Democrats in Three-Way Primary Debate Issues

Candidates agreed on a lot, though not everything
Jeffrey Bragman, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, and Zachary Cohen discussed issues at the East Hampton Library ahead of the Sept. 12 Democratic Party primary. Durell Godfrey

The three candidates vying for two seats on the East Hampton Town Board debated a number of issues Monday evening at the East Hampton Library, with a political newcomer who has the party’s backing repeatedly if gently attempting to draw a distinction between himself and the candidate who does not. 

Jeffrey Bragman, an attorney endorsed by the East Hampton Democratic Committee, discussed various topics with Zachary Cohen, a former candidate for supervisor and town trustee who did not receive the party’s endorsement but successfully petitioned to force a primary. Between them sat Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who was elected to the town board in 2013 and is in her first re-election campaign. 

For the most part, however, the three candidates were in sync, and were received warmly by an overflow audience that included Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who is retiring this year, and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who seeks to succeed him. The League of Women Voters of teh Hamptons and the East Hampton Group for Good Government sponsored the debate. 

The primary will be held on Sept. 12. The two candidates receiving the most votes will face the Republicans Jerry Larsen and Paul Giardina.

Asked about the long-range prognosis for downtown Montauk, where the Army Corps of Engineers’ effort to reinforce the shoreline dunes with buried sandbags has been widely criticized, Mr. Bragman said that Mr. Cohen, in an Oct. 10, 2013, letter to The Star, had endorsed the plan. While the letter did state that the bags “might give extra protection to the motel owners and frontline businesses,” Mr. Cohen argued that he had made that observation in the context of discussions with some of the hamlet’s leading business owners who were advocating “hard” solutions rather than a sand-only beach replenishment. 

Mr. Cohen’s letter agreed with expert testimony given that month, at a meeting of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, that a rock-cored dune was inadvisable. It said that sandbags “can be removed (or replaced) easily and with moderate expense if the Army Corps fails to perform its periodic sand replenishments.” 

In April 2014, the Army Corps offered geotextile bags as the only financially viable option. “Once the Army Corps did the bait-and-switch and dropped it down to only a small amount of sand, I wrote a letter that said ‘Now what is proposed is a steep hump with a sandbox in front of it, and we shouldn’t do it,’ ” Mr. Cohen told the crowd at the library.

To the question of whether the position of town manager should be created, Mr. Bragman was opposed. “I frankly think handling the purse strings and figuring out how your policies fit into those purse strings is something I want in the hands of somebody who’s accountable at election,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve heard, I think, from Mr. Cohen that he feels differently.”

“You need institutional knowledge which is often lost in change of administrations,” Mr. Cohen countered. “Having a manager gives you the opportunity to devote most of your time on the policy.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez observed that Mr. Cantwell’s assistant, Alex Walter, “had a great deal of managerial experience, so we were well suited to the changes we’ve made and the ways we’ve handled finances in the town.” Noting that Moody’s Investors Service Inc. had just upgraded the town to its highest bond rating ever, she said that “the next supervisor should make the decision” about a town manager. “If they move forward with the town manager, I would support that,” she added.

To a question about deer management, Mr. Bragman took a subtle jab at Mr. Cohen in the latter’s capacity as chairman of the town’s nature preserve committee. “I know there’s been criticism of the committee, that it’s stacked in favor of hunters, and I’ve heard from people who don’t favor hunting that they believe it’s not an objective, fair committee.” Whether a deer “problem” exists is uncertain, he said. “I want to move forward on all issues based on facts, not fear. I would also like to try to get us to stop shouting at each other a little bit. I think we make better progress when we talk to each other and listen to each other.” 

“The relationship between deer and tick-borne illnesses is much more complicated than to put it all on the deer,” Mr. Cohen said. While he has supported hunting as a means of managing the deer population, he pointed out that outreach to the State Department of Environmental Conservation with respect to nonlethal efforts such as immunocontraception has been ignored.

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez has likewise supported hunting, and said that tick-borne illness is an epidemic, but she opposed East Hampton Village’s recent effort to sterilize deer, calling it “a bit horrifying.” 

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez’s voice broke as she spoke of the town’s Latino population and undocumented immigrants’ fear of deportation. “When our new president . . . said that we could deputize our local police force to be immigration officers, folks were very fearful,” she said. “What we’re finding now is, the Latino Advisory Committee has not been meeting at Town Hall, because they’re not comfortable coming to our facility.” 

“The community is here to stay,” Mr. Cohen said, asserting that around 11 percent of the Democratic electorate is Latino. “They come to me and say, ‘We want to be part of the community.’ ”

“This is an issue that really matters here,” Mr. Bragman said, citing “good, hard-working neighbors who want only the same thing that anybody else wants, a chance to make a life and have a home and work hard.” Latino immigrants are “a tremendous asset to our town,” he said. “We have to be strong and say that East Hampton is not going along with crazy, biased policies and these horrible epithets that are used for these hardworking immigrants, just like my grandparents, just like your grandparents.” 

The candidates were united in their disappointment that an affordable housing complex planned for a town-owned parcel on Steven Hand’s Path in the Wainscott School District had met furious community opposition. The hamlet’s residents complained of an added burden to their school and their taxes, and said the complex would also add to the woes of the already degraded waters of Georgica Pond. “Everywhere I go people tell me the need for affordable housing,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “But unfortunately, when it gets proposed people really don’t want it in their neighborhood. . . . What I would ask is that we need to open our hearts and we need to move forward with more affordable housing for this community.” 

“One of the first things I would want to do is reopen the possibility of putting that there,” Mr. Cohen said of the Wainscott proposal. He cited a business owner who had shuttered her company, “not because she couldn’t find employees but that employees can’t find housing. . . . We’re losing our volunteer fire departments.” The town should review every available parcel, Mr. Cohen said, and create more affordable housing overlays, “and we need to keep working on the affordable accessory apartment law to make it work for more people.” 

“I never really bought the explanation about the school,” Mr. Bragman said. “I thought the pushback from the community was not credible . . . and I thought we should have pushed a bit harder on it, frankly.” 

The candidates offered qualified support for the proposed South Fork Wind Farm, a 15-turbine installation to be constructed about 30 miles off Montauk. The plan has drawn strong opposition from commercial fishermen, who fear its construction and transmission cable will disrupt or even destroy their livelihood. “It’s a legitimate concern that has to be examined through a careful, objective, transparent environmental review process,” Mr. Bragman said. He also advocated solar panel arrays in the town. “We have to have a multifaceted approach to the town’s energy needs.” 

“In general, it’s a wonderful idea,” Mr. Cohen said of offshore wind. “I do worry about several other things — I do not want to see solar displaced.” 

The three candidates were united in their desire for local control of the East Hampton Airport. The town board adopted curfews in 2015 in an effort to reduce noise, but an appeals court later struck down the restrictions. “Unfortunately, now we’re back to trying to get special legislation from our congressional delegation,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, “and we’re exploring a Part 161 process,” an analysis that airports must perform when proposing noise or operational restrictions on aircraft. The town board will discuss the process with attorneys at its Sept. 19 work session, she said.

Residents of Montauk are concerned that restrictions enacted at the airport will push helicopter flights to the smaller airport there, Mr. Cohen said. “We now have complaints running all the way from Wainscott to Montauk. . . . You also have to look at the fact that we not only have noise, we have a large amount of pollution caused by the planes. . . . We have to attack this problem from many aspects. Negotiations are definitely going to be part of it.”

“Public opinion caught up with what the facts were, and people began to realize that airport noise was harming thousands of people,” Mr. Bragman said. Helicopters “have no business in our community,” he said, and while the airport is an asset to the town, “if we can’t control it we may find that what used to be an extreme position in the community” — closing it — “becomes a majority position.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the Suffolk County League of Women Voters as a co-sponsor of the Democratic primary debate. The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and the East Hampton Group for Good Government.