October 24, 2007
East Hampton Candidates Debate
For three hours candidates for local offices fielded questions from the audience . . . and each other. On Sunday the Concerned Citizens of Montauk hosted its 37th annual candidates forum, drawing a crowd of over 60 interested community members.
Interested government officials, too. Unusual this time were 'audience' questions from two members of the current town board. Councilwomen Pat Mansir and Deb Foster both hurled queries at Republican candidates. In fact, Foster began her moment at the center of attention with a statement that ran so long, CCOM members were moved to ask her, "What's your question?" Timekeeper Bill Akin turned the "Wrap it Up" sign away from the dais and towards the lame duck councilmember.
Foster targeted town board candidate and GOP party chair Bill Gardiner, criticizing him for doing nothing but mudslinging this campaign season. Urged to get to the point by the audience, Foster finally asked Gardiner if he would change the way the town uses the Community Preservation Fund. Gardiner said he supports CPF "wholeheartedly." But, he has been displeased with some decisions on certain CPF properties.
Councilman Pat Mansir also had a question. She asked both candidates for town supervisor, incumbent Bill McGintee and Republican Bill Wilkinson, to weigh in on the ongoing project using historic buildings donated by Adelaide deMenil to create a new town hall complex. Mansir said she's heard "a lot of negative" talk about the project, especially the estimated $5 million cost. "I'd like to know where it's coming from," she said.
The taxpayers, according to Wilkinson. He reported that folks he's meeting on the campaign trail continue to express doubts that the project will cost what town officials have predicted. They've said the project will cost $5 million, but community members and people in the trades have said, "You got to be kidding," the candidate said. McGintee defended the plan. In fact, he said people he meets on the campaign trail offer unanimous support for the proposal. He emphasized the town held ample public hearings on the project, and no one showed up to offer dissent.
Questions asked of Wilkinson dominated the forum. Wilkinson leaned toward Legislator Jay Schneiderman when asked about the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. An audience member derided, "You had to ask Jay what the LWRP was." Wilkinson said he was "not embarrassed" because he doesn't have all the answers. He is ashamed, he said, that government has done nothing to protect downtown Montauk from the perils of erosion. Wilkinson said he believes the use of hard structures to protect the shoreline is inappropriate in some areas and appropriate in others.
McGintee asserted that his administration has worked to protect areas threatened by erosion, hiring a professional to lobby both federal and state officials. In fact, he'd recently received news that Montauk would be included in an important study of the Long Island coastline.
On a similar theme, the candidates were asked how the town would react if a catastrophic storm hit and Montauk lost half its motels. McGintee said that under the current law, property owners could rebuild only a portion of their property. Wilkinson said he'd solicit input from the property owners, the business community and the Montauk Chamber of Commerce before setting forth a plan of action.
The notion of inclusion has been a hallmark of Wilkinson's campaign. He's stressed his decades of experience in the corporate world as well. Offering that representational government is "really messy," one audience member asked if Wilkinson sees town business as something he can "control from above." On the contrary, Wilkinson said, as shareholders are the priority of a corporation, taxpayers are the priority of town government.
Some audience members asked town supervisor and board candidates questions seeking simple yes and no answers. None of the candidates expressed support for using taxpayer money to build hiring halls. All weighed in against the Broadwater project that, if approved, would allow a mammoth liquid natural gas platform off the coast of Wading River in the Long Island Sound.
Only town board candidate Brian Gilbride, a Republican, offered any support for the incorporation of Montauk as a separate village. The notion of Montauk breaking away and incorporating as a village arose in 2004 soon after McGintee's first term in office began. All candidates were asked how they felt about Montauk Incorporated. Gilbride said that if the people of Montauk wanted it, he wouldn't interfere.
Wilkinson said that his very first conversations with local community members stemmed from the idea of incorporation. He reported that many Montauk residents feel like "second class citizens." If he's able to represent the interests of Montauk, he doesn't think incorporation would stay on the table. "I'll be damned if I become Town Supervisor and my own hamlet secedes," he said.
McGintee and Wilkinson both said they are against expansion of any kind of ferry service to Montauk.
Beyond Foster's excoriation of Gardiner, audience members posed scant queries to candidates for town board, Democrats Pete Hammerle and Julia Prince and GOP hopefuls Gilbride and Gardiner. Town Board veteran Hammerle was asked what has become of studies of the Montauk dock and downtown areas promised four years ago. They are in the hands of the town planning department, he said.
Town Assessor Eugene dePasquale sought opinions of a townwide reassessment. Prince said everyone she's spoken to is against the idea. "Until there is a public outcry or the state sues us . . . until we have to do it, I guess the answer is not right now," she said.
Gardiner said "Reassessment is like leaving a pie in the woods and expecting the bear not to eat it." Hammerle wants an assurance that "the little people" won't get hurt financially before he'd consider it. Gilbride explained that, in theory, a reassessment results in one third of the property assessments going up, a third going down and another third staying the same. That has not happened in other towns that performed a property reassessment. Something is "out of whack," he said.
If the state could find a way to protect senior citizens on fixed incomes, the most vulnerable victims of a reassessment, McGintee said he might consider it. Wilkinson reported that State Assemblyman Fred Thiele is working on just that. The tax increase would be deferred to the next generation. Even with that, he doesn't support a re-assessment.
Also on the dais Sunday was Legislator Jay Schneiderman who is running against Neil Tiger for another term. Tiger has not campaigned so far in the race, nor was he present in Montauk. Town Justice candidates incumbent Lisa Rana (R) and challenger Steven Tekulsky (D) agreed there's no need to add a third justice to the current roster. Tekulsky criticized the new town court building, because it is not equipped with ingress screening for safety.
Jill Massa (R) and Jeanne Nielsen (D) are both running unopposed for assessor. Diane McNally (R) and Francis Bock (D) offered comments for their Trustee slates.
Challengers Steve Lynch and Scott King are vying to head the town highway department. King, who is currently second in command in the department, felt there were too many issues to discuss adequately during the forum. He challenged Lynch to a separate debate. Lynch said he'd take the challenge "If I have the time."