Candidates Mix It Up at Mixer

Left to right: John Flaherty, president of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, Zach Cohen, Democratic candidate for East Hampton Town supervisor, Marina Van, the director of the chamber, and Bill Wilkinson, the Republican incumbent East Hampton Town supervisor, at a mixer last Thursday. Catherine Tandy

    Hoping to offer East Hampton voters the opportunity to get to know the candidates for town supervisor and town board in a non-partisan setting, the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce held a mixer at the Hedges Inn on Sept. 13, but despite an attempt to achieve neutral ground, the evening managed to highlight some of the polarization between Democratic and Republican candidates.
    That sharp contrast in perspective represents the overarching atmosphere of the entire election, Sylvia Overby, a Democratic candidate for town board, said at the mixer.
    Both Democrats and Republicans cite budgets, community programs, and the environment as key points where they differ with each other.
    Republican Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who won by a landslide in the 2009 election, faced a $27 million deficit when he entered the office, and immediately set his sights on dramatically reducing town government’s spending.
    While the town’s financial situation was dire when Mr. Wilkinson came into office in the wake of former Supervisor Bill McGintee’s alleged misuse and misallocation of the community preservation fund among other things, there has been increasing concern surrounding Mr. Wilkinson’s budget balancing methods as well.
    Some of that anxiety stems from what he touted as a $10-million “under-spent” 2011 budget, which reduced town employees and services (including the Highway Department’s fall leaf- pickup program). There is also concern over recently-passed legislation allowing East Hampton to borrow money through long-term bonds for an employee separation program. To critics, this decision begs the question of whether borrowing from the state is a viable solution or simply another debt by a different name.
    Mr. Wilkinson staunchly stands by his methods of righting the “sinking ship” that was East Hampton’s financial situation. “When I began to attend board meetings in 2005 and challenge what the board was saying, they were reporting their expenditures to the state but not to the public,” he said. “Basically they were spending 10 percent more than they were making.” The deficit predicted at the time “was far too small,” he said; he and his running mates predicted correctly that it would be much higher.
    When asked about trimming the budget and eliminating approximately 50 positions throughout East Hampton, Mr. Wilkinson said these were hard decisions that required sacrifice, but that he believes in the possibility of “doing more with less.”
    Ms. Overby said that the current administration’s decision to do away with certain “cherished” programs like the leaf pickup or the East Hampton Homework Club are not necessary or responsible sacrifices. Rather, these cuts are harming some of the community’s most fragile constituents, namely senior citizens and children, she said.
    “The cut of the Homework Club hits low-income working families,” she said. “There is a lot of pride here and people don’t always ask for help. There are still kids in East Hampton who will be the first [in their families] to go to college. The community is generous and helpful, but there are still serious pockets of need.”
    There are also a host of environmental and development issues, such as the town’s decision to sell Fort Pond House in Montauk, that Democratic candidates are seriously questioning. Yes, these are decisions that ostensibly made/saved money, but perhaps have cost the town something far more dear, Democrats say.
    “There is a human element that is missing,” said Ms. Overby. “Bill’s background is in business and that is geared for profit — it targets a small audience. There is a Republican idea that less government is better, but it’s also necessary to help the broadest group of people that you can.”
    Mr. Wilkinson said his résumé, which includes a position as senior vice president of human resources at Disney as well as his own consulting and executive search firm, gives him the credentials that are hallmarks of reliability and promises kept.
    Peter Van Scoyoc, Ms. Overby’s running mate for town board, said that the most poignant element of the upcoming election is the difference of perspectives in making choices about what is the “wise use of money.”
    The supervisor “promised to put the financial house in order,” he said. “But what is the real cost of that process and truly, what is government’s role? There are necessary services that the government provides and it’s easy to lose sight of that. There are some issues that should simply never be put on the table. What makes us different from the rest of the world are the beaches — that’s sacred,” he said. “This election is about the quality of life.”