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Respectful forum reveals views of Shelter Island Town Board candidates

In an era when political differences so often result in angry exchanges and personal attacks on opponents, the Candidate Forum among Town Board and Town Clerk candidates this week was a departure from what has become the norm.

All seven candidates — five seeking Town Board seats and two contesting to serve as Town Clerk — were a study in polite exchanges, each emphasizing his or her knowledge and experience.

There were few instances of different solutions recommended and general agreement that the major issues include water quality, affordable housing, taxes, how money should or shouldn’t be spent, tick infestations and maintenance of what makes Shelter Island special.

The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork and the Shelter Island Association and was taped Saturday and made available on Shelter Island’s Channel 22 and the Town website for viewing as of Monday. Those who wanted to submit questions for the virtual forum, necessitated by the COVID pandemic, had the opportunity to do so prior to the taping. Local attorney and League member Cathy Kenny moderated the forum.

Three Town Board candidates — Republicans Amber Brach-Williams and Meg Larsen and Democrat Brett Surerus — are vying for two full four-year terms. Democrat Barbara Jean BJ Ianfolla and Republican Marcus Kaasik seek to finish the remaining two years of the term of Mike Bebon, who resigned his seat in June.

“We are losing a sense of Shelter Island,” said Mr. Kaasik, a carpenter and fisherman. He ran twice before for Town Board, losing very close races both times, but has stayed involved as a member of the Planning Board and a founder of the Baymen and Anglers Committee.

Ms. Ianfolla, who served two terms as a tax assessor, brings a background in psychology, research, data and statistics. She sees a sense of urgency to coping with problems because “the future is now” in tackling issues of water quality, housing and taxes.

Mr. Surerus said nothing happens for the better on the Island without clean water. He further argued that the need to provide housing for working families is urgent and solving the tick problem is vital to health and safety on the Island.

He described himself as “fully dedicated” to working to benefit the Town and said he would bring “relentless determination and a huge sense of urgency” to his work if elected to the Town Board.

He pointed to his efforts to keep the summer fireworks going when the Chamber of Commerce couldn’t continue to sponsor them and his organization of the Shelter Island Action Alliance that helped sustain Island restaurants while feeding first responders during the height of the pandemic.

His background includes banking and property management and he strongly opposes allowing more houses being built that exceed 6,000 square feet of living space.

Ms. Brach-Williams said the Town generally gets trade-offs when larger houses are approved. Still, that means elimination of what could be more smaller houses, Mr. Surerus said.

Ms. Ianfolla agreed there’s a need to provide affordable housing to create a more stable workforce.

Ms. Larsen said she wouldn’t favor raising property taxes to create affordable housing but would like to be able to use some Community Preservation Fund money for that purpose.

The Community Housing Act would add money for that purpose through a 0.5% increase to the transfer tax property buyers pay, with Ms. Brach-Williams explaining if the Act is signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul, the addition would be offset by increasing exemptions so it wouldn’t cost a buyer the full 0.5% tax.

Ms. Larsen, who works with the family business, described herself as having “boots on the ground” in helping to install septic systems on the Island. There are ways to mitigate runoff problems resulting in pollutants affecting waterways in and around the Island, she said about improving water quality.

“I’m a problem solver,” she said.

Mr. Kaasik said he doesn’t favor seeking an Island-wide solution to improving water quality because the need is different in various parts of the Town.

The single incumbent, Ms. Brach-Williams, has been on the Town Board for five years, four of them as Deputy Supervisor working with both Republican and Democratic supervisors.

“To me, it’s a puzzle or a tapestry,” she said, explaining her view that solutions to the various problems always require a balance because what seems right for one group of people can seem very wrong to others.

As a professional accountant, she described herself as “the go-to person” on financial matters always providing advice on how to pay for various initiatives.

Although the recent effort to update the Town’s Comprehensive Plan has been shelved for awhile, there were suggestions from its Advisory Board members about the need to hire a town manager. But the candidates generally seemed inclined to not support that move.

Pointing out that not everyone elected supervisor has the ability to function as a chief financial officer, Ms. Ianfolla said it would be acceptable to have a person with that financial background. But the Town Board shouldn’t just walk away after delegating that responsibility. 

Ms. Brach-Williams said she receives extra compensation for her work on finances and her service as deputy supervisor. But she said she has been training town accounting clerk Shelby Mundy so that if she fails to get re-elected, Ms. Mundy would be in a position to help with budgeting and finances. Still, she said she hopes voters will give her another four years. The other three didn’t favor hiring another person to function as a CFO or town manager.

Mr. Surerus said no additional compensation should be paid to Town Board members for doing the job to which they have been elected.

Using volunteer committees for advice is generally popular with the candidates, although Ms. Ianfolla pointed out that it isn’t always easy to get volunteers to give the time to serving.

The idea of adding additional zones, including possible addition of a hotel & inn zone wasn’t popular with the candidates, with Mr. Kaasik saying it makes him nervous to think about such a change.

Ms. Larsen would want to hear more from residents before any zoning changes are considered.

Might the Town be well served by hiring a water specialist?

It has been recommended by others, Ms. Brach-Williams said, but she would hope the town’s grant consultant might find a source of money to fund the position.

One addition being considered for funding in the 2022 budget is adding more help in code enforcement, Ms. Brach-Williams revealed. The candidates would like more enforcement and more public information about those who are accused of violations.

To a question about whether serving as treasurer of the Board of Fire Commissioners as well as being a Town Board member represents a conflict of interest, Ms. Brach-Williams said the roles complement one another and she has only had to recuse herself once from a decision because of holding both roles.

Compliments flew around the table with Ms. Ianfolla summing up the spirit, asking, “Can’t we all have a seat at the table?”

Town Clerk

The two candidates for Town Clerk struck a sharp difference with one another in terms of a choice voters will have to make.

On the one hand, incumbent Dorothy Ogar has held the office for 44 years and was deputy town clerk for 16 years before taking on the top role.

Kristina Martin Majdisova had extensive management experience in private industry before coming to work for the Town, functioning as clerk for the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Planning Board, the Water Advisory Committee and the Waterways Management Committee as well as working as a legal assistant to Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. She also handles research for the Town Board, in part of the Media Department and serves on the Information Technology Committee.

“It’s in my blood,” Ms. Ogar said about her long service to the Town. She maintained that to the extent possible so far, many records have been digitized and her office gets compliments from residents for their ability to serve needs.

Ms. Martin Majdisova believes more can be done to automate services and for those who aren’t fans of technology, by better providing services for others online, her staff would have more time to attend to those who prefer to do their business in person at Town Hall.

Ms. Ogar said she learns something new every day on the job and she and her three deputies meet needs “head on.”

Ms. Martin Majdisova thinks the process of implementing technology, including wider use of credit cards, is not happening fast enough.

Voters will have the last word.

The full forum remains available to the public at https://youtu.be/V9vOEMDlvuY.

Lois Morris, who was president of the Shelter Island League and now serves as Vice President of the merged League, said those who aren’t registered to vote have until Friday to register. Applications for absentee ballots can be sought until Oct. 18 and early voting for those who wish to cast ballots before Nov. 2 will be offered between Oct. 23 and 31. There is no early voting on the Island, but residents can vote in surrounding communities where there is early voting and information on where early voting is offered is available at the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Information on the dates and how to register or to get an absentee ballot is available at https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county/voting