Democratic Town Board Candidates Spar Politely

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East Hampton Town Board Democratic candidates David Lys, left, and David Gruber took part in a debate hosted by the East Hampton Group for Good Government at the East Hampton Emergency Services headquarters on Cedar Street on Tuesday night, 9/4/18. Michael Heller photo

Challenger David Gruber hammered at his theme that the East Hampton Town Board has been floundering and needs his help getting things done. Councilman David Lys highlighted his commitment to public service, the board’s ongoing efforts to grapple with issues and his hands-on involvement during eight months as an appointed town councilman.

But there were few points of disagreement and no real clashes when the two met Tuesday night at a well-attended forum sponsored by the East Hampton Group for Good Government at the East Hampton Emergency Services Building.

The town’s registered Democrats will choose between them in the primary on September 13 to determine who will be the party’s candidate in November to fill the remaining year in Peter Van Scoyoc’s term as a councilman. Republican Manny Vilar is also running.

Mr. Lys was appointed by the Town Board in January after Mr. Van Scoyoc assumed office as supervisor. Mr. Gruber, a former leader of the Democratic Committee who has been feuding with the party establishment, filed petitions to force the primary under the Reform Democrat banner. The group is also running candidates for each of the Democratic Committee’s 38 seats, two each for the town’s 19 election districts.

Both candidates agreed on Tuesday that the town was too big and complex for a five-member Town Board to manage. They both said a town manager might be in order. Both said coastal erosion and water pollution are threats that have to be addressed.

They agreed that Springs needs better communications for its emergency services and that personal cell service should be better; that a commitment to solar energy was the key for meeting the town’s energy goals; and that the town must help develop housing for its dependent seniors. They also agreed that reassessment was coming but should be approached with caution and careful testing.

When they disagreed, it was more about approach and details than substance. Mr. Lys opposed allowing for smaller building lots to encourage affordable housing. “We need the political will to buy land” for housing projects, he said. “I don’t think downsizing properties is good for the character of the neighborhood.”

But Mr. Gruber, noting that the town’s 15-year-old Comprehensive Plan calls for 1,300 affordable housing units and arguing that the current rate of progress will take the town 200 to 300 years before reaching its goal, disagreed. “If housing is to be affordable, it’s going to have to be more dense,” he said. “We can’t have one house per acre and expect it to be affordable.”

Mr. Lys said he didn’t think closing East Hampton Airport should be taken off the table to solve the aircraft noise problem. Mr. Gruber, even though he has been well known as an inveterate airport foe for more than 20 years, did not mention that option. He said the Town Board could succeed in limiting aircraft noise “if we pursue an aggressive legal policy” to limit airport access with a pricing system.

He said the “Town Board simply wouldn’t listen to the people who do know” how to address the issue, the airport noise subcommittee he chaired. Now he sits on the Airport Management Advisory Committee and “the town still will not do what we recommend.”

“This is emblematic to me of the unwillingness to invite essential participation of knowledgeable community members,” he said, and if they are not tapped as a resource, “we’re going nowhere on these big issues.”

Mr. Lys rejected the assumption, incorporated in one of the questions that moderator Arthur Malman posed to the candidates, that the Community Preservation Fund was to blame for making land here less affordable. “I can’t blame the CPF for the supply and demand we have on affordable building lots,” he said. “I don’t think the CPF … is the root cause,” he added. It has rather “led to a greater quality of life” in town. “It’s overdevelopment of East Hampton” that raises prices, he said, noting that the real estate market for houses costing under $1 million in Springs — the town’s bastion of somewhat more affordable housing — “is on fire.”

“I’m sure that to some extent using the CPF,” Mr. Gruber responded, “to reduce the supply of land has raised land prices. That’s just how things work. The supply goes down, the price goes up.”

There also was a muted moment of disagreement after Mr. Lys argued that more overlay districts were needed to encourage affordable housing. “There have been overlay districts here a long time,” Mr. Gruber said, “but essentially they’ve failed to whatever reason.”

Both agreed in the need for affordable housing. “Too many of my friends are leaving or have left,” Mr. Lys said. Reiterating a theme he pressed repeatedly, Mr. Gruber argued that the town’s failure to develop more affordable housing is not due to a lack of money but a failure to take practical steps to make it happen. “We have to figure out the outcome that we want,” he said. “What kind of housing do we want? How much of it do we want? Where can we put it? How are we going to build it?”

Mr. Lys made the only personal political charge of the night, saying that “some have tried to create a false narrative” that he’s a Republican and an “opportunist and not true Democrat. My answer is that I am not a lifelong politician … I’m a lifelong resident of East Hampton, an expert in everything East Hampton from Town Line Road to 2000 Montauk Highway, which is the Montauk Lighthouse. I just became a newly registered Democrat. Just because of that doesn’t mean I haven’t believed in Democratic values my entire life. When I was young and impressionistic, I listened to my father, like all young men should do. My father told me to check that box with the ‘R’ on it and I did so, not knowing what the intentions would be.”

Other points made by Mr. Gruber included: the charge that the town bought a radio system for Springs emergency services without first making sure it could be supported on the tower there; that assertion that plans for a micro-grid solar project have been “sitting on the shelf since 2016;” the charge that “we have neglected the senior citizens who age in place and can’t stay in their homes;” the criticism that the Democrats have been talking about senior housing “for many years and we haven’t gotten the job done;” and that fear or reassessment is “overblown.”

Other points made by Mr. Lys included the comments that: his household “is the definition of young, hard-working family;” emergency communication systems for Montauk and Springs are “on the verge of breaking down;” that “solar power is going to be our future; we have to accept it and move forward with it.”

Other Primary Races in New York State

While the race between David Gruber and David Lys for the Democratic nomination for Town Board — and the races to fill each of the Democratic Committee’s 38 seats — have garnered all the attention in East Hampton, the Democratic primary election on Thursday, September 13, will have statewide races at the top of the ballot everywhere in New York.

Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Absentee ballots must be obtained by today, September 6. Registration closed on August 19. Only registered Democrats may participate.

Democrats will choose between Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and actress Cynthia E. Nixon to determine who is the party’s nominee for governor in November to face Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, who is running on the Republican, Conservative and Reform Party lines.

For the Democratic nomination to run for lieutenant governor, Governor Cuomo’s running mate, incumbent Kathy C. Hochul, is facing a challenge from New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a progressive who has endorsed Ms. Nixon and has been endorsed by her.

There are four candidates, none an incumbent, running to be the Democratic candidate for attorney general: Upstate New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney; attorney Leecia R. Eve, a former U.S. Senate staffer for Hillary Clinton; New York City Public Advocate Letitia A. James and Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor of Law at Fordham.

Two candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination for judge of the Surrogate Court, Tara A. Scully, an attorney and registered Republican from Port Jefferson; and Family Court Judge Theresa Whelan who has the Independence ballot line.

East Hampton hasn’t seen a challenge for membership on the Democratic Committee in 30 years, when Judith Hope orchestrated a takeover of the party. There are 139 choices for 38 seats, two for each of the town’s 19 election districts, which technically are memberships in the Suffolk County Democratic Committee. Voters will not have to pore through all those names. They will see ballots that are specific to their election district. Their choice for their two committee seats will be limited to three or four names. There are no pairs of seats for which there is no contest or only two candidates.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”