Democrat vs. Democrat in Debate

Town board hopefuls mirror party split
Councilman David Lys, who hopes to hold on to his seat and win the Democratic primary, and David Gruber, who is challenging him for the Democratic nomination, debated the issues in an event sponsored by the East Hampton Group for Good Government on Tuesday. Durell Godfrey

They were both Democratic hopefuls, after all, and the criticisms and ­policy differences were articulated gently when East Hampton Town Councilman David Lys and David Gruber, a former chairman of the town’s Democratic Committee who is challenging him in next Thursday’s Democratic primary, met Tuesday night in a debate hosted by the East Hampton Group for Good Government. 

There is division in the party, however. Save for a very small group of East Hampton Republicans, who have nominated Manny Vilar to contest the town board seat to which Mr. Lys was appointed in January, the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton was filled with members of the Democratic Committee and of the East Hampton Reform Democrats, a group Mr. Gruber, who leads it, has described as a caucus within the party. 

Formed after the committee chose Mr. Lys over Mr. Gruber as its nominee for the seat vacated by Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc’s election to supervisor in November, the Reform Democrats are running a full slate of candidates for the Democratic Committee, a group that coalesced in the wake of an acrimonious process to select a successor to its chairwoman, Jeanne Frankl, who retired this year. 

Arthur Malman, the G.G.G.’s chairman, asked the candidates a series of questions. Despite his encouragement to interrupt one another as they saw fit, gentility was the clear winner; Mr. Gruber did not direct his frequent criticism of the town board directly at his opponent, nor did he make an issue of Mr. Lys’s recent change in party affiliation, from Republican to Democratic. Rather, he touted his longtime leadership of the party and suggested that the current 5-0 Democratic control of the town board “is because nobody has worked harder to achieve that than me.” He believes in the board’s policy positions, he told the audience, because he personally drafted them. 

That, he said, is what animates his candidacy. He became concerned in 2015, he said, that the party was “not achieving things we’d promised the community,” such as clean water, controlling noise related to East Hampton Airport, combating coastal erosion, and transparency in government. By last year, “I was no longer convinced the Dem­ocrats were able or willing to do what we’d been telling the community all these years.” That isn’t because they don’t want to, Mr. Gruber said; rather that they do not know how. “That’s why I’ve decided to run.”

Some, said Mr. Lys, a former member of the town’s zoning board of appeals, “have tried to create a false narrative” that he is not “a true Democrat.” Indeed, many of them were in the room as he repeated an assertion that his former Republican Party affiliation amounted to nothing more than following his father’s instruction when he registered to vote. He had “never acted on any political agenda” or attended a political function as a Republican, he said, and he is now aligned with the Democratic Committee. Mr. Lys, a founding member of Citizens for Access Rights and Paddlers for Humanity, listed strict environmental principals, planning foresight, and economic development among his priorities. 

In a broad criticism of the town board, Mr. Gruber said that East Hampton was not “a small town in a cornfield in Iowa,” but a unique place where it is “unrealistic that any five people could have background or expertise in the full range of problems we face.” The town should solicit expert consultants and tap its own “extraordinary human resources” to solve intractable problems, he said. It not only needs to have “a good consultant, you have to be a knowledgeable client to supervise, or you’re likely to get nothing useful. We don’t even have a knowledgeable client.” 

He cited aircraft noise and its impact on quality of life for many residents as an example. His political life began 20 years ago, Mr. Gruber said, when he joined Pat Trunzo, a former councilman who is seeking election to the Democratic Committee as a Reform Democrat, in working to enact noise restrictions. The town board ignored recommendations he made as chairman of the airport planning committee’s noise subcommittee, he said, and “the ultimate outcome is essentially a disaster.” A federal appeals court barred the town in 2016 from enforcing laws aimed at reducing aircraft noise, and the town is now engaged in a lengthy process to re-impose restrictions. 

“The opportunity Pat and I worked for, for close to 15 years . . . has been squandered by a town board that didn’t know what it was doing, and wouldn’t listen to people who do know, have expertise, and were pleading behind the scenes,” Mr. Gruber said.  

For his part, Mr. Lys agreed that aircraft noise is “a tremendous burden for many residents” and that it is up to the town board to control it. “I don’t think we should take closing the airport off the table,” he said. “Keep the pressure on.”

On the subject of poor cellphone reception in many parts of town, Mr. Lys said that “We deserve the best possible service” More cell towers are needed, he said, provided they are installed “with an eye to the character of neighborhoods.” He cited a little-known tower on the East Hampton Presbyterian Church as an example.

Mr. Gruber answered a question about reasonably priced housing with a mantra he applied to several topics: Assess the current state of affairs and then determine the desired outcome. “The comprehensive plan set a goal of 1,300 units of affordable housing to serve multiple purposes,” including for senior citizens, young working families, and the seasonal workforce, he said. “At the rate we’re currently going . . . it’s going to take 200 to 300 years” to achieve that goal. Collectively, we must assess the need, determine the price, and acknowledge that affordable housing will necessarily be denser than typical residential structures, and also acknowledge impacts on schools, the tax base, and water quality.”

“These are answerable questions if we get down to it,” he said. “There’s enough land in East Hampton if we have the political will.” 

The ongoing hamlet studies, Mr. Lys said, are informing an understanding and design of affordable housing. “We have to look at where we can put overlay districts” where such housing could be built, he said. But Mr. Gruber said that existing affordable housing overlays “have essentially failed. That’s what I mean when I say we’re just not getting things done.” 

Alongside the acute shortage of affordable housing, the town is failing its growing population of senior citizens who are financially squeezed by the high cost of living, and particularly of housing, Mr. Gruber said. “We’ve been talking about this for many years and have not been getting the job done,” he said. “We need to own that responsibility — if we’re not going to get the job done, we need to stop talking about it and tell seniors to make other plans. We’ve got to do one or the other, we cannot go forward year after year, making the same promises in the platform and not delivering. That’s why I’m here, doing this.” 

A brief back-and-forth on the thorny question of reassessment followed. Should it happen, Mr. Lys said, “I fear that longtime residents whose houses are assessed at $2,000 to $3,000 — their assessments will go up so high, because they live in a lovely place and have been here for generations — that they’ll lose their homes.”

“This is a political hot potato,” Mr. Gruber said. “We need a pilot study. How many people will be unable to stay? That might be a good use of [community preservation fund] money,” he said. 

The crowd of about 150 listened politely, and each candidate’s closing statement drew applause. The question for Democratic voters in next Thursday’s primary can be seen as a choice between a candidate who points to accomplishments in the eight months he has been on the board and asks for an opportunity to further prove himself while serving the final year of Mr. Van Scoyoc’s term, or an experienced party official who says the Democrats are floundering and promises competency and action.