By Mara Certic
While millions of voters on Tuesday evening tuned into watch the Democratic candidates for president debate on CNN, a much smaller but similarly concerned group showed up at the East Hampton Emergency Services Building for a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons.
The evening, co-hosted by The East Hampton Star, featured three separate debates: one between the candidates for county legislator, one between the candidates for East Hampton Town supervisor and one for the four candidates for two openings on the town board.
Candidates across the board seemed to agree about what were the biggest issues facing the region—water degradation, declining quality of life and overcrowding—but voiced differences when it came to how they would solve the many problems.
Amos Goodman, who is running for Suffolk County legislator for the 2nd Legislative District on the Republican and Reform party lines, said repeatedly his background in finance and desire to serve the public made him the right person to represent the East End in Hauppauge.
“I was here 30-plus years ago and I know things have changed,” said Mr. Goodman, who is from Springs. “Most of our challenges aren’t new, they’ve festered. I’m tired of waiting for action.”
“I’m tired of waiting for the East End to get its fair share. The county is in deep trouble—it has saddled our children with massive debt just to keep the lights on,” he said.
His opponent, Bridget Fleming, is currently in her fifth year on Southampton Board and is running for county legislator on the Democratic, Working Family and Independent party lines. Before she moved to Noyac 15 years ago, Ms. Fleming worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and chief of a unit that prosecuted fraud.
“The economy here is not providing enough middle-income jobs,” Ms. Fleming said in her opening remarks. Suffolk County is funded by sales tax, a great deal of which comes from the East End, and yet often townships further east get ignored at the county level.
“We need a strong, experienced county, and we need a strong partnership in the county, too,” Ms. Fleming said.
“It’s true 70 percent of the county is un-sewered,” she said, “but the county is spending $380 million on sewers up west,” adding that someone with her experience could help refocus the county’s efforts, and also expedite the process of approving systems.
Mr. Goodman, on the other hand, criticized the plan and said that he wanted to immediately start incrementally updating the “low-hanging fruit” of private septic systems, rather than waiting for state-of-the-art de-nitrifying systems.
“I would be in favor of a tax credit to encourage upgrades,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer.”
When asked how to get rid of the county’s deficit, Mr. Goodman said he thought there were many opportunities to cross-train and consolidate on the county level to save money. “The county has not meaningfully cut staffing,” he said, adding that the 1,000 positions the Suffolk County got rid of was not what he calls a “considerable” number.
“We need to get better at estimating sales tax,” he added.
Ms. Fleming said that when there is a workforce of about 10,000—getting rid of 1,000 jobs is something that needs to “be taken extremely seriously.” She instead said the county should look at smart financial practices and ways to render services at a lesser cost. “But we must revitalize the economy,” she said.
Ms. Fleming mentioned the possibility of attracting more year-round, white-collar jobs to the area by creating an industrial park at the East Hampton Airport—an idea later mentioned by both candidates for East Hampton Town supervisor, incumbent Larry Cantwell and his opponent, Tom Knobel.
“The future lies in new technology, and there are undeveloped opportunities at the East Hampton Airport,” said Mr. Cantwell, who is running for re-election on the Democratic, Working Families and Independent party lines.
He said the town should attract new technology through the users of the airport. “They come here for the quality of life we have,” he said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to attract some of that business to East Hampton.”
When asked if it was too much of a juxtaposition to put in restrictions to quiet the airport, and then look to its users for an economic boost, Mr. Cantwell said he didn’t know why the two ideas could not work together.
Mr. Knobel, who served on the town board for one term and as an East Hampton Town Trustee for five, has previously spoken about the potential benefits of an industrial park at the airport, but criticized the town board for spending too much money on litigation related to the airport, rather than on maintenance expenses.
“The town has a serious problem in having an exceedingly adversarial fight with aviation interests,” Mr. Knobel said.
“In this election, we have an outside group bringing money in from New Jersey to defeat the current town board,” Mr. Cantwell said, explaining that the helicopter industry has given $50,000 to the Republican candidates in East Hampton.
Mr. Knobel countered that the Democratic party has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from David Gruber, “an avid Democratic supporter who is against the airport.”
Neither of the candidates thinks a townwide reassessment is something that should be done right away, but Mr. Knobel did say he would “immediately investigate it.”
The Republican candidate said he was reserving judgment about a proposed rental registry in town until it went to a public hearing, but would likely oppose it.
“It’s not good enough,” he said. “It might impact the people.”
“We have a serious problem of overcrowding housing on a seasonal and year-round basis,” Mr. Cantwell replied, adding that at a work session just that morning, an environmentalist and a business owner had both stood up to support the law.
“Because they both understand part of the problem is the sheer number of people that some of these illegal houses are attracting,” he said.
“It’s another tool in the tool box of trying to keep this community from becoming overcrowded and protecting the quality of life that all of us enjoy,” Mr. Cantwell said.
“I see a different type of future happiness,” Mr. Knobel said. “I want to have what I enjoyed here when I started out in the ’70s.”
Candidates for two seats on the East Hampton Town Board discussed topics ranging from sea-level rise to affordable housing and the airport. Democratic incumbents Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, both of whom have been on the board for the past four years, focused on their experience bringing civility and several social issues to the board.
Margaret Turner, the executive director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, who is running on the Republican, Conservative, and Reform lines, said if she were elected, her business acumen would help keep young people and local families from getting priced out of the area and being forced to leave.
“We must prioritize attainable housing and secure the quality of life,” she said. “There will always be change and we need to figure out how we fit into this environment.”
Lisa M. Larsen, another political newcomer who is running on the Republican, Conservative, and Independent party lines, could not attend Tuesday night’s debate, but provided a prepared statement in which she said she would not ignore issues, and would work for the residents of the community.
Ms. Turner, who was on a town housing committee, criticized her opponents for not doing enough to build affordable housing in the town, disagreeing with their claims they have worked aggressively to create opportunities.
“Obviously those programs aren’t working,” she said.
“Most of these projects take three years or more,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc, who is also on the Working Families and Independence lines. “We have only had an interested board for about 19 months,” he said, adding that 12 units are waiting final approval and that the board has just bonded for another project in Amagansett.
“Her being on the housing committee didn’t move one project along,” said Ms. Overby, who is also running on the Working Families line, of her opponent. “Nothing moved until the five of us were on the board,” she said, adding that Ms. Turner should have used her position in the business community to encourage the creation of affordable apartments above businesses in certain areas.
While both incumbents mentioned solar projects and the possibility of creating microgrids in both Montauk and at the East Hampton Town Hall Campus as ways of reaching sustainability goals, Ms. Turner suggested the town look at educational campaigns and encouraged work at a grassroots level.
Mr. Van Scoyoc advocated for better pedestrian and bike pathways to help reduce the number of cars on the road and protect infrastructure, while Ms. Turner called for better public transportation and planning.
“I’m concerned about the attacks on our quality of life,” Ms. Turner said. “With our financial crisis behind us, it’s time to put some focus on our businesses and our people.”