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Island profile: Amber Williams, counting on Shelter Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO |  Amber Williams outside her Island home near West Neck Harbor.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Amber Williams outside her Island home near West Neck Harbor.

Amber Williams, without a shred of irony or self-consciousness, said, “I’ve known I wanted to be an accountant since I was 16.”

She also wants to be on the Shelter Island Town Board and if the intelligence, accomplishment and determination that have marked her life so far are any indication, she may achieve that goal too.

The woman who says she was born to be an accountant has lived and worked on Shelter Island for 23 years and raised two daughters here. She and her husband, former Town Supervisor Art Williams, are no longer spouses, but still partners in A&A Williams, a company they founded in 1993 after leaving city life behind to start a family.

For the first half of her life, she was Amber Brach and grew up in Rochester, New York, the oldest of three sisters. Her father was a pharmacist and when she was 2 years old, the whole family moved to the Panama Canal Zone where civilian workers like her dad were needed. For 2 years they lived the life of the tropics (“bugs in the bathtub”) and by the time they returned, Amber had developed a life-long dislike of cold weather.

When your childhood dream is to keep track of money, you need some to work with. At age 12, Amber started picking fruit at a farm across the street from her family’s housing development. The pay was only 3 or 4 cents per pound, but she was too young for a minimum wage job.

“I picked my weight in cherries and made $4 for a day, ” she said.

She chose Binghamton University for its excellent accounting program and after graduating got a job at Deloitte Touche in Manhattan, then one of the “Big Eight” public accounting firms.

Amber was a standout at Deloitte. Each year one employee was sent to the executive MBA program at Wharton. Amber was chosen and got her degree in 1992.

She met Art Williams at Deloitte. Both lived in the city and in 1985, after dating for a few months, he invited her to his family’s home on the Island for a weekend.

When she arrived on a Saturday after three hours on the train, Art’s mother met her at the ferry and took her to their farmhouse on Baldwin Road. There her future mother-in-law handed her a rake, pointed to the yard and said, “We’re working in this area.” Art waved to her from a tractor.

Amber raked. “I had worked on a farm, and I thought, O.K., this is what we are doing,” she said. “At that point, they knew, ‘We don’t have a prima donna here.’”

During her second visit to the Island, a Memorial Day weekend, she began to understand it would be a special place for her. She spent the first half in the Hamptons in a house with a crew of girlfriends, going to parties and bars.

Then Art arrived to take her to a birthday party on Shelter Island, with attendees ranging from an 8-year-old to an 88-year-old. She felt the pull of family and community. “I thought, this is a really unique place, really special.”

In the late 1980s Amber’s work at Deloitte put her in the thick of the overhaul of the savings and loan industry, with profound changes in laws and procedures, along with multiple acquisitions and mergers. Work was the center of her life until the sudden death of a close friend and colleague in his 30s — a professional catastrophe as well as a personal one.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, Amber and her colleagues worked 90-hour weeks to keep up. She promised herself, “If I drop below 100 pounds, I‘m not going back to work until I gain weight.” In the end, the loss of their friend was the catalyst she and Art needed to step away from the fast track life and move to the Island.

In 1993, they renovated the chicken coop on the farm where Art’s mother still lived and opened their accounting firm, buying out the practice of Patty Payne who was ready to retire.

Their daughter, Ivy, was born in 1994 and Felicity in 1997. Both girls attended the Shelter Island School through the middle school years and finished high school at the Peddie School in New Jersey, where Art had gone as a child.

Amber served on the School Board from 2000 to 2004, helping to change the way voting for new members was handled. Before the adoption of “at large” voting, a candidate had to identify the sitting Board member they wanted to replace.

The candidate didn’t need the most votes, just more votes than the Board member they challenged. Amber said, “It made the races more prone to personal attacks instead of about what each candidate thought they brought to the table.” The process was changed, and now the top vote getters are elected whether they are challengers or incumbents.

Since 2002, Amber has served as treasurer for the Fire District, where she prepares and monitors the annual budgets, including the presentation of monthly budget reports. She also served on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, is now a trustee of Our Lady of the Isle, has served as chairwoman of the Island’s Republican Committee and is now treasurer.

She was one of nine people under consideration to complete the term of Councilman Ed Brown, who stepped down at the end of 2015. The Town Board appointed Mary Dudley in a unanimous decision. Ms. Dudley will be up for election in November.

Amber said she’ll run for Town Board in November as a Republican, but for most of the important local issues, she doesn’t see much of an ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants to keep taxes down; small government is what everybody wants,” she said. “Property rights, water and the environment, these things people come together on.”

And how would she contribute? “The first thing that comes to mind is the financial side,” she said. “I’m good with numbers.”

She said that the town’s budget process in past years has been “loose.” “This past budget was the best in a while, because [Supervisor Jim Dougherty] had Art nipping at his heels,” she said, referring to Art Williams’ unsuccessful challenge last November against Mr. Dougherty.

As for the relative dearth of women serving on the Town Board, a question that was raised last fall when the board considered the interim appointees, Amber is less concerned about the gender balance than about the number of retired people who are members of the Board.

“I’m starting to worry that you need to be retired to run,” she noted. “That’s a bigger problem. It’s good to have working people on the board.”

She admits she’s not comfortable with public speaking, but was impressed as a child by seeing people get up in church to read. “I viewed it as a kind of a leadership,” she said.

Years later, about the time she became pregnant with her first child, she was asked to be a lector at Our Lady of the Isle. “It was a little out of my comfort zone, but I thought it would be good for me,” Amber said. “Then, when I was nine months along and couldn’t even get close to the lectern, I wondered, ‘Can anyone hear me?’”