Southampton Town Political Races Take Shape As Election Nears

Southampton Town Hall. DANA SHAW

With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, the political battle for control of the Southampton Board and other elective town offices on November is set to begin.

Republicans, who have failed in past efforts to defeat incumbent Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who is seeking his fourth, and final, two-year term, are trying a new strategy this year and not running a candidate for supervisor, focusing instead on the two open seats currently held by the Democrats, on the Town Board, which could give them a 3-2 majority.

Incumbent Democrat Tommy John Schiavoni of North Haven is seeking a second four-year term, but Julie Lofstad of Hampton Bays, has decided not to run again. In her place, the Democrats have nominated Southampton real estate attorney Robin Long, who is a member of the town Planning Board and of the town’s Democratic Committee.

The Republicans have chosen Cynthia McNamara, who runs an East Quogue landscaping business with her husband and is a former member of the East Quogue School Board and chairwoman of that hamlet’s citizens advisory committee, and Ann Thomas, whose career has been in risk management and investment banking. Both Republican candidates have been cross-endorsed by the Conservative Party.

Another race to watch is for highway superintendent, where Tom Neely, who retired earlier this year as the town’s director of public transportation and traffic safety, will face off against Conservative Charles McArdle, a retired Town Police detective who currently runs a security business and a valet parking business, and is being cross-endorsed by the Republicans.

Ms. McNamera said she decided to run for office because the current Town Board has too often ignored the advice of its committees and the people it is supposed to represent.

As chairwoman of the East Quogue Citizens Advisory Committee, she said a few short years ago, a dozen people would show up at meetings to discuss issues. “Now we are lucky to get a handful,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t care. They are tired of not being heard.”

The same thing happened, she said, when she reached out to dozens of landscaping firms when the board held a hearing on a state Department of Environmental Conservation requirement that businesses using the town’s transfer stations be licensed as commercial haulers and only a handful showed up when the board discussed licensing fees.

She also said the town has turned its back on initiatives that would have been beneficial to her hamlet, from the denial of The Hills, a Planned Development District that called for a private golf course and housing development that would have provided numerous benefits for the school district, to the failure to buy the Hampton Break property next to the East Quogue hamlet green, for use as a community meeting place.

“I guarantee you there will be a lot more public debate and the community will be heard when I’m elected,” Ms. McNamera promised this week.

Ms. Thomas, a native of Houston, came to New York City to work for Chase Manhattan Bank in its oil and gas risk-management business and began visiting the East End as a fresh-air escape from the city in 1990. She has lived in both Southampton Village and the North Sea Beach Colony, but currently lives in Noyac and still does financial consulting work.

She believes her financial acumen would be useful on the Town Board. “I process information differently,” she said. “My goal would be to offer alternative solutions to be discussed if we are trying to fund something.”

Ms. Thomas said the town’s budget is difficult for the lay person to understand, and said she would seek to make the budgeting process more transparent.

On a related note, she criticized town plans to undertake a reassessment, saying doing so when the real estate market is at a peak would pose a hardship to many homeowners by raising their assessments. She suggested using a five-year average to achieve a fairer result. Even if the tax rate were to decline, a reassessment would allow the town to stealthily increase spending at the same time, she added.

Ms. Thomas said the town needs to get a handle on the affordable housing crisis and focus its attention on preserving what she described as “a magical” way of life on the East End.

Ms. Long said her law practice, which focuses on real estate, has made her knowledgeable about different neighborhoods in town and given her insight into the kind of strains that confront first-time buyers as well as people who are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure.

A member of the Planning Board for five years, Ms. Long said she has real experience in the planning process and governing in general. “I don’t have that learning curve,” she said of her opponents. “We are going to need people who can get started right away.”

Ms. Long said with federal and state relief funding soon to be available, the board needed members who can “think outside the box” and look at major planning issues confronting the town, from the placement of workforce housing to ways to improve transportation and safeguard drinking water.

“We have to start to look at the town as a single piece,” she said, “because what we do in one area affects the rest of the town.”

Mr. Schiavoni, a retired teacher, who formerly served on the town Zoning Board of Appeals and the Sag Harbor School Board, also touted his experience and said serving another four-year term would allow him to give back to the community and help continue the work the Town Board has undertaken the past four years.

Noting that reassessments are never popular, Mr. Schiavoni said the board is waiting for home-rule permission from the state to pass a homestead tax that would waive the first $50,000 of assessed value for full-time residents and is looking to cap assessments at a 5-percent increase.

“The town is faced with real challenges,” he said, noting that COVID-19 had increased the year-round population and put strains on services. “These challenges need to addressed in a fiscally prudent manner.”

Supervisor Unchallenged

Mr. Schneiderman, who is running unopposed with the cross-endorsement of the Conservatives, said last year was the only year in his more than 20 years in office that a budget carried a higher tax rate and that was because of the stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Although he acknowledged that higher assessments help lower the tax rate by increasing the size of the tax pie, he said his administration had prided itself on being fiscally responsible.

An example, he said was the replacement of all the town’s incandescent street lights with LED bulbs. The project cost more than $1 million and was expected to pay for itself over seven years, but actually did so after five years and begin to save the town $100,000 a year going forward.

He pointed to the town’s AAA bond rating, and said when the town recently borrowed $5 million for the Sagaponack-Bridgehampton erosion-control district, it effectively received the money at an interest rate of 0.1 percent because of the way the deal was structured, with the underwriter effectively giving the town a $500,000 bonus in exchange for it borrowing $4.5 million at 5 percent.

“I want to continue the work I’ve been doing over the past six years,” Mr. Schneiderman said, “moving town in the right direction, improving water quality, improving public safety, controlling taxes, and meeting critical needs.”

Highway Superintendent Race

In the race for highway superintendent to replace Alex Gregor, who is not seeking another term, Mr. Neely said he would focus on a more holistic approach to the job by seeking to add bicycle lanes, address pedestrian needs, improve intersections, and try to improve traffic flow on major routes, but not at the expense of duties like plowing snow and fixing potholes.

He said Mr. Gregor was criticized for failing to communicate with the Town Board and other town departments, and he said he would focus on improving those relationships.

Mr. McArdle said his experience as a police union leader when he negotiated two contracts with the town, his experience as a business owner in managing a large workforce, and his knowledge of Town Hall would serve him in good stead as highway superintendent.

The town needs to lobby the state for a turning lane at Canoe Place Road in Hampton Bays and to eliminate the stop light on Montauk Highway in Water Mill. It should eliminate the no-left turn restriction at Sandy Hollow Road in Tuckahoe, remove school buses from Montauk Highway and County Road 39, and post more traffic police along major corridors during rush hours as quick fixes to slow traffic.

Businesses “are not paying people for travel time,” he said, “They are paying for traffic time.”

Other Races

A slew of other races will be on the ballot in November as well.

The Republicans are backing a slate of incumbents Ed Warner Jr. and Scott Horowitz and Bob Savage and Bill Parash for Trustee, and they are cross-endorsing incumbent Bill Pell. Besides Mr. Pell, the Democrats are backing incumbent Ann Welker, Andrew Brosnan, Will Peckham, and Martha Reichart.

For town justice, the Democratic ticket is Adam Grossman and Shari Oster, while the Republicans are backing incumbent Barbara Wilson and Patrick Gunn, who are both cross-endorsed by the Conservatives.

Incumbent Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer is running unopposed with Democratic and Republican endorsements.

The Republicans have nominated Robert Carpenter, an employee of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, to challenge Democrat Bridget Fleming, who is seeking reelection to her county post this year and also running for the 1st District Congressional seat in 2022.

Early voting takes place from October 23 to October 31. For a list of locations, visit the Suffolk County Board of Elections website.