At a League of Women Voters debate held Monday night at the LTV studio, in Wainscott, the Republican incumbent supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, and his Democratic opponent, Zachary Cohen, crossed swords over a number of issues. Among them were the East Hampton airport and the possibility of creating a new town manager job.
Everything remained cordial until the final moments of the debate, when Mr. Cohen began brandishing e-mails about his involvement in the town’s finances, both past and present, which he has said refuted Mr. Wilkinson’s claim that his participation was both unwelcome and unauthorized.
In his opening statement, Mr. Wilkinson stressed continuity in government, saying it was critical that the town maintain a sound financial footing, which he said his administration had created.
“We’re in a precarious and delicate position,” he said. The deficit left by the McGintee administration, he said, “has affected all of us and will for many years to come. But we are establishing appropriate spending for a town of our size, trimming government, implementing voluntary separations, and, yes, through some difficult decisions, prioritizing safety, seniors, and security to ensure the welfare of our residents.”
Mr. Cohen, who in 2010 served on the budget and finance advisory committee and has volunteered more than 1,000 hours of financial advice toward the unraveling of the budget problems, said that while Mr. Wilkinson had promised to do more with less, all he, Mr. Cohen, sees “is less. I don’t see the more. The Fort Pond House was taken away from the Boy Scouts, and is still for sale, a beach is threatened with privatization, the dump is closed on Wednesday. And last week, he decided to sell Poxabogue, which is well-loved and makes money. What do we have more of? We have more helicopter noise, more debt than was necessary, and loud nightclubs.”
The candidates were asked to discuss transparency in government. Mr. Cohen said trust was the most important element, but that ultimately trust is earned. He added that information about the community preservation fund should be made available to the public on the Internet.
“You must always tell the same story to the same people,” he said. “It’s not just about having an open-door policy. The leaders of this town need to go out into the community and act upon what they hear.”
Mr. Wilkinson countered that his actions speak louder than words. He has created Saturday work sessions, he said, that are held “not in a back room but in the main Town Hall.” He said his administration does post budgets, in accordance with “modern management,” which he first initiated as the director of human resources at Disney.
With regard to the controversial stretch of beach on Napeague and the lawsuits from oceanfront-property owners there, the candidates agreed that it was of the utmost importance to maintain public access to the beach.
“It isn’t just beach access,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “It’s also about the ability to drive on those beaches. There is nothing more indigenous then being able to drive on the beaches in Montauk.”
Mr. Cohen echoed those sentiments, saying he was in full support of public-access rights, and that at “the end of the day,” he would make sure the beach in question remains public.
Mr. Wilkinson went on to say that a resolution would be introduced at Tuesday’s town board meeting, and the issue would be “put to bed.” The next day, the board did pass a unanimous five-point resolution, pledging “full support to the aggressive defense of present pending lawsuits against the Town and the Trustees; and of future claims or attempts to wrest ownership, access, or control of the beaches from the public; including defense of the traditional rights of all user groups which comprise our community, including without limitation, pedestrians, quadrupeds, vehicles and fishermen.”
As to the East Hampton Airport, varying dates and consequences of lapsed grant assurances were discussed, as was the possibility of gaining more local control from the Federal Aviation Association.
Both candidates said the new control tower may increase safety significantly, as well as help reduce noise, but the question of whether or not the town should take F.A.A. money went largely unanswered.
Peter Kirsch, an attorney hired by the town who specializes in aviation law, has said that while federal money could pay up to 90 percent of capital improvements at the airport — a hefty weight off the shoulders of taxpayers — most federal laws would remain intact even if East Hampton turned down the grants.
Mr. Cohen said it pained him to see “someone else suffer while someone else gets a benefit. We definitely want to minimize that.” He said the control tower was a good example of finding a “common ground,” as well as a bipartisan effort, but that a thorough financial study of the airport’s being self-sustaining without federal money should be strongly considered.
Mr. Wilkinson praised Councilman Dominick Stanzione’s efforts to gather the “forces that be” to weigh in on the issue, and said the new control tower would have a positive impact on a 10-mile airspace surrounding it, in regard to helicopters. The airport is a precious asset to the community, said the supervisor, and brings in more than “$12 million annually and providing more than 91 jobs.”
Finally, when asked if the creation of a town manager position would be a helpful addition to town government, the candidates revealed they were in agreement that this was not the right model to pursue.
Mr. Wilkinson said that while he hasn’t dismissed the idea entirely, the town’s affairs are too tumultuous to be handed over to someone else mid-stream. As town supervisor, he explained, “You also become the C.E.O.,” and must oversee the police force, the lifeguards, the Parks Department, and all the rest. A town manager is not “an elixir by its own name,” he said.
While Mr. Cohen largely agreed, he also offered an alternative, to eliminate the budget officer position and use that money for an administration assistant, allowing the town supervisor to research varying issues in depth with the additional help.
The debate then devolved into an aggressive back-and-forth between the two candidates. Mr. Cohen began thrusting e-mail after e-mail of “evidence” into Mr. Wilkinson’s hands, which he said outlined his involvement with the town’s finances, and Mr. Wilkinson scoffed that Mr. Cohen shouldn’t mistake “graciousness for interest. Anybody that can’t entertain disparate thoughts shouldn’t be running town government,” he said.