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March 12, 2014

Newbies Settling In



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East Hampton Town's freshmen councilmembers Fred Overton and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez are brimming with enthusiasm and ideas. With over two months on the job under their belts, the pair sat down recently with The Independent to talk about how their first 60 days in office have gone.

Overton

The town board's sole member voted in on the Republican line, Overton was full of praise for Supervisor Larry Cantwell's inclusive leadership style. Starting right after Election Day last fall, Overton was part of every transition discussion. "That was key to setting a tone," he observed.

January was "a hectic first month," as "everybody with an issue" sought out Overton's ear. "They wanted to re-affirm their positions and see if I can support them."

Having served for years as town clerk and been present at dozens of board meetings and work sessions, Overton had a leg up when it came to knowledge of ongoing initiatives.

Good thing, since out of the gate town officials had to grapple with a seemingly never-ending cycle of snowstorms. As liaison to the town's emergency preparedness committee, Overton was front and center for discussions about how best to handle the bounty of blizzards. He's interested in improving how the town provides emergency information when storms loom.

Overton was also assigned to the Nature Preserve Committee and the Deer Management Committee. With a proposed deer cull planned -- and opposed -- the DMC was "on the front burner right away," Overton related. When it came down to making a decision, Cantwell and Overton met with staff from the town's natural resources and planning departments. Without a proper environmental assessment, the town decided to hold off on participating in the cull this winter. "I'm still open to it," Overton said. "But I'd like to see if I can't get local hunters involved in some fashion. It's on the back burner for now."

Cull discussion may dominate town talks next fall again. For now, Overton's got an eye on issues with a more immediate future. They're no less controversial. He's been tasked with shepherding proposals designed to limit the number of commercial vehicles and "light trucks" that can be parked at a residential property. The last administration attempted to craft code revisions designed to keep private, residential properties from morphing into de facto businesses. Overton's facing the challenge of balancing the needs of neighbors with those of small businessmen.

The councilman is also trying to get his arms around another measure that could help address quality of life issues in residential neighborhoods. Some say the creation of a rental registry could provide teeth to code enforcers looking to investigate and prosecute landlords and tenants in illegally overcrowded homes. Prior efforts at creating a town wide rental registry failed years ago. Overton's studying registries in neighboring towns.

"I want to do it right," he said. "I want to make sure everybody has a chance to comment on it and that it's well vetted." He's hoping to have something in place for the light trucks before the summer season begins.

He's also eager to hear back from the Army Corps of Engineers regarding plans for erosion control in downtown Montauk. A promised study was supposed to be distributed before the end of 2013, but was delayed due to obstacles related to other Corps work on Fire Island. "I want to see it soon," the councilman said

As for that hectic first month, Overton said by February, "We're in a routine now."

Burke-Gonzalez

Burke-Gonzalez is enjoying her town hall routine so much, "It's sometimes hard to pull me away from here," she said from her office on the second floor. "I'm really blessed. I love my job and I love coming to work."

There's been a steep learning curve the newly-minted councilwoman admitted, especially as it pertains to the town airport. "That in itself is a full time job."

But Burke-Gonzalez jumped in feet first, and can already claim a major accomplishment. She convened a committee comprised of members of opposing factions who have been warring for years. "It was incredibly civil, respectful and productive," she reported. "We have people working together who have always been on competing sides of the issue . . . I knew it could be done."

Asked how she was given the challenge, Burke-Gonzalez said, "I volunteered for it. Right after Election Day, we all sat down with a list of departments and my hand was the only one that went up for the airport."

"It is an asset we need to invest in," the councilwoman said. Thanks to recent developments, the airport is also an asset that could derive new revenue. Last Thursday night, the board agreed to accept a proposal for advertising concession services that could mean revenue more than four times what has been collected in the past. Last year's budget called for $12,000 in revenue from the concession; Burke-Gonzalez found a company that bid $50,000 for the concession. That town could even garner more money after the set rate is collected.

While the town can view the airport as an asset, at the same time, officials must acknowledge the quality of life impacts from noise generated at the facility. Her committee will be studying noise data and abatement strategies. So far, she said "We've gotten tremendous positive feedback for our approach."

In addition to airport matters, Burke-Gonzalez is working to resurrect the town's senior advisory committee. She hopes to revise code provisions regarding noise and is working with Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc on taxi regulations. "We want those in play before the season starts," she said.

When it comes to code enforcement and prosecution, Burke-Gonzalez praised, "I'm really impressed with our town attorney's office. They're a smart group of folks and people are going to realize we mean business and we're going to deliver."

Overall, Burke-Gonzalez is excited about the future and the administration's potential. "We're going to make a difference . . . it's intoxicating."

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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