Q&A: Jim Larocca On His View Of The Future As Sag Harbor’s New Mayor

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Sag Harbor Village Mayor James Larocca. MICHAEL HELLER

Just prior to his swearing-in ceremony this week, Jim Larocca sat down for a conversation about his recent election as mayor of Sag Harbor Village, lingering antipathy from a brutal campaign season, the biggest challenges he will face, and areas where he plans to take a divergent path from the one blazed by the former mayor, Kathleen Mulcahy.

Q: The first announcement, before you had even been sworn in, was the appointment of Ed Haye to your vacant seat on the Village Board. How did you settle on Ed Haye?

Well, my approach was to cast as wide a net as I could. I’ve been here 21 years. I know my village pretty well, but not with the kind of roots that others have. And so, in the course of it, I had a lot of names I already knew that people had raised. I had a couple of people come forward on their own behalf. A couple of people came forward with names that I thought to myself, “You can’t be serious.”

And, so, the whole range. But Ed was a constant. And the more I listened and looked and began to narrow down the field, his name got stronger and stronger.

… He’s no stranger to the village. He grew up in the village. He went all through school, at Pierson High School, where he was an athlete and a scholar, and so he covered a lot of bases, and those roots are still alive and well. Many of the people who spoke to me go all the way back that far with him.

And as I began to get to know him, during this, I learned about his school board experience and talked to some of the people he served with then. And every road led back to this guy.

Q: What do you think he’ll bring to the Village Board? What are his unique skills?

Well, it’s a bundle of things at this point. He is a lawyer. He has a very strong education, and he has a lot of experience, directly or indirectly, that bears on how governments work. He’s been a utility lawyer. He’s had experience with utility work. He was on the school board, which is as complicated a unit as you can find anywhere in government. And he’s mature. He’s had a good career, very good career. And he would describe it better than I can on his behalf.

But the last couple of years, when he evaluated where he’d been happiest in his life, it was here. And what he learned, when he came back the last time, because his career has allowed a few times where he came back and lived here, where he came back and he found himself coaching again, and then getting involved in the school board, that had underlined to him that he’d been at his happiest here. And at this stage of his life, it made sense to come back.

And because he’s the guy he is, the opportunity to serve the community he loves so much. So it was a conjunction, a very fortuitous conjunction, of all of that.

Q: Why did you choose to run for mayor? I mean, you’ve been involved in the village for a long time, but you never ran for mayor before. Why did you choose to run?

I spent my life in public service. I had six cabinet positions in New York. I spent seven years on Capitol Hill when it was still fun to be on Capitol Hill. Those seven years, I married, someone I met on Capitol Hill, we had our first two children. I went to law school. I was an administrative assistant to a major member of Congress, who I eventually joined when he became governor. I ran his office in Washington for two years. Then we went to Albany for 10 years, worked for a succession of governors. So it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA.

But the thing that we never did is get involved where we lived — because if you’re in the conflict business all day long, you don’t want to take it home.

So Dale and I, this is the longest place we’ve lived anywhere, at 21 years. … One year I walked in the Memorial Day parade with Brian Gilbride, who was then mayor, and he said, “I see you’ve retired, again,” because I would go back in, and later governors would ask me to do something for a period of time.

So Brian said, “We’d love to have you involved in the village. What interests you?” And I said, “Well, if I were to do it, something sort of overarching, big picture stuff. I’m not looking to be a regulator or anything like that.” And he said, “Well, I have a Planning Board [seat].” And that made sense to me.

What I didn’t know is that the Planning Board doesn’t plan — it just does site plan review. So I thought it was the …

Q: … Planning Commission.

… Planning Commission. … Anyway, so I, probably, didn’t do enough homework, but I got on board, but I liked it well enough. And I was there a year, and Sandra [Schroeder], whom I had only met once, briefly, for a handshake, called me the next morning and asked me to take her seat.

Q: That was when she was elected mayor.

When she was elected mayor the first time. So all that resolution — don’t get involved … I talked with my wife. I said, I’m feeling drafted, but I like it, and so I came on board.

And Sandra asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, “I’m a sort of a water rat. I like the waterfront.” … And she said, “Well, I’d like you to be my waterfront guy.”

Q: How about making this step from Village Board to running for mayor, which is a big step?

Oh, yeah. Well, from the second meeting I attended as trustee under Sandra, till the summer of 2019, when we signed the inter-municipal agreement creating Steinbeck Park, was four years — four full, exhausting, complicated years. Three different owners of the property, two town supervisors, ultimately, now, two mayors for the last two years, two different directors of the CPF and all of that. So it was, like, Sisyphean — we’d go almost get there, and then the appraisals were a problem and on and on and on. So I did that and I felt very good about it.

After Sandra’s appointment, I ran unopposed for every seat, three times. So I discovered something very important, which is, if you want to run for office, make sure no one runs against you, it’s the only way to get elected.

… But I’ve been public about it, so I’ll say it here: I became deeply frustrated with the Mulcahy administration. We did not advance the park one inch in those two years. We didn’t advance much of anything. She ran on a platform of a comprehensive master plan — never made a move to create a process to do it. She ran publicly saying she would put in a professional manager, which never happened. And I’m aware that it was never tried.

And the problem with that, though, you have a sitting clerk administrator who hears on your opening day that you want to replace her with a professional, and then you don’t do it. So that left the clerk administrator sort of hanging, which I just thought was fundamentally unfair, bad management — but just on a human basis, you just don’t do that.

… I have three grown, successful kids; all have been part of my public life. And they said to me, “When we were growing up, when we were bitching and moaning about something, you would say to us, ‘Stop complaining — or keep complaining, but no one’s going to listen — or do something about it.’”

So they all called me out on this. They said, “You loved being trustee for those four years. All we hear you talk about it now is how frustrated you are and the serious things that are going wrong, all this development stuff that’s going unchecked all of that.” So my kids called my bluff.

Q: For residents of Sag Harbor, is the switchover in the mayor’s position going to be about changes in direction? Or is it just going to be about trying to get things done that were already in motion? Is there going to be a big change in strategy, in direction?

Well, it’s always about a mix of things. There is not much to point to over the last two years, in terms of positive accomplishment. I’ve said this publicly about Mayor Mulcahy, and I’ll say it forever: Her best work was in the COVID response, with ample moral and actual support from the deputy mayor, Tom Gardella.

Q: To be fair, though, the pandemic did derail a lot of things, too, right?

I’m not ready to agree with that, no. I would like to hear a specific. But the COVID response was first rate — the village has the lowest per capita infection rate of any community in Suffolk County. So full credit there.

But COVID quickly became the excuse for all the things that didn’t happen. I don’t know what that had to do with not starting a comprehensive master plan for two years. I don’t know what that had to do with not doing any of the other promised things.

So my frustration was across the board, and the ultimate catalyst was that, while we were, I was, I thought, as part of an administration, seeking to get title to the gas ball lot and trying to get CPF involvement in the 7-Eleven property, I found that the mayor was actively supporting Bay Street in both those acquisitions, contrary to her public position and contrary to the interest of the village.

… I am a former five-year commissioner of the Public Service Commission — I understand utilities. I served as a director of Brooklyn Union, we then became KeySpan, when we merged, took over LILCO, and I, altogether, was, I don’t know, 15, 16 years in that world. And I had been involved, just like we have trustees with liaison to different parts of things, I was a very active trustee on the remediation of manufactured gas sites — it’s a subject I know.

… I was in active conversation with the president of the company, asking for it as either a charitable gift or as a grant. And the company did not say no. … And I have a track record of doing very big deals like that.

And I felt betrayed, double-crossed [by the mayor’s letter in support of Bay Street’s acquisition of the site]. … So it was not an innocent error, and it’s one of the triggers, frankly, that caused me to get angry enough to run.

Q: How will the conversation about Bay Street’s plans be different in a Larocca administration?

I’m already different. I’m already speaking and meeting with them.

Q: What’s the different direction that you want to take? I assume you’re committed to the idea that keeping Bay Street in Sag Harbor village is essential.

Absolutely. I’m as committed as anyone in this story to doing that. I didn’t like the silly threat, “Our way or the highway …”

Q: About moving to Southampton Village?

You only have to look on Facebook to see the public reaction to that. No one took that seriously, and they got a lot of bad vibes back on that.

Q: So how do you change the direction of these conversations? They’ve been rocky so far, let’s say, between the village and Bay Street. Where does it go from here? Where have you begun to take it from here?

Well, you just, very generously, called it a conversation. What’s going on in the last year has not been a conversation. It has been a series of demands and an unyielding assertion that they have to have that one location.

And with the overlay of having bought [the 7-Eleven property] out from under us, while we had an active CPF application in, with an informal but, nevertheless, at least a conversational commitment from Jay Schneiderman for 50 percent of the cost. So I felt betrayed by that.

… I did not know about this thing called Friends of Bay Street, never heard of it. I never heard of Adam Potter or any of that stuff. I now know that a full year before, in August 2019, the mayor began meeting with Bay Street and Adam Potter, even calling on other third parties about their acquisition of that property. While here, again, I’m talking to the town about getting it as an addition to the park, under the Community Preservation Fund.

Q: So have you started to have an actual conversation?

Yes.

Q: And what are the opening positions, if you can describe them?

It’ll be best for me to only say to you that I’m having a highest-level conversation with Bay Street, with a person I have had some business with before, whom I trust and believe. And I know him be a person of absolute integrity. And we have had an opening conversation.

Q: Someone who’s in Friends of Bay Street?

Not Friends of Bay Street, Bay Street. Yeah, it is very high leadership.

Q: It’s somebody in Bay Street, not Friends of Bay Street.

Right.

Q: Which are two different entities?

Yeah. Well, they are, and they aren’t. When it’s convenient to see them as separate, that’s how they present. And when we’re talking about reality, we see them all as one big, happy family.

Q: That’s part of the complication here, right?

Yeah. Well, yeah. And it gets even more complicated, because the chairman of Friends of Bay Street bought the Dodds & Eder building in his own name.

Q: That’s Adam Potter, right?

Yeah. So that’s a further complication.

But in my history, I have done a few Robert Moses jobs, and I met the guy once. Miserable old guy that he was. But he made a very good point: He’d say, “All right, well, we’re looking at a bunch of property here, and this is owned by Friends of Bay Street. This is owned by Bay Street, or they’ll leasehold. This is owned by someone called Adam Potter. This is owned by an LLC, which we think is Adam Potter.

But just forget all the ownership pattern. What’s the highest and best use of this property? Can we have that conversation, before we get to what you can’t do?

… It’s like a city square block now, up Bridge, across Rose, down Meadow, back to West Water Street — this is a city block. And almost everything in there now transacted, mostly below the radar. And even when the filings come, an LLC, you could spend a month studying the LLC and find yourself in Cyprus. I mean, it’s designed not to all be known.

So we’re dealing with different folks and different entities. But the approach I’ve taken in these renewed opening conversations is, why don’t we just step back here and see what works for everybody? Here’s what we want as a village. Here’s what you want as a theater. That’s the same thing.

And I’ve said it in my ads that I put in the paper and everything else, that the only disagreement is about real estate, nothing else. And the only reason they want it on the waterfront is that’s where they want it. They’ve never given a substantive reason.

Q: And you have a pretty specific alternate vision, right?

Absolutely.

Q: Tell me what that is.

Well, for a time I dangled the idea that the gas ball lot might be buildable … I’m going to have an independent engineer answer the question, because I’ve heard so many versions about what you can and can’t do. … I think that would help us all, what you can and can’t do.

… It will be said, and has been said, publicly, privately, every other way, that the Dodds & Eder property is too small. … The 7-Eleven building fits perfectly on the Dodds site … right to the inch, it looks like.

… But the point is, conversations, if that’s the right term, but this discussion’s been going on all this time, we don’t have a common set of facts. I say, “It could go there.” But then they’d say, “Well, that’s in private hands now.” “Well, yeah, but that’s your guy who bought it while this is all going on.”

That’s where I’m back to. Let’s pretend everything’s in play. And if we all agreed, I think we can figure out this ownerships stuff very quickly. Particularly if we had CPF as a partner.

Q: At least one person wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that what’s happening here is outside interests using Bay Street as a lever to set a new precedent for building in Sag Harbor — and accumulating properties to then take advantage of that after the fact. Do you think that’s part of what’s happening?

Well, I’ve seen that letter. I’ve seen others … “Bay Street is being used as a Trojan Horse, and that it’ll be abandoned.”

… I start by taking everything at face value. And I try to stay away from motivation, rather, what do I see? And what are people saying? And let’s start from that. I believe that Bay Street, the institution, 31 years of history, run by very good people for all the right reasons, and all they really want to do is go to the next stage, have their own place. I absolutely subscribe to that.

Is it possible that, suddenly, they’re awash in donations? In 30 years, they never were able to get this kind of money. Could the explanation for that be people with other agendas? I mean, you’d have to say, just intelligently, that could be a possibility — but I’m not advocating that, nor I have not reached that judgment myself. But I hear the people who say it. A lot of people who say it are pretty savvy people.

If we knew more about all the rest of the players and what the agenda is … That narrative keeps shifting a bit, so that I think contributes to these speculative stories about what’s really going on there.

But I want to believe that Bay Street Theater and the good souls who’ve created and managed it all these years are on the level.

Q: Steinbeck Park was a big ask and a project that was an uphill battle. This is another one, with Bay Street. Are you optimistic that this can get done in the next couple of years, and in a way that satisfies both Bay Street and the village?

I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t believe that. … I believe in it enough to be willing to give it this effort.

Q: Bay Street really is the primary thing that we need to worry about in the village right now, right?

No, no. … Bay Street has become the focal point, if you will, but it is not the primary issue. The primary issue is much bigger.

There is a master plan being developed by people who we don’t even know who they are. After we’ve been talking about doing it for the last couple of years, and didn’t do it, but suddenly somebody’s got a plan here that doesn’t include us. That’s the reality.

… This overlay district, about which I’ve been skeptical from day one. … Why are we doing an overlay district? Why were the boundaries chosen as they were? Leaves a lot, a lot of questions in my mind.

Q: Talk about your vision for the future of the waterfront, and how it differs from the direction the village has been going on last two years.

This plan suddenly emerged to do a portion of the waterfront, and the mechanism created came up through the Planning Board and the ZBA, and two very good chairs, who were struggling with the lack of an overarching plan. That’s a very common theme.

Q: That an overall master plan for the village is needed, rather than just looking at the waterfront.

Right. Or just looking at only certain elements of village life and economics and all that. So how it evolved to take only a certain part of the commercial waterfront, and then bring in a concept for zoning and the management of public space and all that — that is nowhere near universally accepted, this so-called form-based code.

My biggest concern about it — this is where my legal education gets in the way — we’re taking a set of standards now that are called a code. And that are in the hands of amateur government — our boards are all volunteers, and they learn and they put in endless time and everything else, but it’s not easy. My eyes glaze over just thinking about it. And we’re going to give them a new set of standards that are softer than the ones we have now?

… They can get feet and inches and meters and all that stuff. But you say to them, “It also has to reflect the culture …” That’s all brilliant stuff for your architect — but how do you make a small regulatory board deal with it?

So the people who’ve concluded, including the Chamber of Commerce and the editorial that came out of The Express, were right on the money: We’re not sure this is safe. Several sentences in that editorial said it might actually make the density problem worse — that’s been my view from the very beginning. And that’s still my view.

Q: Do you think the process needs to be scrapped and go back to square one?

Well, in the hyperbole of the campaign, I said, “I think I would stop it dead in its tracks.” It was a very attractive phrase to use if you’re going to get attention, but it overstates my real thought.

… What I’ve said, and I’ve met a lot on this the last few weeks, that we will keep the platform of the plan that has been developed so far, in its eighth iteration. Putting aside who was involved, who wasn’t, put all the motives in there, just take what’s there, and essentially remove from it that which we don’t want, and put into it that which we do want.

Where I would start is by taking the boundaries out to where they should have been in the first place. I think we can do that without so disabling what’s happened that it’s really a start-over. I don’t want to make it a start-over. We lost a year and we shouldn’t need to do that.

… And then once we’ve done that, I have a couple of different groups working now: What is it that worries us? What is it that, as a tool, will work? Show me where it worked somewhere else.

… Another thing I’ve said was, and we flirted with this when I first came on the board, is that we must protect the integrity of the independence of our boards. … But that doesn’t mean that the Village Board or the mayor is powerless. We have, like we would in every part of this government, responsibility of oversight. We’re prime fiduciaries to the taxpayers and all that stuff.

So we had put into that last code revision, the one that got totally thrown out six, seven years ago, that the Village Board would be the final stop, 4,000 square feet and above. And then we chickened out — we canceled, got fearful, lawsuits and all that.

I want to come back to something like that.

Q: Where the Village Board would step in for …

Not step in, but have, in effect, a final review with a very limited scope. We would not reopen a case. We would not hear witnesses or anything like that. But we would, in effect, be a board of review of the file of the case.

And the best way for me to explain it is the doctrine of mistake. On the Bialsky buildings, they are indisputably higher than the Bruce Davis building. How did that happen? Okay, Bruce Davis building, what did I describe it as, a wedding cake gone bad, had a roofline the length of the building, and right in the middle of it had a cupola. … The height of the cupola was included in the buildable height, which explains how it got so high.

I think a proper review process by an engaged board with the power to look at a file and outcome, would’ve compelled sending it back down to the board. It’s tricky.

Q: Is that legal? I thought in municipal law, when a Village Board creates a regulatory board, its only real power over that board is to appoint members.

Well, these are things that are said, but I ask you to just put on a more practical hat, and not even a lawyer’s hat or anything. We had here, in my judgment, an error, a mistake, let’s call it a good faith mistake. And the consequence was to take another 20 percent of the sky plane. … Is it the design of this government that it’s, “Tough shit”? That there’s nothing to be done in a case like that?

Q: You’re going to get a lot more lawsuits.

Hey, when I left DOT and came to the Long Island Association, one of my board members offered to get me a mortgage, and he called me, like, three days later, he says, “You’re a defendant in $1.2 billion worth of lawsuits.” I said, “So you think that’s a credit problem?” So I’m not as intimidated by it.

Q: What’s the future of paid parking in the village?

I don’t like it. And I’ve made no bones about it. My first complaint with it is: It doesn’t create a single parking place. Secondly, the construct of this particular plan, which was finally described as “premium parking for premium people,” upset me greatly. The financial architecture of it, $42.50 for five hours of parking for a Sag Harbor family that wants to come downtown, get a pizza, go to the movie, and get an ice cream cone, is outrageous. It went away right away.

But I try to be collegial. My colleagues wanted to do it, so we took it off Main Street. We made it just as an experiment on the wharf, and that’s one season only. And I had a separate local law written that meant to protect the income. It could be only used for clearly defined infrastructure.

… I will tell you it’s not working very well, but it will be suspect coming from me. The complications of introducing an app system to an older population, to a visitor population for a day, all of that, at a time when the surge in population has strangled our WiFi and our bandwidth in the village — I cannot use my cell phone at home. I live eight blocks from downtown. I can’t get a signal, maybe at 6 o’clock in the morning.

So we’re watching it. I’m committed that we’ll do it through to the end of the season, as we said. But I would say the pressure is growing to address the difficulties they’re having.

Q: The village’s budget, and budgeting for infrastructure in particular, is going to be a challenge moving forward.

You bet.

Q: Do you have any broad ideas about how to address that?

I have some. I’m not ready to talk about them publicly. I was in that business, public works and all that stuff, but I need some time to articulate it.

Q: The village election was very divisive this year. Is that going to carry over in governance? Do you have a plan to sort of reach across the aisle to the other members of the board that you may have had disagreements with along the way? Are you worried at all about the tone?

I’ve never thought about it as an aisle — we’re a nonpartisan government. Am I worried about it? I was very troubled by it. I’ve never been the subject of what I was the subject of here. It involved my family. I think it was outrageous. I think you and your colleagues all tended to treat it as symmetrical. I never considered it symmetrical. I made a very strong case against her record as an incumbent. It was not personal. I did not venture into the personal. There’s a lot out there that others were tempted to, but I did not.

What they came after me with was utterly personal. Went to my personality, I don’t know what. And I asked that it stop. The mayor claimed she had nothing to do with it. There were words and phrases being used that I had heard directly from her.

So I’m under no illusion about what happened. It ultimately wasn’t successful. I will now be serving with two colleagues who were part of that.

Q: Does that tarnish the relationship moving forward with them?

Does it tarnish? It complicates, because we don’t have the kind of fresh starting point we should have. But I got a note from somebody the other day that said, “Have you reached out to them?” I’ll give you my answer to that in a minute. But my question was, “Have you given them the same message?” They have not reached out to me, I can tell you that. Absolute certainty.

I did have breakfast with one of my colleagues. The breakfast lasted about four minutes, then he got up and left.

… We were on the porch at the Hotel. And I said, “Thanks for coming.” I really, I think … I’ve had a good relationship with this guy I thought.

Q: You don’t want to say who?

No. You have two to choose from.

So I said, probably in these exact words, “I really appreciate you coming. We really do need to clear the air.” He said, “You can stop right there. I’m not talking about anything that happened. I’m talking only about going forward. And if you’re going to give me another one of your f—–g lectures, I’m leaving.”

You tell me what to do with that.

Q: That’s going to be the challenge, though, as mayor.

I’m not going to stop trying.

… I’ll tell you one more thing. So the transition of Sandra to Kathleen, there was none. … I was mindful of that. So the night of [the election], as things were thinning out, I went over to Kathleen, and she looked like she might not yet be ready to come my way. And so I just went over that way, and I said, “Look, I know this is not easy” — but I wasn’t going to say I’m sorry I did it or anything like that. I said, “When you’re ready, we should talk.” And she said, “Yes, we will.” That was the entire conversation.

Last Monday, nothing was happening, saw her in the office and I said … “We said we’d talk.” And she said, “Well, we’re not going to do that.” I said, “We’re not going to talk at all?” She said, “No.”

… So I’ve had no transition with the mayor. But if one more person says to me, “You’ve got to reach out” — please understand that, so far, my reaching out has had zero payoff.

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