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February 26, 2014

Passive Desecration: Mold Town Hall



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Newly elected officials generally complain about inheriting financial problems or employee disharmony, lawsuits or poorly crafted legislation. What East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell inherited is mold.

Walk through the doors of the defunct old town hall and the smell of decay smacks you in the face. "I can't stay in here very long, I'm getting a headache," Cantwell said Friday, inviting The Independent into the building that's been empty and apparently neglected since 2010, when Cantwell's predecessor, Bill Wilkinson, moved into the new, historic town hall building.

Mold pervades the chilly, and quite smelly, space. In what was once the town clerk's office, the contents of a vault used to store town documents are covered in mold. Office gear, including computers, a lap top, and two then-brand new desks sit decaying in what was once the supervisor's suite. In the old courtroom, insulation and wires hang from a hole in the ceiling.

Portraits of former town boards and former supervisors that date back decades molder on the walls of the building's entry way. Why weren't those, at least, brought over during the move? "We weren't allowed to hang any pictures on the walls; he [Wilkinson] wouldn't let us," one town hall veteran informed.

Interestingly, when Wilkinson was on the campaign trail in 2009, he complained about the waste inherent in his predecessor, Bill McGintee's vision of creating a town hall campus using historic structures donated to the town by Adelaide de Menil. Abandoning furniture and equipment, plus allowing town records that had been carefully preserved to suffer the elements didn't seem to bother the penny-pinching pol.

Both Bills voiced plans to renovate the old town hall and move employees currently working in the Pantigo Place suites over closer to historic town hall. They'd sell the suites to cover the cost of the building rehab.

It never happened.

McGintee became embroiled in a financial scandal and Wilkinson was kept busy trying to solve the fiscal mess he inherited. Part of Wilky's sweeping cost-cutting measures included cutting the heat off in the old town hall.

Now, town officials are going to have to come up with the money to restore damaged documents. According to Town Clerk Carol Brennan, minutes from town board meetings, records of births, deaths, and marriages, maps and highway deeds, contracts and oath of office books were all kept in the vault. "Very, very old records" were damaged, as were bound volumes of records, she said.

Up until the turn of the century, an effort was underway to restore old documents. Each year about $2000 was budgeted toward the effort, the clerk recalled.

Brennan spent Friday in a mask weeding through the mess. Steve Boehner, the archivist from the Long Island Collection at East Hampton Library was also on hand to help out.

"When Town Clerk Carol Brennan showed me the deplorable condition of these important town records I knew we needed to act immediately to save them before they were ruined," Cantwell said. A specialist will have to be brought in to see if damaged documents can be treated and restored. As to the abandoned furniture and equipment, Cantwell joked dryly, "Maybe we can bring them to the home exchange at the dumps when it opens back up."

Barring bulldozing the entire building, Cantwell hasn't crystallized a vision for the dilapidated structure. He's just focused on saving the records for now.

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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