By Stephen J. Kotz
Come noon Monday, Brian Gilbride who has held elective office in Sag Harbor since 1994—15 years as a trustee and the last six as mayor—will leave public life.
The mayor, who readily acknowledged that his popularity has taken a hit over the years, especially as he has found himself standing alone on a number of unpopular issues, insisted he has no regrets and has always had the interest of village taxpayers at heart. “I did the best job I could for the people paying me for the last six years,” said.
“You have to be able to say no,” he said of the demands for funding various pet programs and projects any mayor faces. As a result, “almost every mayor or person leaving this board leaves with some people who are not as friendly as they used to be.”
Mr. Gilbride, 68, is proud of his Sag Harbor roots. He was born to a village native and his Scottish war bride. His grandfather, he said, once ferried beachgoers across Sag Harbor Cove to what is now known as Long Beach, although at the turn of the 20th century it was known as Gilbride’s Beach.
“My grandfather and grandmother are buried up in the Catholic cemetery and my father is in Oakland with my mother and my wife,” he said.
He comes by his thriftiness from his Scottish ancestors, he said. “I’m a pay-as-you-go guy,” he said during an interview on Tuesday in the Municipal Building. “When I was elected mayor, I said I wasn’t going to borrow money and I haven’t.”
Critics have said the village should adopt a capital spending plan and take advantage of record low interest rates to bond major projects such as the renovation of the Municipal Building and the refurbishment of Long Wharf and village docks.
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Gilbride said as he dismissed in his typically blunt manner the notion of borrowing money even at pennies on the dollar, “with my Scottish roots, there is no such thing as cheap money.”
He ticked off a number of projects that were completed under his watch, from renovation work at the Municipal Building to the remediation of Havens Beach runoff, to the construction of a new bulkhead on West Water Street, and the replacement of two fire trucks, and the purchase of a new garbage truck and street sweeper.
“All that stuff is paid for,” he said, while pointing out that the village still has a repair reserve of about $1.2 million and an unallocated reserve fund of $1.5 million.
Mr. Gilbride has gotten into his share of public fights over the years, perhaps no bigger than the one with the village police force that effectively ended his friendship with Police Chief Tom Fabiano when he at first threatened to disband the department altogether before reducing its staffing to 10 officers. “It’s getting to be too expensive for the village,” he said simply, noting that it easily costs the village $200,000 annually in salary and benefits for the average officer.
Although the village won some concessions when an arbitration panel announced its ruling last summer, that contract only ran until May 31, 2013, meaning it is already two years overdue, with Mr. Gilbride insisting the department did not want to sit down at the negotiating table with him. Settling that contract will now fall to newly elected Mayor Sandra Schroeder.
Mayor Gilbride was the lightning rod for criticism earlier this year when he questioned whether the village should try to negotiate a more lucrative lease with the not-for-profit Breakwater Yacht Club. When club members caught wind of a plan to reject an automatic renewal, they poured into a board meeting in protest. In the end, Mr. Gilbride said the board, which was privately united in the need to seek a more favorable lease, caved into the public pressure and approved the renewal. “The board was 5-0 on what was going to be done,” he said, “and a couple of people balked.”
Mr. Gilbride did not endorse either candidate, Ms. Schroeder, or Trustee Robby Stein, in the recent mayoral race, but he said the new board would have its work cut out for it.
Both Ms. Schroeder and Mr. Stein called for Long Wharf and dock repairs and examining whether it is feasible to undertake a major overhaul of the Municipal Building. Mr. Gilbride said he had a proposal to undertake half of the Long Wharf project with reserve fund money and complete the rest next year but was shot down by the rest of the board. Similarly, he said he had proposed bite-sized fixes to the Municipal Building again to no avail.
Similarly, it will fall to the new board “to try to get their arms” around the rampant development that is quickly transforming the village, he said. A week after Mr. Gilbride’s departure, Mayor Schroeder will preside over a hearing on a proposed building moratorium.
Mr. Gilbride laments the transformation of Sag Harbor from a blue-collar town to a well-heeled resort. “It’s sad because I see locals moving away because their house is the major investment in their life and they can live cheaper down south,” he said.
While he said he has no regrets, Mr. Gilbride said he could think of one exception. Pointing to the hard work put in by village employees, he said if he could do it over again he would increase staffing.
Mr. Gilbride, who has two children and three grandchildren, said his first order of business once his official duties end will be “to go out to dinner with the grandkids a couple of times, maybe plan a trip to Scotland, go watch my granddaughter play lacrosse.”
But he said he looks forward to watching the new board in action. “I wish them well,” he said before pausing to say that he would not rule out a return to village politics in the future. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just up the road,” he said. “I started here and I plan on ending here.”