t was a packed house in the auditorium at Shelter Island School Sunday as seven candidates spelled out their thinking about a number of local issues, all generally agreeing the top three are water quality, affordable housing and tick-borne diseases.
League of Women Voters member Cathy Kenny was moderator for the forum sponsored by the League and the Shelter Island Association.
Perhaps the single issue that will decide races in November could be the revised short-term rental law that has divided the community. Whether those who have fought the law for two years have enough clout to carry the day remains to be seen, but incumbent Supervisor Gary Gerth, who had vowed to support the revised law, was ultimately the sole vote against it. He attributed his change of mind to his conversations with realtors on the Island who told him their business is being adversely affected by the law.
Opponent Gerry Siller, who served two terms as supervisor back in the 1990s, was firm in his commitment to support the law, saying it was necessary to implement it before there could be a problem. At the same time, he said it’s unfortunate that the debate over the issue has pitted neighbors against neighbors and said he wants to assure that now that the law is in place, it needs to be enforced.
Mr. Gerth agreed while saying, “We are not going to permit commercialization of residential areas.”
Mr. Siller pronounced himself ready to give back to the community he had served in the 1990s in elective office and subsequent involvement in supporting efforts on the Island since then.
Mr. Gerth talked about the love he has for the job, saying he has had “a great two years” working with political allies and those on the other side of the spectrum, outlining his administration’s efforts to attend to infrastructure, keeping the Chase Bank from leaving the Island and currently negotiating to bring Stony Brook University here to manage the medical center.
Mr. Siller talked about the need to concentrate on water quality to ensure ridding the area of nitrates in the water, fighting salt water intrusion of wells and providing safe drinking water in all areas of the Island.
Mr. Siller talked about his record of keeping the budget within 5% every year that he was in office. Mr. Gerth spoke about turning out “bare bones budgets,” which he said he, Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams and the entire Town Board have been able to do in the past two years.
When it comes to leadership style, Mr. Gerth said he sees himself as a cheerleader and problem solver who looks to experts in various areas to advise him. He said he encourages the participation of others in town government and believes he gets the best out of everyone.
Mr. Siller called himself “hands on,” explaining he has delegated but believes he needs to follow through to assure that everything is being done efficiently and in a fiscally responsible way.
Both men spoke about the importance of speaking with other water providers, including the Suffolk County Water Authority, West Neck Water and the Heights Property Owners Corporation leaders — not to do away with well water on the Island, but to get advice on various ways to assure potable water.
Mr. Siller said he favors use of the nitrogen-reducing septic systems, but said new residents shouldn’t be required to have them installed unless an existing system isn’t working. Mr. Gerth would favor requiring installation of the I/A systems when a property changes hands.
Mr. Siller spoke about the importance of maintaining the Island’s diversity.
Five candidates are seeking two seats on the Town Board. Incumbents are Paul Shepherd, now running on the Conservative Party line since the Republicans didn’t endorse him this year, and Democrat Jim Colligan. Their opponents are Mike Bebon, endorsed by the Democrats, and Marcus Kaasik and Julia Romanchuk Weisenberg, endorsed by the Republicans, who said their reason for not endorsing Mr. Shepherd was based on their desire to put forth young candidates to represent a group on the Island they thought had insufficient involvement in government.
There was a tendency among both Democratic and Republican candidates to boost their supervisor candidates just as those candidates had frequently boosted them during the earlier part of the program.
Each outlined their backgrounds and resumes were available at the school for all candidates. The basic approach for each was to highlight what they considered their leadership skills and experience that qualified them for the job they were seeking.
Both incumbents highlighted the projects in which they have been involved during their tenures.
Mr. Shepherd, who grew up on the Island, described himself as fiscally “stingy,” and said his approach toward government is to restrict laws from interfering with people’s lives as much as possible. He talked about being the impetus for getting the Town Board to focus on the nitrate problem with water and his ability to speak his mind when necessary.
He said he may not always be “a model of good behavior,” but that he always spoke his mind and stayed focused on the people he has served. He described himself as a man who’s always thinking and not just about himself.
Mr. Kaasik expressed similar feelings, saying he grew up poor and learned to make things that were useful but not expensive. It has informed his thoughts about finding inexpensive ways to accomplish needs in the community, he said.
Along those lines, he spoke about using filtration to deal with water quality issues and reinstituting burning to rid the Island of its tick infestation.
He expressed criticism of the attempt to bring site plan review to commercial projects, saying it was too expensive and involved long delays in getting projects done for local merchants already struggling to make a living. Mr. Kaasik is a member of the town Planning Board and ran a close race against Councilman Albert Dickson two years ago.
His education in finance and his experiences growing up on the Island have prepared him to be a great Town Board member, he said.
“It’s not about spending money but spending money wisely,” Mr. Colligan said, outlining the funds his Capital Planning/Grants Committee has been able to bring in to help fund various projects, working with grants writer Jennifer Mesiano Higham.
He talked about his leadership skills developed in the military and as a teacher/coach in Carle Place before moving to the Island. He talked about his experience as a member and then liaison to town committees.
His experience has taught him to help bring about consensus among people of differing opinions and backgrounds, he said.
Ms. Weisenberg addressed her skills as a grant writer and the various ideas and programs she has brought forth to various committees, including a plan to educate more Islanders, especially women, to become hunters to help tackle the tick-borne disease problem. She also said she has skills as a researcher who can bring information to problems the town faces.
She never imagined herself seeking elective office until a number of friends suggested she consider it. Following the advice of her father, she said, “You stand up for people who can’t stand for themselves.”
Mike Bebon highlighted both his military experience and longtime career as an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, highlighting the knowledge he has brought to his role as chairman of both the Water Advisory Committee and Community Housing Board.
He said he co-wrote legislation passed by the Town Board to create the Community Housing Board that might not exist today had it not been written into the town’s comprehensive plan.
All five candidates said they favor efforts to deal with climate change, which is affecting ferry landings and causing flooding in various areas, including Bridge Street. There was general consensus that as larger houses are being built, there needs to be attention to the effect they have, particularly in terms of how they may affect natural resources such as water on the Island, especially in sensitive areas.
They also expressed concern about what they see as a changing Island that could become less diverse in its population as those with less financial resources find themselves unable to keep up with costs of living that the well-heeled residents can afford.
In the final part of the forum, candidates addressed audience questions with a wide number of people asking about the future of Dr. Peter Kelt continuing at the Medical Center. With Stony Brook to manage the center as of Jan. 1, 2020, many Islanders were upset at the thought of losing the doctor they have long seen and trust.
But Dr. Kelt, despite decades of experience on the Island, doesn’t meet some of Stony Brook’s requirements for its staff doctors. The effort is continuing to make the case for keeping Dr. Kelt. Ms. Weisenberg, who was a professor of sign language at Stony Brook University, said she has appealed to decision makers there to consider the needs of the rural community. But the jury is still out on just who will be staffing the Medical Center in January.
The outpouring of support for Dr. Kelt has been amazing, Mr. Colligan said. At the same time, he said decisions in health care today are all about money.
It was during this part of the forum that Mr. Siller jabbed at Mr. Gerth with respect to the hours Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. is having to put in functioning not just as a lawyer to protect the town from legal errors, but getting involved in many aspects of government that shouldn’t be on his plate, Mr. Siller said. The town attorney, through no fault of his own, is being asked to be an advisor to Mr. Gerth, he said.
Mr. Gerth said he got advice from Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who had been a municipal attorney, and that helped inform his use of Mr. DeStefano’s talents.
A full recording of the three-hour session is available to stream from the town’s website.