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Inside the room to select a Shelter Island Town Board member: Candidates ‘shocked’ no one was picked

The scene was the Town Hall meeting room. The players numbered only five, four newly-elected Town Board members and a candidate making a case to join them, with no town attorney, staffers, aides, or anyone recording the interviews.

It played out 11 times over the last several weeks, with 11 candidates, one-by-one, going in for interviews, and when the curtain came down, none of them were selected, since the Board couldn’t agree on anyone.

The Reporter spoke to several candidates for the 5th seat who were invited by the Town Board for face-to-face interviews.

All expressed shock that not one of them was selected. A few said they got the impression that some Board members weren’t interested in filling the seat, but were going through the motions, content to operate as a body of four for almost a year until the general election in November would let the voters decide to complete the Board.

Town Board members wouldn’t respond to questions about their process, citing a prohibition on speaking publicly about personnel matters.

Lisa Richland was the only candidate who agreed to have her name used for this story. The other people the Reporter spoke to preferred to remain anonymous.

“I was stunned,” Ms. Richland said at the news that no Islander was found suitable to be selected by the Board. She wasn’t upset or even particularly surprised she wasn’t chosen, noting that her profile in the community is not as prominent as others. But, she added, “I mean, it’s astounding that not one of the quality people we have here was chosen.”

Another Islander who was asked to come to Town Hall for an interviews said that as the session went along, the candidate had the “impression that certain members didn’t want to fill the seat. Overall, it was sad. I mean, you can’t — or won’t — decide out of 11 people, on a small Island? What does that say about the future of the Town Board, and more importantly, I think, the future of Shelter Island?”

Another candidate said that Republican Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams and Republican Councilwoman Meg Larsen took copious notes — which was confirmed by others — but Democratic Councilman Albert Dickson took a few notes and the candidate didn’t see Democratic Councilman Benjamin Dyett taking any notes.

The atmosphere was “friendly,” the candidate recalled. “After 12 questions were asked and answered, each of the Board members added their own questions, or sought clarifications. It was a very useful and productive session. I felt I was treated fairly by each of them. But Al and Ben didn’t seem as interested, since they weren’t taking many notes, or no notes at all … I didn’t really get any sense from Al or Ben, one way or the other, how they were responding to my answers.”

The candidate speculated that ”Amber and Meg would be doing most of the blocking and tackling getting the business of the town done. As much as Al and Ben may have walked into the interview process with open minds, I think they eventually came to realize that they are going to be at odds with Amber and Meg on many issues, particularly development on the Island. So, if Al and Ben wanted to maintain the ability to block anything they didn’t like, they’d be better off not having a fifth Board member, since they could not count on that fifth vote to block actions they don’t like.”

Another candidate disputed that take, saying, “It’s not that they didn’t want a candidate and would prefer to leave the Board at four members. It’s likely they couldn’t agree on a candidate. I could see tension between the Democrats and the Republicans in the room. This is not good for the Island.”

Asked for an impression deciding not to name a person to fill the empty seat, the candidate responded the same as others that the Reporter spoke with: “It’s shocking.”

To have a special election to fill the 5th seat requires that the Town Board, at its Feb. 26 regular meeting, pass a resolution informing Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) of the situation and requesting that she allow a special election to take place.

If the governor approves, it would then be up to the Board of Elections to set a date for the special election.

Party Leaders Weigh In

Heather Reylek, chair of the Shelter Island Democratic Party, said, wryly, “There’s not a lot of  kumbaya with this Board. And people need a functioning government.”

As for a special election, or leaving the seat vacant until November, Ms. Reylek said it’s too early to tell which way the Board will go.

“There’s too many balls in the air, too many ‘ifs’ and ‘what-ifs’ right now,” she said. “We’ve already seen what a four-member Board means,” noting that last month, a Town Board work session was canceled because of a lack of quorum, a development most long-time Town Hall observers called unprecedented.

Ms. Reylek wouldn’t speculate on who the Democrats will nominate to run if a special election is held.

Island GOP Chairman Gary Blados said, for  the Republicans, “I’d put my money on Tom Cronin.” Mr. Cronin was narrowly defeated for a seat on the Board in last November’s election.

Mr. Blados said he wasn’t surprised that an agreement on a fifth member was not reached. He had the impression that the two Democrats on the Board — Mr. Dickson and Mr. Dyett — didn’t want an election, or fill the seat until November. 

A special election means a political season that started in spring last year and “we’ll have another election probably in April and the general election in November,” Mr. Blados said. “It’s a lot, right?”