Asked what spurred her decision not to run for four more years on the Shelter Island Town Board after serving 16 years, Christine Lewis said: “Always leave them laughing.”
It was a typical response from Ms. Lewis — witty, wise and self-deprecating.
Her service to Shelter Island is in no way typical. Her spirit, intelligence and dedication to making this a better place for everyone, young and old and all income levels, made her the conscience of the Town Board and beloved among her constituents.
During 12 of her years on the board, she carried extra responsibilities as deputy supervisor.
Previous to her work at Town Hall, she spent 12 years on the Board of Education.
Adding to that significant record of public service, Ms. Lewis has made plans to volunteer in the years ahead as a member of the Senior Citizens Foundation and as an adviser to the Community Housing Board.
For all she’s done to serve her hometown in the past, and for her ongoing dedication to the community, Ms. Lewis has been named the Shelter Island Reporter Person of the Year.
‘I’ve never not had a job’
Caring for others came naturally to Ms. Lewis, who was a nurse for 50 years. She downplays her career (of course), saying only, “As a nurse, I have decent communication skills.”
As a public official, it was more than communication that made her special, said former Town Board colleague Ed Brown. To know why she will be missed, he added, you only have to look at her accomplishments.
Her knowledge and negotiating skill during labor negotiations; her calmness, clarity and strength during fractious public meetings; her representation of the Island’s seniors; and the myriad other contributions she continues to make, are keyed to her accessibility, Mr. Brown said. The two would talk daily, he noted, about issues facing the town.
When it comes to preserving our heritage, Ms. Lewis has always been out front. She was among the leaders who pushed for restoration of the Smith-Taylor Cabin on Taylor’s Island when the Town Board was dragging its feet on deciding whether to preserve the historic structure for community use.
She spearheaded the effort to limit development on the Ram Island Causeway and promoted construction of the Highway Building at the Recycling Center.
Through the years, she’s served on a long list of town committees, including grants, the EMS Advisory Board, the Ferry Study Committee, Building and Grounds and Police Department Advisory Committee. With the rest of the Town Board, she served as a police commissioner.
On boards and committees and in her other services to the community, her compassion shone brightly, especially in her leadership to make Crescent Beach accessible to people with disabilities.
Mr. Brown’s advice to his friend and former colleague as she embarks on the next stage of her life is to take a bit of time for herself before jumping into volunteer assignments.
But that might be advice she’ll ignore, Mr. Brown said.
There’s a pile of books she hasn’t had time to read and hopes in “retirement” to catch up with them, Ms. Lewis said.
“I’ve never not had a job,” Ms. Lewis said, “but things will come along.”
“She’s been the best,” said Laurie Fanelli, the coordinator of senior services for the town. “She’s the reason I’m here.”
When Henrietta Roberts announced that she was stepping down in 2016 after 21 years, it was Ms. Lewis who “roped” Ms. Fanelli into applying for the job.
“She’s so genuine,” Ms. Fanelli said.
Although Ms. Lewis will no longer represent the Town Board as liaison to the senior community, she plans to work with the urgent care committee exploring ways to bring medical care to seniors at hours when the two resident doctors’ offices are closed. She’ll also be a resource for Ms. Fanelli in shepherding requests through the Town Board.
“There are a lot of sad and lonely situations and we have to be the village that takes care of its older people,” Ms. Lewis said. “They really are a very vital group of people.”
Asked what her greatest disappointment has been in her years working with seniors, Ms. Lewis said it was the inability to get another small vehicle to transport the elderly. It’s important to have a smaller vehicle to transport seniors who can no longer drive so their freedom is not taken away
But her work will see fulfillment 20118, Ms. Fanelli said, when the purchase is finally on the books.
Moving policy forward
Those who worked with her during her many years on the board speak of her efforts to function as more than just a liaison to various committees, by taking an active role in moving policy forward.
When Ms. Lewis became liaison to the Community Housing Board (CHB) — still discussing how to bring affordable housing to the Island — she met with East Hampton officials to discover how they’ve built reasonably priced rentals in the community by developing a public-private partnership with area businesses.
She met with tenants and discovered the opportunities housing opened to them to take jobs in a town that needed their services, but previously provided few places to live where they worked.
Ms. Lewis returned to tell her colleagues and her fellow Islanders that solving the problem was not difficult at all.
“All it takes is the political will to do it,” Ms. Lewis announced.
“We’re going to miss her terrifically,” CHB Co-chair Mary-Faith Westervelt said. “She’s been great all along and we appreciate her advice and counsel.”
At the same time, she expects to call on Ms. Lewis during what both predicted will be a “new dawn for affordables” under the administration of Supervisor Gary Gerth. The CHB will go from five to seven members, so Ms. Westervelt and her co-chair, Hoot Sherman, can add experts to accomplish the goal of providing reasonably priced housing for workers who currently have to commute here to hold their jobs.
Ms. Lewis credits her late husband, Ken Lewis, with inspiring her pursuit of public service, setting an example during his years as a town councilman of always seeing the larger picture.
An example: When there was controversy in the town over a book being considered for inclusion in the school library, she was able to get the Board of Education focused on budgeting more for books, instead of arguing over a single volume.
And that was before she was elected to the Board of Education.
Bob DeStefano Sr., who was school board president during some of the years Ms. Leiws served, said she has “an amazing wealth of knowledge.” Today he counts her as a close friend and said she would be difficult to replace.
‘A voice of reason’
“I want new people to build on what I’ve done,” Ms. Lewis said. “We’re all amateurs” charged with developing legislation on some intricate issues and the more expertise Town Board members can muster, the better they can serve residents’ needs.
“I’m a very decisive person,” Ms. Lewis said. “You’ve got to move — take a chance.”
Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, who has served alongside Ms. Lewis on the Town Board — and will replace her as deputy supervisor — calls her “a voice of reason. She has a quiet strength about her.”
When Ms. Lewis took on an assignment as a liaison to a committee, she became part of the management team of that group, her former colleague said.
“She’s always thinking of others,” Ms. Brach-Williams said.