The four candidates for East Hampton Town Board and the unopposed supervisor candidate, Larry Cantwell, squared off at a debate sponsored by the Group for Good Government on Saturday at East Hampton’s Emergency Services Building.
Dominick Stanzione, an incumbent town board member, and Fred Overton, the outgoing town clerk, who have both been endorsed by the Republican, Independence, and Conservative parties, faced former councilman Job Potter and a newcomer, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who have been endorsed by the Democratic and Working Families parties. Mr. Cantwell has the backing of the Democratic, Independence, and Working Families parties.
With the exception of Mr. Overton, who said he was not convinced of the need for a town manager, the candidates tended to agree that the time has come for the town to embrace the idea.
“The town will be better served with a town manager, so the town board members can spend more time on policy and less time counting pencils,” said Mr. Cantwell, who filled a similar role as East Hampton Village administrator. Someone taking care of day-to-day business might attract a broader spectrum of people to run for town government, he added.
Mr. Stanzione said he was a supporter of the position as well. “I’m convinced that much of our politics and our administration have failed” because town board members are unable to focus on more important issues like developing a capital budget or wastewater management plan.
Responding to submitted questions that were often complex and detailed, the candidates all agreed, for instance, that tackling the problem of wastewater created by private septic systems was a pressing issue and that a hypothetical situation in which a third of the town’s septic systems needed to be replaced would be, as Mr. Cantwell said, “close to a crisis,” requiring extraordinary resources that would likely have to come from the federal and state level to remedy the problem.
Mr. Potter said that a starting point for protecting the groundwater would be to use some of the $42 million in the town’s Community Preservation Fund to buy undeveloped land. He added that if the town needs to replace septic systems, it should prioritize those near its harbors and bays.
All candidates agreed that better code enforcement is needed. At a series of community meetings held by the Democrats, the lack of code enforcement was a major concern, according to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez. As a Springs resident, she said she understood firsthand those concerns. When quality of life is allowed to deteriorate, property values decline, she said. “We are going to need the equity in our homes to send our kids to college and retire.” She called for more staff and a top-down insistence on better enforcement.
Mr. Cantwell envisions the town attorney’s office, Building Department, Code Enforcement, fire marshal’s office, and the Police Department “working together in a cohesive coordinated effort to enforce quality of life issues.”
There was general consensus on how the town should deal with nonconforming businesses in residential areas as well.
“The principal of nonconforming zoning is that type of business will probably go away. In some cases, that is a good idea,” said Mr. Potter. He said, though, the time has come for the town to assist “those businesses that really do fit in to make their lives a little easier.”
Mr. Stanzione said the whole notion of noncomforming properties had “outlived its usefulness. We have to give our businesses some assurance that they have a place in our community,” he said.
Mr. Cantwell called for a comprehensive review that would provide “established businesses the flexibility to reinvest.” He added, though, that truly bothersome businesses, such as nightclubs in quiet neighborhoods, need to be eliminated.
Addressing the airport, Mr. Stanzione said the current administration had re-established a working relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration, completed a master plan, and brought in a seasonal control tower.
In the past year, noise complaints are down 66 percent regionally and 20 percent in town, he said. “We have made progress, everybody would have to agree with that. Have we made enough? I think everyone would agree we have not made enough.”
He said the steps the town has taken prove it is possible to accept F.A.A. funding and still maintain local control over the airport.
“I think this is where Dominick and I disagree,” responded Ms. Burke-Gonzalez. She said the town should let the current F.A.A. grants expire and complete the necessary studies to allow it to establish a curfew and even limit the types of aircraft using the airport. She said she realized the town would eventually face a $7 million to $10 million repaving project, but said she would be willing to revisit seeking F.A.A. funding in the future, once local control was secured.
Mr. Potter agreed that the town should stop accepting F.A.A. money until it completes noise studies, and he chided Mr. Stanzione, who has been accused by other board members of withholding information about airport management, when he said it was important that the entire board know what is being spent at the airport. “It doesn’t seem like the town board is aware of what kind of bills have been rung up,” he said.
Mr. Cantwell said the federal laws that come with operating an airport do not go away if the town stops accepting F.A.A. funding. If the town adopts restrictions, “they must meet a legal standard,” he said. He said the airport is an asset to the town but acknowledged “a growing footprint of noise impacting more and more people” and questioned whether the reduction in complaints Mr. Stanzione cited was not just because people had given up.
Mr. Overton called for common sense solutions and said he was solidly in favor of federal funding if the F.A.A. was “going to pay 90 percent to make the airport safe.”
Federal funding for an Army Corps of Engineers erosion-control project in downtown Montauk was also discussed, with the Democrats generally agreeing they would prefer a “soft solution” that would focus on beach renourishment. Only Mr. Overton came out in favor of constructing bulkheads and other hard structures to protect property. “I would personally favor the hard structures with the engineered beach,” he said. “I think it would give us the best protection for the money.”
“This project will be decided by this town board, not the next town board. That’s the time crunch we are under,” Mr. Stanzione said. “We put at risk our getting any funding if we choose a project that is too expensive.” He said the Army Corps factors in lifetime costs and “the hard rock alternative is the least expensive and most likely to achieve approval.”
When asked about whether the town should pierce the 2-percent spending cap or consider issuing bonds while interest rates are low, Mr. Overton responded, “We have been under a fiscal emergency for the past four years. I would not at all consider breaking the . . . cap.” He did say he would be willing to borrow money for major town projects.
Mr. Stanzione agreed that the cap should not be pierced. “We, as a community, are just now getting our feet on the ground as far as fiscal management,” he said. He also stressed the need to limit long-term borrowing as well.
Pointing out that the town has a $69 million budget and $96 million in debt, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, “I don’t think the town is in a position to borrow any more money or exceed the cap.”
Mr. Cantwell, who will be the town’s chief financial officer, praised current Supervisor Bill Wilkinson on this front. “He got the town back on sound financial footing,” he said, noting that Mr. Wilkinson brought in a competent staff and created and executed his emergency financial plan well. “The truth is we paid a price for that,” he said of the fiscal crisis, “and that’s not Bill’s fault.”
Asked if the town should undertake a townwide reassessment, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the time was not right. “At this juncture, we have so many other critical issues that we have to deal with, it’s not something that I could see the town board addressing in the next couple of years,” she said.
Mr. Cantwell called the system archaic, but said he did not think it was realistic for the town to undertake what he estimated would be a $4 million to $5 million project in the near term.
“When you say reassessment, everyone cringes, especially the councilpeople because they know that’s the end of their jobs,” said Mr. Overton, a former assessor. “Working in the assessor’s office opened my eyes. We need a town reassessment program. We can’t have residents of Springs paying more in real estate taxes than someone on Lily Pond Lane.
When it comes to providing affordable housing, Mr. Cantwell said the town needs to explore partnerships with nonprofits to undertake more projects like the affordable apartments for seniors at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett. Mr. Potter said the town should consider buying modest houses as they come on the market to resell them to young families.”
“We’ve done everything we could to make it hard and expensive to live in East Hampton,” said Mr. Stanzione. “We’ve spent half a billion dollars to buy land so people don’t come here. Now we are dealing with the fact that we can’t afford to live here, so we’ve priced ourselves out of the market.”