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The new normal — Town Hall hosts contentious meeting: Board fires Bob Kohn from committee

In what has become commonplace at Town Hall, another angry meeting of accusations, ad hominen attacks and bickering took place at Tuesday’s Town Board work session. At least this time, an elected official didn’t threaten to physically fight a resident. But an accusation that the Town Board was employing Marxist philosophy did surface.

On Tuesday, by unanimous vote, the board removed a thorn in its side in the person of Bob Kohn from his position as a member of the Community Housing Board — formed to explore affordable housing options — where he had served less than two months.

Mr. Kohn has maintained affordable housing is not a major issue, and those who can’t afford to live here shouldn’t be subsidized. Before the vote to remove him, Mr. Kohn told the Town Board if they wanted to be rid of him from the Housing Board, all they had to do was appoint him to the open position created when Mike Bebon resigned as a councilman.

“In a way, you’re calling me an idiot if you think I would ever entertain it,” Supervisor Gerry Siller said. The Town Board split last week on whether to appoint a successor to serve out Mr. Bebon’s term until the end of the year, which meant no action to replace him would take place.

Mr. Kohn lambasted members for what he said was their refusal to listen to dissenting opinions and allowing him to be bullied by an angry mob at the June 24 Housing Board meeting, in which a standing-room-only crowd demanded Mr. Kohn’s removal.

“I think the state of the town is excellent,” Mr. Kohn said Tuesday. The problem is leadership that is “guided by group think,” he added.

At the June 24 meeting, speaker after speaker rose to challenge Mr. Kohn’s opinions, with Mr. Siller and Councilman Jim Colligan each accusing Mr. Kohn of misrepresenting his views on affordable housing when he interviewed for an appointment. At that meeting, Mr. Kohn told Mr. Siller to sit down when the supervisor charged him with false representation. And in another heated exchange, in which Mr. Kohn asked Mr. Colligan if he was giving a political speech, the councilman said, “Don’t tell me when I can finish or you and I will go outside and finish.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Kohn accused Mr. Colligan of physically threatening him. There was no apology from Mr. Colligan. Mr. Kohn said he was not afraid of the councilman, but of others in the meeting room, and “was concerned about my personal safety.” He had asked a friend to follow him home to ensure he wouldn’t be attacked, he said.

Mr. Colligan had said Shelter Island could become a place only for the wealthy who want to live in gated communities instead of a mixed community of people of different ages, economic status and ethnicity. When Mr. Colligan spoke about the importance of families with children who want to live on the Island, Mr. Kohn said closing the school might be a good idea.

His main objections to affordable housing was that it would adversely affect the quality of water on the Island. That drew a response from Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams that perhaps Mr. Kohn should have applied for a position on the Water Advisory Committee instead of the Housing Board. Councilman Albert Dickson said the Town Board is seeking people who want to work toward community housing, not derail the effort.

In the course of Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Kohn reiterated his objections to affordable housing, maintaining most Islanders don’t want it and shouldn’t have to subsidize people who can’t afford to live on the Island. He accused the Board of embracing Marxist philosophy by wanting to use taxpayer money to change the economics of the community.

If businesses can’t get workers because of the cost of housing on the Island, they should provide housing, not expect the government to be involved, he added. The week before, he said the other four East End towns should build enough housing to accommodate Shelter Island’s needs.

Following the vote to remove Mr. Kohn from the Housing Board, members briefly discussed possible changes in the code that deals with the mission, membership and qualifications for serving on the that body.

There were two versions introduced, one by Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. and the other by Mr. Colligan. A discussion on potential changes is expected to take place next week.

Before the meeting ended, three people spoke on the blow-up between Mr. Kohn and the Town Board. Former Supervisor Hoot Sherman, who had served in the 1990s when the Bowditch Road affordable houses were built, complimented the Town Board on its actions, saying he hadn’t heard from so many Islanders passionate about the subject of affordable housing for many years. There’s a need to bring young people to the Island to make it better, he said.

Resident Peter Tamford saw it differently, telling the Town Board that Islanders don’t owe people a living, and members had failed to keep the Housing Board meeting under control, allowing people to interrupt Mr. Kohn constantly during his remarks and allowing the meeting to spiral out of control.

Mr. Siller said he had no role at the meeting, except to serve as liaison between the Housing Board and Town Board. Mr. Tamford insisted Mr. Siller should have intervened. “You’ve got tunnel vision,” Mr. Tamford said, citing a public survey that showed little interest in affordable housing.

Resident Pam Demarest said she thought last week’s meeting was “an embarrassment,” with people screaming and using profanity.

“If that’s the community we’re trying to support, I’d like them to leave the Island,” she said about those calling for Mr. Kohn’s ouster from the Housing Board.

Supervisor Gerry Siller’s statement on the termination of Bob Kohn’s service on the Community Housing Board

Last week’s meeting made it clear that Bob Kohn can no longer effectively serve on the Community Housing Board.

The simple fact is that Mr. Kohn has shown that he either does not believe in or does not understand that the point of the CHB is to promote community housing on Shelter Island. According to Town Code, the purpose of the committee is to promote community housing “in order to maintain the local economy, community services and the economic and social diversity that characterize the Town of Shelter Island.” The fact that he called the idea of community housing “bullshit” shows just how out of sync he is with what the Town is trying to achieve.

Mr. Kohn’s plan to move those who can’t afford to live here off-Island feels like the old plans to buy the homeless bus passes to make it someone else’s problem. This will do nothing to preserve our community. In fact the only problem it will solve is to ensure that the wealthy few who can still afford to live here will have accessible labor in the next town. That is simply not the community we want. Furthermore, despite his assertions, his plan would actually raise taxes as paid services would have to be increased as volunteers moved away.

In addition to his complete failure to support the purpose of the committee, Mr. Kohn’s demeanor has been unacceptable. He has been combative, smug, condescending and has shown not a hint of compassion or understanding for the people of Shelter Island.

Finally, let me say that we are making no attempt to silence Mr. Kohn or anyone else. Mr. Kohn is free to say whatever he wants. He can attend public meetings as a member of the public and raise any point or objection he sees fit. But, in light of his recent actions, we can no longer allow him to speak as a representative of the Town of Shelter Island.