Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming of Noyac, the Democratic candidate for state senator from the First District, debated the Republican incumbent, Senator Kenneth P. LaValle of Port Jefferson, on Monday night in East Hampton. Fierce competitive tension could be seen and felt during the discussion, which was focused on dollars and sense.
Ms. Fleming, formerly a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and chief of a unit investigating fraud in public programs, repeatedly challenged the 36-year incumbent’s expenditures. Mr. LaValle defended his record and accused his opponent of presenting inaccurate facts.
Ms. Fleming called Mr. LaValle “the number-one spender” in the Senate, citing over $500,000 for office expenses in a recent six-month period, including, she said, “$140,000 in self-serving campaign-style mailers.” She called it a “cynical abuse of our taxpayer dollars.”
“I hope you did the crossword puzzle,” was the senator’s response. One of his mailers had one in it.
After Mr. LaValle denied being the Senate’s highest spender, Ms. Fleming invited the audience to view her Web site for her sources, “compiled by a nonpartisan group, current to October.”
The evening’s topics came from the audience, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, and the questioners, Judy Samuelson of the League, and David E. Rattray and Bryan Boyhan, editors of The East Hampton Star and The Sag Harbor Express. Carol Mellor, a past president of the League, was the moderator. Mr. Rattray also wondered about Senate expenditures. “The state legislature spent $100 million this year,” he said. “Did someone not get the memo that we are in a recession?”
Mr. LaValle defended his “distinctive record” on tax relief, jobs, and economic development, citing the recent integration of the Stony Brook Medical Center and Southampton Hospital, which he said will result in “good health care for people of the South Fork, and jobs to follow.”
“Being a legislator is about planning,” he said.
The senator said his chairmanship of the state’s Higher Education Committee had led to Stony Brook University’s acquisition of the Southampton campus, which he said would be an “economic development engine” as well as an improvement in education.
Ms. Samuelson asked the candidates about consolidating school districts to save on costs. “Do you support such action?” she asked. Mr. LaValle said he was pleased with the 18 months of meetings that resulted in the merger of the Eastport and South Manor districts, and also mentioned the merger some Cutchogue on the North Fork. He said he had tried to accomplish this in East Hampton as well, “but the district said no, we don’t want to do it.”
“I have been in the forefront,” he said. “Just today . . . I was trying to get Tuckahoe and Southampton to consider that.”
With the 2-percent property tax cap, he suggested, districts might feel more pressure to consolidate in such areas as transportation, lunch programs, and instructional staff.
Ms. Fleming called consolidation “a very good idea,” but added that “as a mom of a fourth grader who spends every weekday in a morning program in the gym,” she understands how hard it is for parents to give up control. For a vote on consolidation to succeed, she said, it would be necessary to offer better services for schoolchildren.
The East End is “property rich, tax poor,” said the councilwoman — considered affluent, in fact, under a state formula that expects it to contribute more than other districts. “The formula deprives us of our own funding,” she said. “We send it to Albany and we simply don’t get back our fair share to our classrooms.”
Mr. Boyhan posed another school-finance question, asking about lifetime benefits and pension reform for employees. Ms. Fleming said reform was necessary, and that she has been working with success on benefits and pensions as they affect Southampton Town employees. “We can’t expect the middle class to shoulder Wall Street excesses,” she said. “A lot of pension funds suffered.” Remarking that pension costs have soared, she said “fraud and waste is a good place to start.”
Mr. Rattray asked the candidates about the 2-percent tax cap’s sustainability and fairness. “I voted for that reform and that relief,” Mr. LaValle responded. With a $13 billion deficit, he said, “I wanted to reduce taxes . . . sharing services is the first step that needs to be taken.” Both candidates said maximum state aid was necessary to make the cap work, and Ms. Fleming said it had had “a real effect on discipline at the local level,” both in educational and governmental institutions.
Speaking of noise from low-flying planes and helicopters, “Is it time to sue?” asked Mr. Boyhan. Mr. LaValle replied that a recent letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for an Atlantic route in addition to the present one over the North Fork, was the answer. Officials from all the East End towns signed the letter.
Ms. Fleming disagreed that a letter was the answer. She has asked the Southampton Town attorney to explore the possibility of a lawsuit, she said. Helicopter noise affects her own neighborhood in Noyac, she said, and “It is a burden we can no longer sustain.”
She suggested that curfews be imposed on the flyovers as well as a higher altitude. She has worked on those solutions with Southampton Supervisor Ana Throne-Holst and Councilwoman Christine Scalera, she said, with an eye to litigation.
The talk turned from economics to the environment when Mr. Rattray asked about Albany’s role in coastal erosion and rising sea levels. The First District’s exposure is the largest in the state.
“Beach lines have moved,” said Ms. Fleming. “We have to be responsive to man-made structures and the concerns of property owners.” Southampton Town is currently exploring coastal erosion within a taxing district, she noted, although “I have not decided how I am going to vote” on the very large project, there being “no guarantee that it will work or if it may have an environmental impact.” Sea level rise is a different question, she said, involving overall watershed management and the local waterfront revitalization program.
Mr. LaValle said global warming and renewable energy has begun to be addressed at Brookhaven National Laboratory, with a large solar energy project there.
Ms. Samuelson wanted the candidates’ views on campaign finance reform. Mr. LaValle said he favored “regulating super PACs that have gotten out of control.”
“We will spend two billion dollars on this presidential election,” he said.
Ms. Fleming said unlimited, undisclosed spending was “so destructive to the fabric of the democratic process . . . we have to take action.” She said she has sponsored legislation to ask the state to overturn Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case holding that corporations and unions can make unrestricted political contributions. “The real issues are being obscured,” she said. “People who are legitimate candidates with good ideas are suppressed because of money . . . we certainly aren’t going to get good government out of it.”
“We deserve leaders that are outraged by scandals in Albany and do not see them as business as usual,” the councilwoman added. She said she wants more for the East End: plenty of jobs, good schools, and a healthy economy. “Young people go elsewhere . . . due to steady tuition hikes over the last 36 years,” she said, “and businesses have left due to high electricity rates.”
“The Senator is a leader in a broken system,” she concluded.
Mr. LaValle repeatedly mentioned his record, including his work with State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. that brought “fiscal integrity to the town of East Hampton’s finances” and preserved “much land in the town of East Hampton.”
If elected, Ms. Fleming would be the first female state senator from Suffolk County.