June 14, 2006
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Supe Says Hiring Engineer Is "Huge Mistake" Tensions Mount Over Traffic Study

The mood was charged in Southold Town Hall as the town board chose a consultant for a traffic study, whom representatives from the Cross Sound Ferry believe has a major conflict of interest.

During its June 6 meeting, the town board voted to hire Steven Schneider, of Coram-based Schneider Engineering, PLLC, to conduct a "corridor transportation study" in Southold.

Only days before, The Traveler Watchman learned that Schneider had been hired by the Southold Citizens for Safe Roads organization, which has rallied against ferry traffic on area roads.

That was, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said at the time, a conflict of interest, and would make Schneider "ineligible for hire by the town."

The rest of the board, however, felt differently after hearing Schneider's proposal for a new, broader-scoped study that would analyze impacts of traffic growth not only in Orient, but throughout the entire Southold corridor.

When asked if still associated with SCSR, Schneider said no.

Schneider's findings would hold up in future litigation, said Assistant Town Attorney Kieran Corcoran, as long as "he does his job in a scientifically defensible manner."

Every board member voted to hire Schneider, except for Russell and Justice Louisa Evans, who was not present. Russell acknowledged the need for a townwide study and Schneider's "stellar" recommendations, but said he was "not prepared to vote for the retention of this individual."

Russell said a "complete understanding" of Schneider's proposal was needed before giving the green light. The supervisor suggested sending out a request for proposal for other consultants, but acknowledged time constraints.

Cost was also a factor in Russell's decision: Negotiations on a proposal presented by Patrick Cleary of Northport-based Cleary Consulting and Nelson & Pope Engineers ceased after the almost $100,000 fee was deemed too high. Councilman Tom Wickham suggested Schneider.

But Schneider's proposal could end up costing even more: The cost of the three-phased study is $80,000, and after six meetings, any additional time will be billed hourly, with the town paying for any additional "extraordinary expenses."

"The fact is that there was very little difference between the cost of the first and second study," said Russell. "It was clear to me that the second study was lacking so many components that it could realistically cost much more when all is said and done. Sooner or later, hiring (Schneider) will prove to be a huge mistake and I will be quick to remind the voters that I tried to stop it."

Wickham, said Russell, wanted the study "regardless of cost or quality, and he got it."

At the town board meeting, Freddie Wachsberger, president of Southold Citizens of Safe Roads, applauded the town board for acting on an initiative that was "long overdue for Southold Town."

Southold resident Alice Hussie was "incensed" at spending thousands when studies have already been generated by the New York State Department of Transportation: "The people pushing for this study want the ferry company diminished," she said.

Stan Mickus, director of marketing for CSF, questioned Schneider's objectivity, methodology, and the "perceived conflict of interest."

Mickus said that if the town conducted a comprehensive town-wide traffic study, the CSF would be willing to participate.

Councilman Dan Ross said he appreciated the offer but was sorry it had come "on the eve" of the vote and said the study should be town-driven.

The question of objectivity arose last week when the Traveler Watchman revealed Jeri Woodhouse, planning board chairperson, and Leslie Weisman, newly appointed member of the zoning board of appeals, once attended a SCSR pre-Easter fundraiser.

Weisman insisted she is not a member and attended the fundraiser, to which all local public officials were invited, for informational purposes.

"Obviously, we are concerned that certain members of town government and its agencies appear to have aligned themselves with a special interest organization, a partisan organization with a bias against Cross Sound Ferry which continuously disseminates false information and creates unwarranted ill will towards our company and the service we provide," said Mickus.

Southold has been engaged in litigation with the CSF as a result of the CSF's alleged failure to comply with an approved site plan that expired on August 1. The town is seeking an injunction to curtail the CSF's operating service to what it was in 1995.

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