as much as $2 billion as a result.

“And what that means is we are going to have to spend less, tax less and we are going to have to borrow less,” said Thiele.

One issue that is front and center for Thiele, especially in light of the hard financial times to come, is his quest to reduce real property taxes for New Yorkers.

“We need to reduce our reliance on the property tax to fund education,” said Thiele. “People should not have to decide between a college education for their children and whether or not they can keep their homes because of property taxes. New York needs to be fair and more equitable in how we fund education.”

“I can’t control OPEC, I can’t control international politics, but when I notice that gasoline out here is 20 cents higher I do want to do something about that,” said Thiele, referring to the recent legislation he spearheaded that outlawed zone pricing of gasoline in the state.

Thiele also touched on recent revisions to the Community Preservation Fund, a two percent real estate transfer tax that allows for the purchase and preservation of open space, farmland, recreational space and historic buildings, as well as his work to ensure the Southampton College campus remains a viable center for higher learning. This year, Thiele said he helped to secure funding for a new marine science center at the university, which is now a part of the State University of New York system.

Thiele said he would also continue to strive for mass transit on the East End.

Southampton Town Council Debate

While the Thiele-Pitcher debate may have proved anticlimactic, the debate between current Southampton Town Councilman Dan Russo, and Democratic challenger Sally Pope proved more eventful, with the two sparring primarily over fiscal issues.

Russo, the Republican incumbent, was appointed last winter to finish the council term of newly elected Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot. He and Pope, the Democratic challenger, are vying for the last year of that term.

A Remsenburg attorney, Pope opened the debate stating Republican rule in Southampton has left a municipality in both a financial and environmental crisis. In her opening statement, Pope called for control over development in the town, and said workforce housing, a Noyac community center, implementing the Sag Harbor Gateway Study and ensuring the protection of historic buildings in Bridgehampton should be priorities in the town.

Russo, also an attorney who hails from East Quogue, countered that had Pope attended town board meetings regularly, she would not see a Republican-dominated town board. Curbing development, he said, is being addressed in a multitude of ways, including through moratoriums the board has enacted in Hampton Bays, East Quogue and on County Road 39 in Southampton.

The Southampton Town Board passed a green energy building code this year – a code that mandates environmental initiatives in new building projects or large renovations. While Pope said she supported the green energy codes, she criticized the board for going back and making revisions to the code that pushed back the dates of compliance and reduced requirements for the biggest homes in the town.

 “We scaled it back for certain sized homes, but in the spring we hope to bring them back,” said Russo, noting the town’s adoption of the green building codes and creation of a green advisory committee are both initiatives the board is proud to have accomplished in the last year.   

The Sag Harbor Gateway Study is a town planning department study that recommends re-zoning over half a dozen parcels on the Sag Harbor Turnpike from highway business to hamlet office, which would mandate less intensive businesses for new developments in the area.

Russo said he was “looking forward to enacting the zoning changes” and was “ready, willing and able to enact those codes.”

“The residents of Sag Harbor do not want it to become another County Road 39,” explained Pope to the crowd. “I know the residents of Sag Harbor do want this enacted … to really make sure Sag Harbor has the kind of entrance it deserves rather than a commercial strip leading into town.”

The $82.5 million dollar proposed budget presented by Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot will result in a five percent tax increase. The town is prevented, by law, to raise taxes more than five percent.

Russo said he supports a hiring freeze and said there are cuts that still need to be made to the spending plan. He added he has asked department heads to cut their budgets by 15 percent.

“This is the single most important issue the town board is going to face,” he said.

Pope said she believed it was the town’s one-party Republican rule that has resulted in financial mismanagement, specifically in the police and waste management departments.

Town Justice Race

Prior to the town board candidates squaring off incumbent Southampton Town Justice Tom DeMayo and challenger Andrea Schiavoni were invited to give five-minute presentations on why voters should select them for office next Tuesday.

DeMayo, who lives in Westhampton, opened by detailing his decades of experience in law and on the bench, which included time as a Suffolk County District Attorney assigned specifically to the East End courts.

“I am the only judicial candidate in this race who has been certified by the Suffolk County Bar Association as qualified to serve as justice for the Town of Southampton,” said DeMayo, adding he has been told that the justice court in Southampton is currently one of the busiest in the state, earning $2.3 million. 

DeMayo said he also wanted to clear up some “misstatements that have been made throughout the campaign.”

He said the addition of the fourth justice was made possible by the town board after Assemblyman Thiele passed legislation making it possible, and was not a decision made by the justices themselves.

DeMayo said while Schiavoni would like to see the hours of justice court extended, he was able to bring night court to the town on Wednesdays, although night court only looks at town code violations currently.

DeMayo also criticized Schiavoni’s experience.

“We deal with every day problems,” he said. “I am the candidate uniquely qualified to serve and I will stand by my reputation.”

Schiavoni, a Sag Harbor resident, has a career that spans 19 years in law, where she practiced civil litigation against large corporations carrying what she admitted was a hefty caseload.

“That brings someone up to speed in terms of court procedure,” she said, adding she learned to be a great litigator “from judges who demanded I be a great litigator.”

Currently working as a private mediator, she said she is honored to have varied legal experience.

“I believe justice can be served if all involved are committed to protecting it,” said Schiavoni.

Schiavoni said she would like to see hours expanded at justice court and night court made into a revenue producing entity. She would also like to make use of satellite courts, see justices work longer hours, implement an e-filing system and make use of video arraignments.

“Most importantly we need to being transparency to the administration of town court,” said Schiavoni. 

Top photo: Southampton Town Council candidates, Democrat Sally Pope and Republican incumbent Dan Russo, prepare for battle before last Thursday night’s League of Women Voters sponsored debate in Bridgehampton.

Middle photo: Incumbent New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. addresses the crowd of roughly 40 people on issues like the financial crisis, the use of Community Preservation Funds and mass transit on the East End.               photos by k. menu