Featured Story

Gimme Shelter: Remembering Jim

We immediately got off on the wrong foot.

It was the second week I was editor of the Reporter, 11 Octobers ago. I was looking for a story, and went to Town Hall on Monday morning a little before 9 to cover a Community Preservation Fund meeting. I’d been introduced at the previous Town Board work session so had met the supervisor and a few other people, and, waiting for the Monday meeting to start, met a few other people. I was the only person in the audience.

When Supervisor Dougherty arrived, he seemed a bit startled that I was there, and curtly, but with a smile, told me that no press was allowed. I said it was a publicly advertised meeting and, if the committee was not in executive session, the New York State Open Meetings Law disagreed with him.

He said, with a colder smile, “No press allowed. We have to ask you to leave.”

I said, fine, I would leave when escorted out by the police.

Someone said, “Come on, Jim,” and he paused for a moment, and nodded, and as the saying goes, if looks could kill, I was wounded.

A few days later, I decided the better part of valor would be to apologize for coming on too strong. I’d have to cover him and the Board, after all, and wanted him as a source. Before a work session, I took Jim aside asking if I could have a word.

As I started to speak, he said, “I was going to call you. I was a real [expletive] the other day. Sorry, you were absolutely right.” I laughed and told him he’d beaten me to the punch.

We crossed swords now and then — and afterwards would say to each other, “You apologize first” — over the years when he was in office, a natural result of both of us trying to do our jobs. My respect for him never wavered, even when I thought his leadership style was too often like seeing every problem as a nail and he held the hammer.

I saw his commitment to the natural world of Shelter Island and to the betterment of its people as strong, fierce, smart and practical. How much of Shelter Island would be paved over if not for Jim’s never-flagging work to keep it green?

Even though we disagreed on some points during the mini-Armageddon of the short-term rental debate, which consumed the Island for months with meetings that descended into shouts and scurrilous accusations, I admired his role as a champion for the Islanders who depended on the income of summer rentals of their homes to pay mortgages and allowed them to live in the place where they grew up and which they loved.

Jim worked to stop what could be a frightening endgame for the purity of our ground and surface waters. He also was a vocal leader on ending excessive aircraft noise — remember the summer weekends when the skies above the Island were like outtakes from “Apocalypse Now?” — using his perch as chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association to push for regional solutions to the cacophony over the East End.

Even after snidely calling into question at public meetings the Reporter’s coverage of something, or blistering us, when we met privately he was jaunty, focused on me, and warm. Mary at times couldn’t understand why I could be at odds with Jim. “He’s such a charmer,” she would say, after meeting him here or there.

Unfortunately, the nadir of his career was telling a “joke” about a woman who was raped and enjoyed it. And he told it at a State of the Town luncheon, no less. The Reporter, and many residents, called him out on it, and he made a mistake by initially digging in and not apologizing.

A New York City TV network affiliate covered the story, and Jim apologized. Then, at a Town Board work session, he apologized, saying he never meant to insult women with a “lame joke.” Resident Vinnie Novak, a constant Dougherty foil, immediately objected, saying it was much more than “lame,” and Vinnie was absolutely right.

Then there was the time when Vinnie and Jim had played a two-hander in a bit of political theater over the safety of the water in Fresh Pond. Jim and others disparaged Vinnie for years, terming him a wacko and worse, about his call for something to be done about the dangerous water in the Pond. (Just wondering: Where are all of you now, who scoffed at Vinnie, when everyone agrees that Fresh Pond needs to be cleaned up?)

The stage for their drama (comedy?) was the Town Hall Meeting Room during a work session in September 2015, when Vinnie brought a sample of Fresh Pond’s water in a glass jar and challenged Board members to drink it.

Before offering the water to sample, Vinnie made the case that children, pets and people with compromised immune systems should be warned about swimming in the pond, noting that swimmers will inadvertently swallow some water that could harm them.

Jim had announced the previous week that “the water’s fine, come on in.”

Vinnie responded by saying, “If people want to swim, I don’t have a problem. I do have a problem of people not knowing the potential harm in store for them.” Then he took the glass jar to the table where the Board members sat, saying, “I thought you guys might like to take a drink of this since, if it’s good enough for kids …”

Jim was the only one to take the challenge, calling Vinnie’s bluff, pouring some water into a small paper cup. “Don’t drink it, Jim,” Vinnie said, as Jim put the cup to his lips. From about 15 feet away it was difficult for me to tell if he actually drank the pond water. Jim said it was essentially tasteless, “Like water from my tap.”

Vinnie later said that he had just pretended to drink it. Credit to Jim, however, for understanding the situation perfectly, while his colleagues didn’t, that he could either fake a quick sip, or actually drink it, knowing a little taste was not going to cause him to pass out on the spot.

I asked him later if he had really taken a drink. Absolutely, he said. And then winked.

One of my favorite memories is coming out of the Center Post Office and seeing Jim in his blue MG on Thomas Street stalled out at the corner of North Ferry Road. When I asked what the matter was he called down the wrath of God on his beloved roadster.

Since he was at the stop sign, I offered to push the car across the street and he could park in front of Justice Court before planning his next move. There was no traffic, and I was surprised how easy it was to push the little sports car with Jim at the wheel.

Safe across the road, he got out to thank me, saying, with a big smile, “I can see the headline now: ‘Shelter Island Reporter pushes Dougherty around — and he takes it.’”

Never, ever, Jim.