Port Jeff board of trustees unanimously votes to extend terms for village offices
In a historic act, the Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees voted 5-0 on Monday to extend the terms of service for village mayor, trustees and judges from two to four years.
Prompting the vote, village clerk Barbara Sakovich recommended the term changes during her report, outlining the logistical challenges of holding elections every year.
“As we have an election every year, and we’re gearing up for this June’s election, we know we’re not getting [voting] machines anymore because of the primaries,” the clerk said. “I just would like to maybe get everyone’s pulse on maybe changing the terms from two to four years so that we don’t have to keep doing this every year.”
Village attorney Brian Egan advised the board the term extensions would be legal under the New York State Village Law. The change would not affect ongoing terms but would impact the incoming mayor and trustees elected this June. The resolution is subject to a permissive referendum, which under the state law would enable the public to put the resolution out for a public vote this June.
‘If the public wants to have a referendum or wants to have a vote on it, then they will let this board know.’
— Lauren Sheprow
Before the unanimous vote on the resolution, some board members offered their opinions on how four-year terms may benefit the village. “I always look at how you can get a higher voter turnout across the village,” trustee Rebecca Kassay said. “Voter turnout is always relatively dismal, but having an election every single year, people don’t seem to know about it.”
Trustee Stan Loucks suggested the existing term lengths are inadequate for long-term decision-making and planning. “I’ve always thought two years is way too short,” he said. “The first year, you’re just getting your feet wet, and the next year you’re out there campaigning.”
Trustee Lauren Sheprow considered the permissive referendum an option available to community members if they choose to exercise it.
“Let democracy happen,” she said. “If the public wants to have a referendum or wants to have a vote on it, then they will let this board know. Give them the choice to come forward on it.”
In an interview following the decision, Mayor Margot Garant explained what village residents could expect moving forward.
“This is a board decision that is subject to a public referendum,” she said. “What that means is that the public … has 30 days within which to garner the requisite signatures to bring it to a public vote.”
Assessing the board’s motivations for approving the measure, Garant emphasized administering village elections has become highly problematic. She noted that the absence of electronic voting machines to conduct elections has placed undue strain on the village clerk, who must count the ballots by hand.
“I believe part of what’s really driving this is the fact that we’re not getting electronic voting machines from the Suffolk County Board of Elections,” the mayor said. “To count the ballots by hand is a six- to eight-hour exercise,” adding, “I think Barbara did not finish counting votes until 2 a.m. This year being a mayoral election, she’s probably going to be there until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Garant, asked for her outlook on the electoral process in Port Jefferson, acknowledged that elections foster accountability for those in office. However, she stated the board must also weigh the challenges of administering such elections, especially when they are conducted by paper ballots and counted by hand.
Elections “create a sense of accountability,” she said. “But I think the resources it takes and the amount of energy it takes to run an election really does impact your ability to serve. A two-year term is not a long time to get things done.”
She added, “I think it’s always great to have your community engaged, and I think elections engage the public. … I made the motion because I think the pulse of the room was for that, and again, the 5-0 resolution shows you that the political will was there.”
Asked whether there was adequate public input before passing the resolution, Garant said the board used the appropriate procedures and operated within the confines of the state Village Law.
“If the Board of Trustees has the authority to make that decision, I don’t think hearing more public input would have swayed that decision,” Garant said. “There is a mechanism by which the people can speak, and that was exactly what Lauren said — let them exercise their right to a permissive referendum.”
Pressed on whether fewer elections translate to less democracy, the mayor responded, “I don’t think so.” Effective democracy, she indicated, takes a more holistic approach.
“I think that there’s a broader definition to democracy,” she said. “Democracy is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. There are still a lot of mechanisms to keep that in place and working.”
She concluded, “I think we’re a little behind the times, and I think it’s time to catch up and let the people decide.”