Down to Wire Go the Runners For Top Prize

Cohen and Wilkinson: two views on leadership
Bill Wilkinson, left, and Zach Cohen
Bill Wilkinson, left, and Zach Cohen

    Despite the political acrimony so prevalent in the final weeks of the campaign season, the candidates for East Hampton Town Supervisor stuck pretty much to the issues when they met at The East Hampton Star last Thursday to discuss their platforms, their plans, and the future of East Hampton as it emerges from financial crisis.
    Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, a Republican running on the Conservative and Independence Party lines, is seeking  his second term against Zach Cohen, a Democrat.
    Asked to look beyond the town’s current financial situation now that the deficit-financing bonds are in place and to consider whether some popular programs that were cut might be reinstated, Mr. Wilkinson said, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s never a good time to take your eye off the ball. . . . Unfortunately, you can slip back in very easily. You have to take care of the town’s money like it’s your own checkbook.”
    Now is a time to “move into other things within the organization, that we have to make enhancements to,” he said, pointing to the importance of “performance management.” Town employees should have goals, a timetable in which to achieve those goals, and “measurements and assessments against those goals.”
    The supervisor also said the community has to be rebuilt after the financial blow it was dealt, and part of that is including “disparate thought.” East Hampton, he said, still ranks third in the state in debt per capita.    
    Mr. Cohen said he has been pushing to minimize the debt the town  assumes because of his concern about its ability to finance capital projects down the road. Although he acknowledged that cuts were necessary, he said, “You have to realize that quality of life has value itself, when you look at ‘do you cut a program or don’t you cut a program.’ ”
    People may be willing to shoulder more taxes to reinstate certain programs, said the Democrat. “You pay out of both pockets . . . if you lose a service and have to pay out of your checkbook for it.”
    He would look at whether the private sector picked up where the town stepped away, and examine what it cost people to lose those services. “Are there needs that didn’t get covered?”
    Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged that in ightening the financial belt, “we cut the budget to a lot of social agencies in this town,” but said that “a new public-private partnership paradigm” had emerged from it. The town board had been criticized for approving the controversial MTK festival, originally proposed for Amagansett, then moved to the East Hampton Airport, and ultimately canceled due to poor ticket sales. But MTK offered an opportunity to support local charitable organizations, Mr. Wilkinson said. The organizers of the aborted two-day music festival had promised $100,000 to various local charities, he noted.
    “I knew damn well we’d have traffic tied up. But those charities could have used $100,000,” Mr. Wilkinson said. He learned from that, he said, adding that part of a supervisor’s role is to “bring your body of knowledge to a position and hope that what you’ve learned in the past” helped you make better decisions.
    Mr. Cohen said it was important to get input from others. “The wisdom resides in the people,” he said. He admitted there were times when a supervisor had to act unilaterally, but said he preferred a system that sees action as consensus.
    Both candidates discussed the subject of employment. Mr. Wilkinson said he would like to do more to brainstorm about “high-tech, low-density” year-round jobs for the community. “In the next cycle,” he said, the town had to focus on lobbying for business opportunities.
    “If the finances are in order, that should give us the opportunity to take up some long-range planning,” Mr. Cohen said. Jobs are one thing, but jobs that pay enough for people to live here are another, he added. He said there should also be a focus on affordable housing and improved regional transportation for workers who cannot afford to live in East Hampton.
    Down the road, “I’m very concerned that our biggest problems could be related to water,” Mr. Cohen said, pointing to erosion and pollution.
    Mr. Wilkinson had the same concerns. He said he was frustrated by the scope of the Army Corps of Engineers Fire Island-to-Montauk Reformulation study, which looked at erosion and shoreline protection issues but fell short when it came to anything in the easternmost part of the study area, particularly in Montauk. “They basically said downtown Montauk did not support the amount of money required to shore that area up.”
    In Montauk, where the downtown is two to five feet above the water table, he said he has been pushing for years for sewage treatment and trying to convince people that the associated water-quality issues should be separated from any potential zoning issues.
    As a recent success, the supervisor pointed to the reorganization of the Lake Montauk Technical Advisory Committee, which draws its members from sometimes disparate organizations and interests, all of whom are, he said, now working together to improve the health of the lake.
    In response to a question, Mr. Wilkinson, who has held two business summits and a deer summit, said he would consider an environmental summit as well, but added, “I don’t want to be the summit czar.”
    Talk is good, Mr. Cohen said, but after that, one has to take action. He said there were some practical ways of controlling deer that were discussed at the deer meeting but never acted upon. For example, the deer population could have been reduced had the town helped two or three neighbors agree to combine their lands into the legally required 10 acres to allow for hunting. “We wanted a lawyer to draw a draft agreement, but nothing ever happened,” he said.
     Both candidates spoke about the planning and zoning application process, acknowledging that many people are frustrated by the slow pace of review for new projects. The Democrats “have said that the level of planning should match the complexity of the issue and the impacts to the community,” Mr. Cohen said. There are some proposals that should only require administrative review, he said. For instance, an applicant shouldn’t incur $22,000 in consulting costs to put in a $26,000 freezer.
    Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Cohen then talked about their varying views on the autonomy of appointed boards and how much their decisions should reflect the wishes of the town board majority.
    “I’ve always looked at recruiting people that have smart minds,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I’ve never intervened . . . I’ve only said I’m unhappy with the pace of play. I’m only concerned about process; I’m never concerned about outcome.”
    “We are not orchestrating a new path to Venus,” he said. “We have templates. Don’t frustrate the resident. If you’re going to say no, say no up front or give them a time period. I have been unhappy with residents saying, ‘I’m getting killed in the process. It cost me $80,000 and six years.’ We’ve got to set targets. I don’t care about the outcome. Say no to everybody, but be efficient.”
    “You have to be asking, ‘Are you still ensuring that the community is protected in the outcome?’ What might look like inefficiency to the applicant might be because of potential risks,” said Mr. Cohen. In the past two years, he claimed, there has been “at least the appearance of the interference of town board members” with the workings of the appointed boards.
    Asked if they thought residents might prefer to pay more in taxes and not be in debt rather than have taxes lowered via long-term borrowing, Mr. Wilkinson was the first to answer.
    “We have only borrowed to cover $23 million of the deficit and used surplus to pay that downward,” he said. “We’ve appropriated the right amount of surplus for 2012 based on the state comptroller’s recommendation. That being said, there have been a significant number of people saying they cannot afford a tax increase.”
    During the McGintee administration, Mr. Wilkinson said, he talked about the loss of the town’s surplus, and in the last election, he warned that the deficit would be far higher than the $15 million first mentioned. “Everybody was fat, dumb, and happy,” the supervisor said. “And then they were hit with two tax increases. These people have been burdened by a government that was too big.”
    Mr. Cohen took issue with many of Mr. Wilkinson’s remarks, especially with regard to the budget and financial advice from the state comptroller’s office, which he insisted is merely a guiding line. “Approval by the state controller doesn’t mean you’re doing really good finance,” he said. “It just means you’re not doing bad finance . . . something that might really imperil the town.”
    In terms of taxes, Mr. Cohen said the “best tax breaks are when you don’t eliminate a service and create a new efficiency in government. . . . But when you eliminate a service you have to ask what value did that have to the people who got a tax break?” In some cases, the people who got the least amount of tax relief were the ones most harmed by the cuts, he said.
    “I don’t like making cuts,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I would love to have not inherited a financial disaster that was on the verge of bankruptcy.”