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Codger’s Column: Catching up

Wednesday is Supervisor Gerry Siller’s catch-up day, so Codger was in Town Hall last week, hoping to catch up on what has happened in the six months since Siller took office again.

This was necessary because Siller does not run a transparent administration.

“I keep getting that,” he said.

“Only because you’re not transparent,” said Codger.

“But I am,” he said. “Just as soon as I know what I’m doing, I explain everything.”

“That’s too late,” said Codger. “People like to be part of the process so their ideas can inform your decision-making.”

“Or throw wrenches.”

He said his supervising style had been formed in part during the turn of century, during his previous term. Pushing hard (“I pushed too hard for everything in those days,” he said) for affordable housing, he found a 13-acre plot, made a $700,000 bid, and lined up one of the wealthy, often anonymous donors that frequently fund Shelter Island projects. By the next day, the land had been sold. A colleague of Siller’s who was against affordable housing had tipped off a neighbor.

Under cover of COVID, Siller’s closer-to-the vest new style was not immediately apparent. Faced with a crisis from the start, Siller steered Shelter Island with a steady hand.

At 67, he describes himself as calmer, less of a micro-manager. Under his watch, the large senior population was vaccinated, a stream of virus refugees was absorbed, their children enrolled in the school. A new Comprehensive Plan began to take shape. There was fresh attention to affordable housing and the Island’s main priority, water. Codger, impressed, began to think of Siller as “America’s Supervisor.”

And then, as Siller explained, everything “went nuts.”

Codger knows you’ve all screened the videos — contentious meetings, fistic challenges, bombastic harangues, the implosion of the Comprehensive Plan, high-level resignations. Business as usual in Washington, perhaps, but not here. And yet, according to Siller, in an open, friendly two-hour chat in his office, it was not a total surprise.

“When I got here 38 years ago,” he said, “this was a sleepy place with a nice mix of people who more or less got along. Sure, there was Us vs. Them, basically the locals and the second home owners, but the two groups came to realize they needed each other. Second homes were the basic industry and the owners bought into Shelter Island as a community.”

This meant, he said, allowing the locals to govern under their motto: “We know how to run Shelter Island.” Much was not done because it had never been done before.

And then, according to Siller, in the last 10 or 15 years, the Island began to change more dramatically. Wealthy people who built larger, water-guzzling houses, saw the Island as less of a community than an investment, their own personal aquifer. Previous supervisors, said Siller, didn’t have the courage to enforce codes and make changes, or, most recently, they were barely present.

Shelter Island was “at a crossroads” when Siller was elected last year with water and affordable housing as his priorities, along with the more amorphous goal of rejuvenating the soul of the community, however that might be done.

Siller was not as full-hearted about a new Comprehensive Plan as some thought, and, in fact, was not all that pleased with the make-up of the Plan’s Advisory Task Force. He had hoped for more advisors with “a history on the Island” — locals, retirees, long-time second-home owners who had served on committees.

While he admitted he’d been caught unaware by a relatively recent resident and Community Housing Board member who precipitated the government implosion, he didn’t think the violation that was uncovered — Town Board members are prohibited from serving on certain committees — was such a big deal. After all, it had gone on for years and it worked!

In Siller’s “big picture,” rich flame-throwers who disrupt meetings and threaten lawsuits are merely “annoyances” that divert the administration from its priorities, which should be ongoing whether the public sees the gears turning or not.

Now, Siller loses some of his calm. He grabs papers off his cluttered desk and hurries around to a visitor’s chair next to Codger’s. He offers a quick transparency, the early plans for affordable housing, colored diagrams, lists, charts.

There will be four two-bedroom houses, at $300,000 each and 24 two-bedroom rental units. There is much work to do, of course, with applicants, banks, those anonymous donors and the final approval of Assemblyman Fred H. Thiele Jr.’s bill to generate community housing funds on the East End. There would be an elaborate lottery assigning extra points for working and living on the island.

“Which brings us to water,” says Codger, “and you know I have a dog in this fight.”

Siller nods. Codger is a member of the board of the West Neck Water District (WNWD), whose control of the 60-odd customer business (including Sunset Beach) was abruptly usurped by the town this month and handed over to the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA), a non-governmental public benefit corporation that currently manages the Dering Harbor water supply.

“That rude transition,” said Codger, “is an example of your lack of transparency.”

With kindly condescension, Siller explained his style of transparency, which Codger thought resembled frosted glass: since SCWA was already here, the long-time volunteers who have been running West Neck Water since the beginning would not live forever, and most importantly the hands-on operator had resigned, why not hire SCWA for six months? He said that stipulations with SCWA include that water never goes off-Island, and no area can sign on unless 40% of its population approves.

Codger rolled his eyes. West Neck customers had never been offered such a choice, which also sounded like a suggestion of Island-wide SCWA expansion. While it sounded logical and could very well be the best decision, Codger agreed, he and the water board members felt blind-sided.

“You knew I was talking to [SCWA],” said Siller, with a cheery innocence.

Codger and the board did know he was talking to SCWA. But an acquaintance of Siller’s, who talked to Codger off the record to preserve the relationship, said that Siller had more or less made up his mind some time ago to hire SCWA. Meanwhile, volunteer WNWD board members were allowed not only to labor on in the dark, but to work up a hugely time-consuming bond-issue presentation.

“That’s Gerry,” added the acquaintance, mostly with admiration. “Very smart, pragmatic, a good man with the Island’s best interests at heart who surrounds himself with people he trusts who can get things done.”

 “An old boys’ club,” said an active committee member. “He runs the town like it’s his own business, bullying, making decisions without open conversation, without proper meetings and getting advice from people who tell him what he wants to hear. He’s divisive, he’s re-creating the old Us vs. Them of locals and second-home owners, only this time the second home owners are suing.”

Siller has plenty of vehement critics, yet he also has his fans, who described him to Codger as “imaginative” and “bold” and the rare leader who can actually make progressive change.

Codger likes Siller and most of his substance but is concerned with his style: Trying to prevent sabotage through secrecy may well be an expedient strategy on the Island, but not at the cost of shutting the public out of information and decision-making.

Unless there is a surprise candidate, Siller will run unopposed in November with the presumed promise of two more years to execute his priorities, which probably do not include a Comprehensive Plan.

“It’s my last hurrah,” he told Codger. “The only way I’d run for a third term is if these priorities are not accomplished. I’m not a tyrant.”