Politics

File photo by Elana Glowatz

During a public meeting on Monday, Feb. 6, Village of Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant announced her retirement from public office. Her 14-year uninterrupted tenure presiding over the village government will come to its conclusion this June.

Garant’s mother, Jeanne, served three terms as mayor starting in 1999. Unlike her mother, who had previously sat on the board of trustees, Margot Garant was a first-time elected official upon entering the mayor’s office.

“We’re going to give the community back to the residents,” Garant told a group of supporters the night of her first election win in 2009.

Six successful races later, Garant has been at the seat of power longer than any other in the village’s nearly 60-year history. And during that window, the village has undergone considerable change.

For over eight years, Garant’s administration engaged in a widely publicized legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority over the assessed valuation and property tax bill on the Port Jefferson Power Station. The tax grievance case was settled in 2018.

Colloquially known as the “Glide Path,” the village and LIPA agreed to an eight-year phasing out of the public utility’s local tax contribution, with a 50% reduction in revenue by 2027.

Known for her ambitious building philosophy, Garant facilitated the construction of numerous construction projects, including large-scale developments along Port Jeff Harbor and near the train station. 

The development of Upper Port has been a core tenet of her administration. The seven-term incumbent also moved ahead the envisioned Six-Acre Park along Highlands Boulevard, with plans in place to preserve the last remaining tract of undeveloped land as open space.

Garant’s boards have been forced to confront the crippling effects of coastal erosion at East Beach, which presently endangers the Port Jefferson Country Club’s catering facility at the edge of the bluff. 

Construction is currently ongoing for a toe wall at the base of the cliff. Most recently, Garant announced the injection of federal funding to subsidize the upland phase of the bluff stabilization project.

The race to fill Garant’s seat is now underway, with candidate announcements expected in the days and weeks ahead. Village elections will take place Tuesday, June 20.

This is a developing story.

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn criticism from Republicans within the county government. Stock photo

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn scrutiny from Republican county officials targeting the program for alleged mismanagement.

Enacted unanimously by the county Legislature in 2021, this traffic safety program uses cameras attached near the stop arm of school buses to enforce the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law. The county has partnered with Virginia-based BusPatrol to operate the program.

Under state law, offenders caught passing buses while the stop arm is extended receive a $250 fine. The county code states, “net proceeds of any penalty … shall be expended for programs related to improving traffic safety and/or school district safety in Suffolk County.”

County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) recently announced his office is conducting an audit of the School Bus Safety program. He stated the program had captured his attention when numerous residents complained about receiving potentially erroneous violations.

“My interest in any program is always that a program is being operated as the laws that adopted it … sought to have it operate,” Kennedy said. “How is the revenue that’s being collected from the program being allocated? Is it being done under the terms of the contract? Is the vendor fulfilling all of their requirements?” 

He added, “That’s the audit function, and it is universal across the board.”

Legislative purpose

Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), summarized the motive for developing the program in the first place.

“The goal of the School Bus Safety program is to protect children as they get on and off the bus and to reduce the number of drivers illegally passing stopped school buses, which endangers the lives of students,” Guilfoyle said in an email. “The program is completely violator funded, and county proceeds are used to support public safety, traffic safety and school safety initiatives.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) defended the School Bus Safety program. She said her office’s most frequent complaints are related to roadway safety and other traffic concerns.

“Red light cameras and school bus cameras are a way to prevent death and injuries without needing a paid police officer at every intersection and following every bus,” she said. “It’s a very efficient way for providing the consequence for breaking the rules of the road.”

Before the program took effect, Hahn added, few violators ever got caught. Today, they receive a fine, incentivizing better roadway behavior and creating a safer traffic environment.

“Now people have to change their behavior to no longer do the illegal action that puts people’s lives at risk,” the county legislator said. 

Questions over potential misapplication

County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the School Bus Safety program is one of the few measures for which he wishes he could rescind his “yes” vote. He said the Legislature was misled when the program was pitched.

Figures obtained by Trotta indicate the program grossed $23 million last year, with $13 million retained by the county and the outstanding $10 million collected by the vendor. Kennedy estimated the county government netted approximately $11 million.

“We don’t have all the net revenue,” Kennedy said. “That’s been another consequence of the hack” against the county government in September. For more on this ransomware event, see story, “Suffolk County cyberattack offers a window into the dangers of the digital age,” Nov. 17, also TBR News Media website.

By statute, the net proceeds generated by the School Bus Safety program must support various educational programs related to school bus and traffic safety. Asked how the revenue is being spent, an administration official said the 2022 revenue figures are still being finalized.

Guilfoyle, however, cited specific examples of how the revenue supports countywide traffic education initiatives: “Examples of the county’s efforts include dedicating more than $1 million to school districts and $125,000 in [public service announcements] during the back-to-school months to educate drivers on the state law surrounding stopping for buses.”

Trotta viewed the school bus program as a lucrative moneymaker for the county and vendor rather than a measure promoting bus safety. He said the law is applied unfairly, ticketing busy multilane corridors in the same manner as residential neighborhoods.

“I’ve checked with all the school districts, and kids aren’t crossing major thoroughfares,” Trotta said. “I’m all for giving a ticket to someone who passes a school bus on a residential avenue because it’s dangerous. I’m not at all for 1,000 people on Jericho Turnpike getting tickets.”

While the county code imposes rigid reporting requirements regarding expenditures of revenues generated from the program, Kennedy said he has yet to see any reports to date.

Competing perspectives

Following an initial spike when programs such as this are first instituted, Hahn said offenses start to wane “because people begin to change their behaviors — they stop at red lights because they’re afraid of getting a ticket.” 

In time, the legislator added, drivers throughout Suffolk “will no longer go around stopped school buses,” but “if they choose to break the law, they will get tickets.”

Trotta said he is pushing to repeal the School Bus Safety program altogether. “The reality is it’s a sham, and it’s not what we were told it was going to be,” he said.

While Kennedy acknowledged the importance of traffic safety, he held that the audit is to determine whether the program is administered correctly.

“I never want to see somebody blowing a stopped school bus sign — it’s just heinous,” the county comptroller said. “But if [the program] is not being operated in a fair and proper and consistent manner by the school bus drivers and the vendor … then it’s a problem.”

Kennedy expects the audit to be finalized by the second quarter of 2023.

Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, at podium, joined elected officials at the Jan. 20 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Local elected officials held a press conference Friday, Jan. 20, to make it clear that they don’t agree with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) New York Housing Compact proposal.

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, at podium, joined elected officials at the Jan. 20 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Republican state senators and assemblymembers, county legislators and town supervisors from Suffolk County gathered at the Perry B. Duryea State Office Building in Hauppauge with a message for Hochul. The elected members speaking at the press conference said zoning, land use and development matters are best left to local elected officials.

In her State of the State message earlier this month, Hochul proposed a housing strategy calling for 800,000 new homes to be built in the state over the course of a decade to address the lack of affordable housing. Among the plan’s requirements would be municipalities with Metropolitan Transportation Authority railroad stations to rezone to make way for higher-density residential development. All downstate cities, towns and villages served by the MTA would have a new home creation target over three years of 3%, compared to upstate counties that would need to build 1% more new homes over the same period.

But speakers on Jan. 20 called her proposed initiative “government overreach” and “misguided,” and they said municipalities should create zoning laws, grant building permits and urban plans based on the individual needs of their communities. Many added that a blanket state housing proposal wouldn’t work on Long Island due to lack of sewer systems, also infrastructure and environmental concerns.

The press conference was led by state Sen. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue).

“We all agree that we have an affordable housing problem,” he said. “What we don’t agree on is how to fix it.”

He added, “The governor apparently believes that one size fits all is the way to go, that heavy-handed mandates are the way to go.”

Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim, at podium, joined elected officials at the Jan. 20 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Murray said the Village of Patchogue is the model of revitalizing villages and downtowns across the state. He added local issues must be considered, such as environmental concerns, traffic issues and parking options. He said Patchogue officials worked to rebuild the village’s infrastructure, invested in and expanded sewer plants, repaved 85% of its streets, invested into pools, parks and the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. Murray added 700 new residential homes were built since 2003, 575 of them are within walking distance from the train station and village.

Town supervisors speak up 

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said they were all concerned about what Long Island will look like in the future. He added there is a need for sewer systems in most towns, and local infrastructure needs improvement. He said the three rail lines that cross the town depend on diesel fuel, and he added overgrowth has also contaminated the waters.

“Governor, before you start talking about more housing, how about the infrastructure to support it?” Romaine said. “How about electrifying the rail? How about making sure the roads work? How about making sure that there are sewers?”

Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said the town is manufacturing affordable housing “to the extent it’s possible” based on its infrastructure.

In the last five years, he said the town has approved the construction of 450 rental units, 10% of which are classified as affordable per state law.

Town of Huntington Supervisor Ed Smyth, at podium, joined elected officials at the Jan. 20 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“The only elected officials that know how to do that on Long Island are your local elected officials with the help of our county, state and federal officials as well,” Wehrheim said. “So, we are doing what the governor wants, but we’re doing it the right way.”

Town of Huntington Supervisor Ed Smyth (R) said New York politics “is not Republican vs. Democrat. It’s New York City versus New York state.” He said the governor is affected by New York City extremists. 

“I implore the governor to form a working coalition of centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans in the state Legislature to govern from the center as the vast majority of New Yorkers expect of you,” Smyth said.

Additional perspectives

State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said when he hears the governor talk about local control, he feels she is aligning with the progressive left. He added “everything they touch they destroy,” listing the economy, energy independence and the southern border.

“They want to destroy our local zoning, and they will destroy what makes Long Island and New York state the wonderful place to live that it is,” Fitzpatrick said. “Local control works, and we seek a cooperative relationship, a carrot approach rather than the stick approach that she is putting before us.”

Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, also spoke at the press conference. He acknowledged there is a housing problem on the Island and said the town supervisors have provided hope with past projects.

“They have been behind getting affordable housing in their communities,” Alexander said, adding 20,000 units of multihousing have been approved on Long Island over the past 17 years.

According to Alexander, 10,000 more units are coming down the pike, and 50 communities have had buildings built near transit stations.

State Assemblyman Keith Brown (R-Northport), who has been a zoning attorney for more than 20 years, in an interview after the press conference said incentives and funding are needed.

He said Brookhaven’s Commercial Redevelopment Districts are excellent zoning examples of redevelopment and multifamily houses where there are incentives such as being near transportation and connecting to sewers.

State Assemblyman Jonathan Kornreich, at podium, joined elected officials at the Jan. 20 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“Those are the incentives that we should be talking about, not creating super zoning boards, and more bureaucracy,” Brown said.

In a statement to TBR News Media, Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who was a former president of the Three Village Civic Association, said, “We have to be wise enough to recognize that the land under which our aquifers sit can only bear so much development.”

He gave the example of a parcel of land in Port Jefferson Station on Route 112 and near the train station. The large, vegetated parcel has restrictive covenants to limit the type of development on the site.

“This place is a vital area of green space, where trees can grow, where oxygen is produced and where rainwater is filtered before it goes down to the aquifers we drink from,” he said. “The governor’s proposal would throw all that planning out the window and turn this into a potential development site for hundreds of new units.”

Former state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who was chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee between 2015 and 2022, attended the press conference and in a phone interview said, “This is a proposal that attempts to meet one need, but has a likely outcome, if advanced, of completely overriding environmental concerns. Our first limiting factor for sustainable communities is the environment, in particular water — drinking water.”

He added the proposal to increase the density of housing not only overrides local planning but threatens communities’ quality of life.

He added, for example, a village such as Poquott wouldn’t be able to build more housing as it’s “essentially a completely built-out community.” Or, a hamlet such as St. James wouldn’t be able to add more housing near the train station.

“If you impose from above a mandate to change the land use, you’re basically impacting the environment immediately and, for the long term, the quality of life of a community,” he said.

Englebright and current elected officials are concerned that the housing legislation would be included in the state budget similar to bail reform.

Hochul’s administration has said more information on the housing proposal will be released in the near future.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announced the first round of recipients of opioid settlement funds at a Jan. 12 press conference. Photo from Steve Bellone’s Flickr page

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced the names of 34 organizations who will receive $25 million to combat the opioid crisis in the first round of funding secured by the county’s settlement against manufacturers, distributors and others involved in the crisis.

Suffolk County Legislature Minority Leader Jason Richberg, at podium, was on hand to announce the first round of recipients of opioid settlement funds at a Jan. 12 press conference. Photo from Steve Bellone’s Flickr page

The grant recipients, who were among the 111 that applied for funding, include community groups, nonprofits, for-profit groups and county agencies and will receive the funds over a three-year period.

The county hopes to provide funds in the next couple of weeks to combat a crisis that COVID-19 exacerbated in the last few years.

“We had begun to make real progress in the battle and in 2019, deaths declined for the first time in many years,” Bellone said at a press conference Jan. 12 announcing the recipients chosen by a bipartisan five-member committee. The pandemic “reversed that progress and, once again, we saw opioid-related deaths rising.”

Funds from the settlement against manufacturers and distributors of opioids total over $200 million, which the county will distribute over the next 20 years. The second round of funding will begin later this year. The county encouraged some of the groups that didn’t receive funding in the first round to reapply, while opening up the opportunity to other organizations that are similarly dedicated to prevention, education, treatment and recovery.

Urgency

County Legislature Minority Leader Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), who helped select award recipients, said the committee received over $170 million worth of requests.

“The goal is not only to have an immediate impact, but to have a long-standing impact,” he said in an interview. The committee wanted to take a “multifaceted approach when funding these organizations.”

Richberg said the group took a considerable number of hours to put together the list of recipients for the first round.

“We understood the urgency to make sure this came out in the best way possible,” he said.

The minority leader appreciated the perspective of fellow committee member Sharon Richmond, president of the Northport-East Northport Community Drug and Alcohol Task Force and a victim-advocate whose son Vincent died from opioids in 2017.

Richberg described Richmond as a “beacon of strength” who helped guide the group in the right direction.

At the press conference, Richmond said her son would have been “honored to know that so many people are going to get so much help” with these funds.

‘We want to reach individuals in the community and not necessarily have to wait for someone to come to our emergency departments.’

Dr. Sandeep Kapoor

Reaching out

The leaders of the groups that will receive this money have numerous approaches to combat an epidemic that has robbed the community of family members, friends and neighbors.

“We want to reach individuals in the community and not necessarily have to wait for someone to come to our emergency departments,” said Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, assistant vice president of addiction services for Northwell Health.

Northwell’s Project Connect Plus will receive about $3.5 million, which is the largest single award in the first round of funding.

Project Connect Plus would like to expand its reach and is partnering with domestic violence organizations and with Island Harvest food bank to create a pathway for people to access support.

“The goal of this initiative is to make sure we can navigate people [to services], build partnerships and ensure that people trust the process,” Kapoor said.

Project Connect Plus is emphasizing the importance of ongoing contact between health care providers and people who need support to defeat drug addiction.

He contrasted the attention most patients get after an operation with the lack of ongoing attention in the health care system for those people who come to an emergency room for drug-related problems.

‘It’s a significant amount of money that will have a significant impact. It means a lot to us to have the support of the county around harm reduction efforts.’

— Tina Wolf

Hospitals typically reach out to patients numerous times after knee operations, to check on how people are feeling, to make sure they are taking their medicine, to check for infection and to remind them of future appointments.

Someone with a substance use disorder typically receives no phone calls after an emergency room visit.

“If [the health care community] is doing right by people with knee surgery, why not take the same approach” for people who are battling addiction, Kapoor said. “We continually engage people to make sure they are not alone.”

Project Connect Plus is also partnering with other organizations, including Community Action for Social Justice, which is working toward increasing safety around drug use.

CASJ’s executive director and co-founder, Tina Wolf, provides direct services to reduce the risk for people who use drugs, such as syringe exchange and risk reduction counseling, overdose prevention training and harm reduction training.

CASJ is receiving $1.5 million from the opioid settlement.

“It’s a significant amount of money that will have a significant impact,” Wolf said. “It means a lot to us to have the support of the county around harm reduction efforts.”

Wolf said the funds will enable CASJ to double its existing harm reduction efforts in Suffolk County, which is important not only amid an increase in substance abuse in the aftermath of the pandemic, but also as people develop wounds amid a change in the drug supply.

In the last few years, amid volatility in drugs used in the county, some fentanyl has included xylazine, a pet pain reliever and muscle relaxant. In Philadelphia, Puerto Rico and Long Island, among other places, xylazine has caused significant nonhealing wounds.

“Some of this money is for wound care issues,” Wolf said.

Other grant recipients include Hope House Ministries of Port Jefferson ($600,000), Town of Brookhaven Youth Prevention Program ($75,000) and Town of Smithtown Horizons Counseling and Education Center ($111,000). 

A comprehensive list

The award recipients will update the committee on their efforts to ensure that the funds are providing the anticipated benefits and to help guide future financial decisions.

Groups have to report on their progress, Richberg said, which is a part of their contract.

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) was pleased with the work of the recipients.

“It’s a fantastic list” that is “really comprehensive and varied in the type of services and the location geographically,” she said. “We do need so much out there.”

She believes the funds will “do some
real good.”

Wolf said she hopes “we don’t all just do well in our individual projects, but we can link those projects together. I’m hoping there’s enough overlap that we can create this net together to really make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks.”

Kevin LaValle, above. File photo by Raymond Janis

In a special election held Tuesday, Jan. 17, Town of Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) was elected as Brookhaven town clerk.

Former Town Clerk Donna Lent (I) retired in November, prompting a special election to complete her unexpired term ending in 2025. An unofficial tally from the Suffolk County Board of Elections indicates LaValle secured victory handily, defeating the Democratic candidate, Lisa Di Santo of East Patchogue. So far, he has received 6,396 votes to Di Santo’s 4,940.

In an exclusive phone interview, LaValle reacted to the election outcome. 

“I’m really excited that the residents of the Town of Brookhaven put their faith in me to run a very critical department,” he said. “I’m excited about the opportunity ahead of me. Once I get sworn in, I look forward to taking on that challenge.” To his opponent, he added, “It was a great race. I wish her the best.”

Upon assuming this townwide position, LaValle will oversee a more than 25-person staff. In the meantime, he said he intends to speak with staff members, get an idea of the day-to-day operations and “start to see the office as a whole and see what we can improve.”

“I think that that’s going to be a little bit of a process to get that all together, but I’m excited to sit down with everybody,” the town clerk-elect said, adding, “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but I’m excited for it.”

New state election laws require at least a week for the election results to be certified. LaValle will vacate his seat on the Town Board when he is sworn in as clerk, triggering another special election — this time for his Brookhaven 3rd Council District.

The outgoing councilman pledged to remain active in the eventual transition process. “I think there are some people out there,” he said, referring to prospective candidates. “The leadership of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, they’re going to have to make the decisions on that.”

He added, “The 3rd District has been my home my whole life. It’s been a great honor to be able to represent it over the last nine years, so I’m certainly going to take a keen interest in who’s going to take over after me and certainly be a helping hand in that transition.”

LaValle could be sworn into office as Brookhaven town clerk as early as Wednesday, Jan. 25. Under town code, the board must set a special election between 60 and 90 days from the opening of the vacancy.

A special election for Brookhaven Town Clerk will take place Tuesday, Jan. 17. Above, Kevin LaValle (left) and Lisa Di Santo, respective nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties. Photos by Raymond Janis

Early voting is underway for the next Brookhaven town clerk, and the two major party candidates are making their pitch to the voters.

Former Town Clerk Donna Lent (I) retired in November, triggering a special election for her unexpired term ending in 2025. Town of Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) and community advocate Lisa Di Santo, the Democratic Party nominee, will square off at the polls Tuesday, Jan. 17.

During a joint meeting of the Selden and Centereach civic associations Thursday, Jan. 5, the two candidates were questioned on a range of topics related to the operations of the Town Clerk’s Office. Civic members generated some of the questions with others fielded from the audience.

Introductions

Di Santo is a former social studies teacher who taught students about participation in government. She also served as a trustee of the South Country school board in East Patchogue, where she lives. 

“I have always participated in government, and I feel that I can be an independent voice of reason in the Town Clerk’s Office,” she said. “We have many of the same people filling many of the same positions over and over again. … That leads to a bit of stagnation, and I think it’s time for a fresh set of ideas, a fresh set of eyes, on what’s happening in the Town Clerk’s Office.”

Before entering government, LaValle owned a title agency. He then received a loan mortgage originator’s license and has worked in mortgage banking ever since. The councilman worked on the staff of former Suffolk County Legislators Dan Losquadro (R) and Tom Muratore (R). He was elected to serve Brookhaven’s 3rd Council District in 2013 in an area which includes Lake Grove, Centereach, Selden and parts of Lake Ronkonkoma, Farmingville, Port Jeff Station and a piece of Holbrook. 

 “I think I’ve accomplished a great deal as councilman, but I come before you now, again, to say that as town clerk, I am going to bring a new energy,” he said. “I am going to bring a new work ethic to the Town Clerk’s Office that has not been seen before.”

Duties of town clerk

Both candidates were asked about the function of the town clerk. For Di Santo, the clerk must ensure the accurate recording of Town Board meetings and the efficient filing of legal records, among other tasks. She emphasized the significance of the Freedom of Information Law request process.

“One of the most important things has to do with [being] the appeals officer for FOIL requests that come to the town,” she said. “People who live here and pay taxes should be able to access that information.”

The Democratic candidate also said the incoming clerk must assess and modernize the existing technology in the office. “I have spoken with some people who work in the Town Clerk’s Office and told me that their technology is at least 10 years out of date,” she said. “That is something that is certainly personally scary to me.”

LaValle viewed the clerk’s role as threefold, that is to “secure, maintain and distribute vital records of the residents of the Town of Brookhaven.” He referred to the office as a “vital hub,” servicing residents in the best and worst times.

“I believe the efficiency could be improved in the Town Clerk’s Office,” he said. “Cybersecurity, I think that’s something we can take to another level.”

He viewed the clerk as a service provider rather than a policymaker or revenue generator, noting that empowering and providing the staff with the necessary resources will be critical. “As the clerk, the focus will be about making sure the staff has the tools to be able to do their job,” he said.

Cybersecurity

Addressing the September ransomware attack against the Suffolk County government, LaValle assessed shortcomings within the county’s IT network. He described the need for coordination between departments, recommending the town continues its transition to cloud technologies to avert a similar scenario.

“The cloud is probably the best security that you can have, but we have to stay vigilant and make sure we’re looking at new technologies as we move along to make sure our information stays secure,” the councilman said.

Di Santo concurred that replacing outdated technology will be a priority. She stressed the need to properly oversee the transition to new platforms and work out any technical or logistic challenges that may arise.

“When you have new technology, one of the things that is crucial is to make certain that the staff is comfortable with that technology, that they’re fully trained so that they are able to use that to the best of their ability,” she said.

Staffing

After conversations with staff members, Di Santo painted a bleak picture of the current situation within the Town Clerk’s Office. “The office is actually understaffed,” she said. “Morale is really not very good in the office. You have a lot of turnover, so it’s very difficult to have the best customer service when you have staff changing and needing to be retrained.”

She reiterated that “a fresh set of eyes” from somebody outside government will help identify areas for improvement and generate potential solutions.

LaValle said he would prefer close collaboration with the Town Board, analyzing any barriers to efficient staff operations. He then stated a desire to fund personnel better.

“I want to be able to go in, take a real good look at what is going on in the office,” he said. “Do we need more employees? Should we pay our employees more?”

He also advanced the need to offer a vision the staff can get behind. “We have to work with the employees and build a team concept,” he said. “I want to make this the best clerk’s office in New York state. Without our employees buying into my leadership and what I want to do, that’s not going to happen.”

Resident access

Both candidates addressed the need to decentralize the office, to move services out of Town Hall and into the various hamlets and villages throughout the township. LaValle introduced a multipronged approach, including attending community meetings and building a more prominent multimedia presence.

“I want to be a town clerk going out to various functions,” he said. “A lot of people here see me in a lot of different events. That’s something I’m going to continue to do because I think the outreach of going out to the public and showing them what the clerk’s office does … is fundamentally important.”

He added, “I want to be able to go out and bring back some transparency — new social media platforms, doing videos on Channel 18 talking about what we can do to help residents.”

Di Santo said she has heard from multiple residents that resident access to public records can be slow. She again centered on requests for public information.

“The town clerk is the final appeals officer for the FOIL law,” she said. “In some cases, those requests get bounced from one department to another and the clock seems to run out.”

She added, “People who are residents, our taxpayers, are asking for information from their town, and in many cases it seems that it is being stonewalled. The town clerk has a responsibility to provide that information.”

Open government

Candidates were asked what the term “open government” means and how they would bring town government closer to the people.

“Open government means giving everyone the opportunity to participate at their fullest,” Di Santo said. “I would, as town clerk, try to appeal to the Town Board members to make many of the meetings much more accessible to the many people in the town who work.”

She also proposed bringing the operations of the Town Clerk’s Office to local libraries and other community forums. “The town clerk [could] go into each and every one of those council districts several times a year, appear at the senior centers and the local libraries to have discussions with people,” she said.

Like Di Santo, LaValle stressed he would maintain an active community presence if elected. “I want to go out, I want to be at senior centers, I want to be at civic meetings, I want to be in chambers of commerce, talking about what the clerk’s office does,” he said. “You have to get out there. You have to be a part of the community.”

Brookhaven residents will decide on these two candidates this Tuesday, Jan. 17. Polls open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and residents can report to their regular polling place on Election Day.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently secured $3.75 million for a proposed upland wall at Port Jefferson Country Club. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees kicked off the new year Tuesday, Jan. 3, with business and general meetings covering public expenditures, code changes and public safety.

East Beach bluff

Mayor Margot Garant announced that the village received $3.75 million for a proposed upper wall at Port Jefferson Country Club. The funds were made available through the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance grant program, facilitated by the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

The clubhouse facility at PJCC lies atop the East Beach bluff, which has rapidly eroded in recent years. Now the clubhouse is dangerously close to the bluff’s edge. [See story, “On the edge: Port Jeff Village weighs the fate of country club,” The Port Times Record, April 7.]

In an email from Schumer’s office, the senator outlined his reasons for supporting this coastal engineering project.

“This money will fund efforts to stabilize the crumbling East Beach bluff, where village recreation facilities are currently threatened due to the chronic erosion,” he said. “I worked to secure funding as soon as Mayor Garant reached out to me, and I am glad that with her partnership, we have obtained this funding — not only to preserve village assets but to ensure public safety and protect residents’ pocketbooks.” 

Garant said the federal funds would support the construction of an upland wall between the clubhouse and the bluff, potentially shielding the building from further coastal erosion at East Beach. 

“That money will help us save that building and restore the facilities as they preexisted up there,” she said. “We definitely have to recognize Senator Schumer’s action,” adding, “We have put that project out to bid. We have our letter of non-jurisdiction from the [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation], so we are ready to go on that project.”

Gap property

The former Gap property, located on Arden Place in Lower Port, was recently acquired by new ownership. Garant reported that plans for that property are still preliminary with the zoning and planning departments but hinted at the potential for mixed-used use of the space.

The new owner “is looking at a wet space on the first floor — sort of a food court concept that we had all kind of discussed,” she said. “And then possibly a second and third level, and perhaps a boutique hotel, which we welcome.” Devoting the space to apartments may also be on the table, Garant added.

Parking revenue

At the request of the director of economic development, parking administrator and communications committee head Kevin Wood, the board voted to evenly split the managed parking revenue generated during the 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival between the village and the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council.

“This will bring us back into the black and help the arts council survive,” Garant said.

Country club manager

The board additionally approved the hire of Thomas Natola as general manager of the Port Jefferson Country Club at an annual salary of $139,000. Stan Loucks, trustee liaison to the country club, said Natola comes highly recommended by previous employers.

“Nobody had anything negative to say about Tom,” Loucks said. “Everything was positive.”

Public hearings

The board also held two public hearings during the general meeting. The first hearing dealt with a proposed change establishing Station Street, a one-way street between the Port Jefferson Crossing apartments and the train station. The amendment includes multiple provisions, preventing left turns onto the corridor as well as parking, stopping and standing.

Following a public hearing, the board approved the amendment unanimously. To read how Station Street received its name, see story, “Democracy and tech intersect to name Station Street in uptown Port Jeff,” The Port Times Record, Dec. 22.

The second hearing gave residents a chance to weigh in on a proposed $800,000 grant application through the Restore New York Communities Initiative, offering financial assistance to Conifer Realty. The funds would help Conifer demolish blighted buildings, clearing the way for its proposed Conifer II redevelopment at the Main and Perry streets intersection. Following the public hearing, the board approved the application unanimously.

Public safety

Fred Leute, chief of code enforcement, discussed the busy work of his department last month. Leute said code enforcement officers responded promptly on two occasions to resolve emergencies. For these efforts, the village board acknowledged multiple code officers, who were awarded proclamations and given a standing ovation from those in attendance.

To view this public commendation and to watch the trustee reports, see video below.

At podium, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announces $450,000 in federal funds to rid the Lawrence Aviation Superfund site of its remaining buildings. Photo by Raymond Janis

Public officials of all levels of government, business and civic leaders, and community members gathered Monday, Jan. 9, before a derelict building at the Lawrence Aviation Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station.

Once a dumping ground for toxic waste, policymakers are now plotting a course of action for this 126-acre property. After taking decades to rid the site of harmful contaminants, officials and community groups are working toward an ambitious proposal to convert the site into a multipurpose community hub, accommodating a solar farm, a railyard and open space for local residents.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the press conference to announce the injection of $450,000 in federal funds secured through the recent omnibus budget. This money will be used to help demolish the remaining buildings at the property. 

“We’re here today to showcase one of the final puzzle pieces needed to demo 14 dangerous buildings here,” Schumer said. “I am here today to say that the train that is on this journey is ready to leave the station.” 

The Senate majority leader added that these funds would advance three community goals. “One, a railroad-use project to help the LIRR with logistics; industrial redevelopment of a 5-megawatt solar farm,” and lastly, add 50 construction jobs to the local economy.

At podium, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Photo by Raymond Janis

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) described the considerable intergovernmental coordination and logistical obstacles to get to this stage.

“This project, as reflected by all of the people that have come together and all the levels of government, is critically important to the community,” he said.

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) discussed the long and arduous road to revitalizing the site and the decades that have passed as this community blight lay barren. 

“These buildings have been condemned for over 25 years,” he said. “This has been a Superfund site for almost 25 years. Finally, we will see these buildings come down.”

Former New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) also attended the press event. During his time in Albany, he championed the site’s conversion for environmental and community purposes.

“We have a plan that will enhance our community and create new jobs,” he said. “This property stood out as a place in peril of a potentially bad decision,” adding, “Instead, we have a very thoughtful plan.”

Englebright, a geologist by trade, also touched upon the environmental impacts that redevelopment will offer through these plans. He said local harbors, groundwater and surface waters would benefit as this dark episode in local history concludes.

At podium, Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R). Photo by Raymond Janis

“The harbor, which is the beginning of our town, has been poisoned by the solvents that were poured into the ground here,” the former assemblyman said. “That is a thing of the past because of the federal involvement with the Superfund cleanup.”

He added, “All the levels of government are working together here, which is a beautiful thing. It’s a model for what government should be able to do all the time.”

Jen Dzvonar, president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, also offered her perspective. She said public improvements such as these indirectly support and promote local businesses.

“Any improvement in Port Jefferson Station is major,” she said. “By getting the blight away from the area, we will increase businesses. A solar farm is coming. They’re creating 50 construction jobs. It just heightens Port Jefferson Station and the desire to come here.”

Representing the Village of Port Jefferson were Mayor Margot Garant and Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden. Both stressed the importance of this undertaking, conveying their support for neighboring Port Jefferson Station in its community aspirations.

Garant viewed the plans as an opportunity to improve the Port Jefferson Branch line of the Long Island Rail Road. “We’re really in support of this because of the MTA portion of it,” she said. “To clean up this site, to put it back to public use, to not have the county paying taxes on it, is good for everybody.”

For Snaden, the project will bolster the village’s neighbors, representing a vital regional investment. “I think it’s great,” she said. “It’s a cleanup of the site. It’s knocking down these falling buildings, adding to the betterment of the entire community and the region at large.”

Schumer said the next step would be to ensure that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expedites these funds, ensuring the prompt demolition of the buildings and swift redevelopment of the site.



New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has held elective office continuously since 1983. Englebright’s long tenure now comes to a close. 

In a tight state election for District 4 last month, Englebright narrowly lost to his Republican Party challenger Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson). In an exit interview, the outgoing assemblyman reflected upon his pathway into government, the legislative victories throughout that time and the meaning of public service.

The road to politics

Growing up, the young Englebright spent much of his time in libraries. He found refuge in books, which satiated his curiosity and “compelling interest in how things worked.” He also nourished a lifelong fascination with history through those hours devoted to learning.

Leading up to his first run for office, Englebright said he was deeply disturbed by the environmental degradation characteristic of those times. The “almost daily reports” of overdevelopment and sprawl, oil spills and drinking water contamination, each had left a deep and abiding impression on him.

‘The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you.’ — Steve Englebright

He was teaching geology at Stony Brook University when he began considering public life. “I realized that drinking water was the first limiting factor for the continued well-being of this Island, and I was not really seeing any meaningful public policy growing out of the reports of chaos,” he said.

The late professor Hugh Cleland, from the SBU Department of History, would prove to be the catalyst behind Englebright’s ascent to politics. Cleland sat down with him at the campus student union. For several hours, the two discussed a possible bid for a Suffolk County legislative seat.

“This was a really serious and credible and well thought-out request that he was making,” Englebright said. “So I didn’t just wave it off. I gave it some thought and, sure enough, I found myself saying, ‘What’s next?’” 

After that meeting, Englebright decided to run and was elected to the county Legislature in 1983. He won election after election for the next four decades.

County Legislature

Upon entering the county Legislature, Englebright simultaneously confronted an array of environmental dilemmas. He described the defunct Long Island Lighting Company, the precursor to today’s Long Island Power Authority, as “at that time wanting to build a small galaxy of nuclear power plants on Long Island.” He stressed that the utility company was favoring its shareholder interests at the residents’ expense. 

Englebright successfully championed, along with a grassroots movement of LILCO ratepayers, against the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear plants to follow. Their resistance efforts were grounded primarily in the risks associated with evacuation.

Another major policy issue during his early political career was the protection of groundwater and surface waters in Suffolk County. “I pushed successfully for the largest county-level open space program in the nation,” he said. He was one of the earliest critics against sprawl. 

As a county legislator, he initiated the first plastics ban in the nation. Though ahead of his time on the issue, he admitted that not enough has been done elsewhere to counteract the problem, which he said “has exploded into a worldwide catastrophe.”

He sponsored legislation excising a small fee on hotel and motel rooms, considering the measure as a fee on tourists allowing for their continued enjoyment of the area through reinvestment into the county’s most attractive destinations.

“If you wonder why county Legislator [Kara] Hahn [D-Setauket] is able to have some discretion to provide funding to Gallery North or the Reboli Center, that funding is coming from the hotel/motel room fee,” he said.

State Assembly

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). Photo from North Island Photography and Films

As a state assemblyman, Englebright quickly picked up where he left off, building upon and expanding his county policies at the state level. Among his earliest actions was the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, a state law ensuring the preservation of the Pine Barrens as open space.

He sponsored some of the original laws in New York state related to solar power and other renewables. “In my first year in the state Legislature, I was successfully pushing for legislation that had paved the way for the electronic age,” he said.

Englebright added that the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was the most crucial legislation he ever sponsored. This ambitious law aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Englebright also successfully led a statewide ban on purse seining, a highly efficient fishing technique responsible for the depletion of menhaden, or bunker, in New York’s surrounding waters.

“The marine world all depends on having this abundant fish at the base of the food chain,” the assemblyman said. Purse seining allowed large-scale fishing operations to collect “whole schools of menhaden, millions and millions of fish.”

One of the fondest moments throughout his tenure happened just last summer. On a boat trip off the coast of Montauk Point during early morning hours, the sun rising off the horizon line, he witnessed entire schools of menhaden beneath the water.

“The sea was boiling with fish,” he said. “Menhaden, they were back by the billions.”

Reminiscent of his earliest years in libraries, historic preservation would be a significant point of emphasis for Englebright. “I’m very proud of the many properties that are preserved, the historic sites.” Such sites either preserved or to be preserved include Patriots Rock and Roe Tavern in Setauket and William Tooker House in Port Jefferson, among many others.

Even in his final days in office, Englebright made historic breakthroughs. Though his reelection bid was unsuccessful, Englebright rejoiced in yet another major victory for environmental sustainability. Last month, New Yorkers overwhelmingly approved a recent $4.2 billion environmental bond act, a multiyear investment in clean water, air, wildlife and the environment.

Reflections from his community

During his extended time in political service, Englebright has worked alongside countless public representatives at all levels of government. He maintained “they’re not all scoundrels,” adding that many were “superb public servants.”

In a series of written statements and phone interviews, several public representatives and close Englebright associates and friends had an opportunity to weigh in on his legacy of service and commitment to his community. 

Englebright “proved himself to be an environmental pioneer, a champion for the causes and concerns of his constituents and an unflinching fighter for the communities he served,” Hahn said. “For those of us who served in elected office with him during his tenure, irrespective of political persuasion or level of government, Steve proved himself to be a friend and mentor who embodied the role of effective leadership in the lives of those we represent.”

 As recently as Dec. 6, the Three Village Community Trust honored the assemblyman by renaming the Greenway trail as The Steve Englebright Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant commented on the characteristics that set Englebright apart from other politicians. She said his scientific background and wide-ranging interests added depth to his political persona.

 “He’s a unique legislator in that he’s so well rounded in those other areas and that he’s not just focused on the hard line of the law,” she said. “He’s involved with his community, he’s approachable, he’s caring, he’s kind. He’s a very unique representative, and we’re going to miss him sorely.”

 Like Englebright, Port Jefferson village trustee Rebecca Kassay worked in environmental advocacy before entering government. She discussed Englebright’s ongoing extended producer responsibility legislation, which would require producers of packaging materials, rather than taxpayers, to be responsible for managing post-consumer packaging material waste.

 “This can be a step toward addressing a multitude of waste management, environmental and financial issues facing municipalities and individuals,” Kassay said. “I hope to see the assemblyman’s colleagues and successor continue advocating for policies with long-term solutions,” adding, “Englebright is the type of commonsense representative we’d like to see more of in government.”

 In a joint statement, George Hoffman and Laurie Vetere of the Setauket Harbor Task Force reflected upon Englebright’s importance to local harbors.

 “In his time as our state representative, Steve Englebright never forgot the importance of the harbor,” they said. “Assemblyman Englebright found ways to secure needed dollars from Albany to help the task force in its mission of protecting water quality and the sustainability of Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors.” 

Joan Nickeson, community liaison of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, credited Englebright for the continued flourishment of her area. She said the hotel/motel tax he sponsored had enabled the chamber to conduct its annual summer concert series at the Train Car Park.

 “Assemblyman Englebright has continued to be a friend of the chamber by supporting our local businesses and attending our ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” she said.

 Within those 40 years, countless other acts and initiatives have come to fruition with Englebright’s assistance. Reflecting on his time in public service, he outlined his political doctrine.

 “The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you,” he said. “If you keep your eye on the prize, you can achieve things for the people who invested their trust in you.” 

 On the role of the public representative, he added, “Use the office as a bully pulpit, speak truth to power, identify things that are wrong and right them, and treat the office as an opportunity to do good.”

 For wielding his office as a force of good for four decades, TBR News Media dedicates Steve Englebright as honorary 2022 Person of the Year.

Above, members of North Country Peace Group on Saturday, Dec. 10. Photo by Raymond Janis

This month, North Country Peace Group marks its 20th anniversary.

Posted at the southeast corner of Route 25A and Bennetts Road in Setauket, NCPG has maintained a visible weekly presence within the community, advocating various causes throughout its history. On Saturday, Dec. 10, some members reflected on this milestone year for their organization and discussed why they remain committed to their cause.

Roots

Bob Becherer was among the founding members of the peace group. He traces the organization’s origins beyond 20 years when, in the early 1990s, a group of civic-oriented parishioners of the St. James R.C. Church formed the Peace and Justice Community.

“It was really out of that group that we became the North Country Peace Group,” Becherer said, crediting Bill McNulty as the founder and leader of both organizations.

In an exclusive interview, McNulty chronicled his “traditional, apolitical” upbringing and his eventual reawakening. Growing up, he said he maintained a 16-year connection to the military. Between U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC, active duty and active reserve service, McNulty kept in close contact with the military and military culture. Over time, however, he began to question these ties.

Catalyzing McNulty’s transformation was America’s foreign policy throughout Latin America during the 1970s and ’80s. His early advocacy work centered around the School of the Americas, a training ground founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Over time, McNulty said, the school devolved. A string of murders and rapes connected to the School of the Americas prompted him into action.

During that time, McNulty said he devoted his energies to “increase the knowledge among the American population that this school existed and that we were, through our tax dollars, paying for training for these soldiers.” His resistance led him to a federal prison, where he served for six months.

Within the full swing of these events, McNulty soon got involved with the Peace and Justice Community, initially focusing on America’s involvement in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War (1990-91). As the PJC’s work took on more secular aims, they moved out of the church and onto the streets. NCPG emerged from the second Iraq War (2003-11). 

Organizational principles

Above, Bill McNulty, one of the founders and thought leaders within NCPG. Photo courtesy Myrna Gordon

McNulty offered some of the philosophical precepts underpinning the NCPG’s activism. He said the group seeks to challenge conventional wisdom, to prompt community members to think critically about the information authorities give them. Through this, he said the group has often met fierce resistance from dogmatists and partisans.

“Very often, when you bring a message that’s contrary to the conventional wisdom, they get angry at you,” he said. “They don’t want to hear what you have to offer because it’s very startling and shocking. There’s a cognitive dissonance.”

McNulty maintained that NCPG, since its inception, has rejected the notion of reciprocal violence. “The Old Testament thinking of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you have to break it with that idea of love and acceptance,” he said.

He viewed the human propensity toward violence as a conflict between instincts and ideals. Though he held that most people are born peaceful and good, he sees many as conditioned to accept violence and war as the natural order.

“People, I think, are pretty good, but they acquire a lot of these characteristics as a result of what they experience in life,” he said. “Down deep, people are good because they always act well when the dog falls down the well or when the tornado rips the roof off the house.”

McNulty said that overcoming aggression requires conscious effort, but doing so may be the recipe for lasting peace. “The idea is to take the words of the song, the words of the poem, to take the suggestion of the painting or the sculpture or whatever else and to put it into practice,” he said. “It’s a very hard job.”

Two decades into the struggle for peace

One of the essential features of NCPG throughout its 20-year history has been the persistence of its members. Member Susan Perretti regards the organization as a weekly reminder to the community that there is an alternative to unceasing human conflicts worldwide.

“We’re sort of a reminder to the community that passes us by,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we still have war — endless war — going on and that violence itself is not the answer.”

Robert Marcus, another NCPG member, said the fight for peace and preserving democracy go hand in hand. He said that standing on the street corner is a way to promote both ends.

“We have to do everything we can to make a more peaceful world,” Marcus said. “We can’t just take it for granted. We have to work really hard for peace and to strengthen our democracy because it’s under threat.”

For John Robinson, participating in the peace group’s various activities is a way to connect to a larger cause and to make a difference on a grander stage. “It feels good to be around people who have the same concerns, the same thoughts, the same issues that I do,” he said. “Coming out here makes a real statement about the need for peace and the need to treat each other well.”

Myrna Gordon said she and NCPG use their platform to advocate a new mode of thinking around the way the United States government spends its taxpayer dollars. According to her, too great a share of the federal budget is devoted to perpetuating violence.

“We need to move the money out of the military and back into human needs and human lives so that we will have that money and be able to fix roads, provide better education, health care and everything else,” she said.

An alternative to war

‘We have to evolve past this idea — as a human species and not just as Americans — that war and killing one another is the only solution.’

— Susan Perretti

McNulty was asked if he believes a lasting peace is possible or if humanity is doomed to a fate of unending war. He admitted that lasting peace may not be attainable but that pursuing such an ideal is.

“We would like to hope that it is possible,” he said. “We helped each other to a great extent, and we have affected a few people around our immediate neighborhood, but they’re still making war. The School of the Americas is still open, still training soldiers to keep people under control.”

Perretti offered a slightly different take by suggesting humanity could adapt itself to a condition without war.

“The point is that we have to evolve past this idea — as a human species and not just as Americans — that war and killing one another is the only solution,” she said. “I don’t know what that takes, but for me I’m here because I won’t give up the struggle, and I want to be faithful to what I believe in my heart.”

Whether humans can coexist and overcome violence is still to be decided. Twenty years after their organization’s founding, members of North Country Peace Group remain stationed at their usual street corner, committed to giving peace its fair shake.