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Village Hall

After losing by two votes, newcomer is challenging validity of ballots

Village of Poquott held its election June 18. File photo

t seems the dust hasn’t settled yet after Poquott’s June 20 election for two trustee seats.

While challenger John Richardson emerged as a clear winner for one seat, it was a tight race between newcomer Debbie Stevens and incumbent Jeff Koppelson for the second spot. Stevens recently filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Supreme Court in Riverhead to review the results.

Debbie Stevens

At the end of election night, Stevens had a slim lead over Koppelson before absentee and 10 contested votes were counted. Official results were delayed and not announced by the village until the next day, after election inspectors retained by the village and certified by the Suffolk County Board of Elections completed the count at Poquott’s Village Hall. Koppelson was declared the winner with 180 votes, while Stevens received 178.

After Stevens challenged the results, the village brought the ballots to the headquarters of the board of elections in Yaphank June 29, where the votes were hand counted by board staff members and certified by  county election commissioners Nick LaLota (R) and  Anita Katz (D).

LaLota said the village clerk handed over the ballots to their bipartisan team, and they hand counted each ballot, and their results were the same as the village’s count. However, the board of elections was not involved in any decisions involving the disputed ballots.

Stevens’ attorney George Vlachos of George C. Vlachos & Associates in Central Islip, said the village was served with a show-cause order last week to appear in court. A hearing will be held in Riverhead July 19.

Vlachos, who was originally retained by Stevens and Richardson to monitor the election, said he and his client have taken issue with the discarding of the rule that voters must be registered 10 days before an election. He said all the votes, no matter when the voter registered, were counted.

Jeff Koppelson

The attorney said he also questions whether the ballots were secured after the polls closed. He said he was on hand at Village Hall until the end of the night June 20, and there were approximately five or six ballots that were mismarked and had to be interpreted as far as what the voters’ intents were. He said he only saw one of those ballots presented to the board of elections. The lawyer said he remembers one ballot the night of June 20 where a voter chose three candidates instead of two. Vlachos said that ballot was not brought to the board.

LaLota said he had heard about the mismarked ballots before the recount, but didn’t see any major issues.

“There were up to two ballots that required a minimal review by the bipartisan team, but they easily came to a conclusion,” he said.

Koppelson declined to comment until after the matter is resolved, and Vlachos requested his client not talk directly to the press.

Vlachos added that many people from the village have offered to pay for his services to get to the bottom of the matter.

“This may just be the tip of the iceberg,” the attorney said. “I’m doing whatever investigation I need to do. I’m not sure what’s going on in Poquott, but I’m going to find out.”

Village of Poquott held its election June 18. File photo

While this year’s Poquott Village election for two trustees may not be as contentious as years past, plenty of important community issues remain at the forefront for residents. Plans to build a community dock and communication between the board and villagers are at the top of the list.

During the June 20 election, residents will choose from five candidates to fill two available seats, including two incumbents — Harold Berry and Jeff Koppelson — and three newcomers — Angela Parlatore, Debbie Stevens and John Richardson.

John Richardson

The newcomers

Richardson, a New York City firefighter, and Stevens, owner of Smoothe Laser Center and Medi Spa in East Setauket, both said there is a lack of communication between the current village trustees and residents. The two are running under the Peace Party ticket and have signs around the village that read “Your Village, Your Decisions.”

“I think there has been a lack of transparency, and there has been a lack of public input,” Richardson said in a phone interview.

Stevens said when she attends village hall meetings, residents are given the opportunity to state their question or comment, but discussions rarely follow.

“In all the 26 years I’ve lived here, I have never felt such an air of such divisiveness,” Stevens said in a phone interview. “And I just want the opportunity to be the voice of the residents, and to bring back peace, and be on a board of trustees who will really listen to the residents’ concerns.”

Richardson, who has lived in Poquott for 16 years, said the village has felt polarized in recent years. He said residents haven’t been included in votes for plans that significantly affect their lives and homes. He said while meetings may be published in the paper, the trustees do not use their email system to notify residents as often as they should.

Debbie Stevens

To get approval to build a community dock, according to Richardson, residents were asked to fill out and return mailed surveys, rather than participate in a vote.

He said those that did not have a resident’s name on it were thrown out.

When it comes to the construction of a community dock, both feel there needs to be more input from residents.

“It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what the Poquott residents think,” Stevens said.

Richardson said his background would be an asset to the village, and he wants to work with the mayor as “a conduit for the village and the residents.”

Stevens said her experiences as a business owner and her work with charities, which includes fundraising for Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, are assets because she has the listening and communication skills to bring everyone together.

“I would really love to restore the communication between the Poquott residents and the board of trustees and the mayor,” she said.

Parlatore, a full-time patient care specialist and a resident of Poquott for 18 years, said she is the most neutral of all the candidates, as she is not aligned with anyone. However, like Richardson and Stevens she said communication is suffering in the village. She said when it comes to the dock no one is sure what the majority of the residents want. She said the survey prevented many from expressing their true opinions because it wasn’t anonymous, like a vote would have been.

Parlatore said she feels fortunate to live in Poquott and would like for it to continue to be a wonderful village to live in.

“I feel that I’m good at communicating with people and trying to find common ground between a group of people who are trying to aim in one direction,” she said.

The incumbents

Berry, a 33-year resident of Poquott, and Koppelson, a 45-year resident, are running under the Continuity ticket, and said they should be reelected because they get things done in the village.

Seeking his second term, Koppelson said he hopes the two can continue their progress with the other trustees as well as Mayor Dee Parrish. Berry, the village’s deputy mayor who is currently completing his second term as trustee, said the two plan to work on the community dock, continue improving village roads and cleaning up Poquott beaches among other projects.   

Harold Berry

Koppelson said the trustees have been making a number of improvements around the village while staying within the budget. According to the former psychiatric treatment program director, Poquott has had a budget surplus for the third year in a row.

When it comes to village roads, there have been many improvements as well as plans to resurface more roads in the near future, something Berry said was neglected before Parrish was mayor.

“For 12 years before Dee got in, roads and repairs were basically non-existent, they just weren’t done,” Berry said. “So the roads deteriorated greatly.”

Both candidates said they would be in favor of a community dock, which is still in the planning stages. The project would cost $150,000. Koppelson said while he understands some residents may not want their taxes to increase, he said the trustees can find other ways to pay for it. He said due to the surplus, village taxes will not increase significantly.

“The bottom line is we’ll be able to pay back the principle over the five years just out of the surplus we’re running and saving money by doing a lot of the work ourselves,” Koppelson said.

He also said community members organized an event and donated $16,000 towards paying for the dock, which will pay for the interest cost of the bond for the first two years.

Jeff Koppelson

Berry said the dock will  allow boaters and fisherman to easily pull up to it to load and unload their boats, unlike now when they must use a dinghy or kayak to get to their boat.

“The boaters and the fisherman are getting older,” Berry said. “It’s just a matter of ease of getting to your boat and safety.”

Koppelson said there are additional benefits to constructing a dock.

“It will be well used but also it will definitely increase real estate prices,” Koppelson said. “I really do think people will benefit from it in the long run.”

The two pushed back on the challengers’ claims village hall doesn’t properly communicate issues and upcoming votes to residents. In addition to sending out emails, Koppelson said the meetings are open and any hearings on a proposed law are published in The Village Times Herald for two consecutive weeks. Videos of the meetings are also posted on the village’s website the following day and minutes are voted on at the next meeting.

The Village of Poquott elections will be held at Poquott’s Village Hall, 45 Birchwood Avenue, June 20 from noon to 9 p.m.

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Ray Calabrese and Mayor Margot Garant smile with Thomas Jefferson. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Thomas Jefferson will watch over Village Hall visitors in the future, thanks to a donation from the Calabrese family.

“Much to my surprise, there’s nothing for the public viewing of anything of Thomas Jefferson — no statue, no bust, no painting,” Ray Calabrese said at the Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees meeting Monday night. “So I decided to do something about it.”

To applause from the audience, he presented Mayor Margot Garant and the board with a painting of Jefferson, the original of which he said was done by Rembrandt Peale in 1805, halfway through the president’s tenure.

Garant said the portrait would hang above the stairs so that as people go between the first and second floors, “they’ll see Thomas.”

Huntington Town Councilwoman Susan Berland, Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone, John Ross, Senator Carl Marcellino, Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica, Congressman Steve Israel and Asharoken Deputy Mayor Pamela Pierce cut the ribbon at the new Asharoken Village Hall. Photo by Steve Silverman

The new Asharoken Village Hall officially opened its doors with a dedication ceremony on Nov. 24, ending a 10-year journey of replacing a battered building at the center of the village.

“So many people came to join in on the festivities,” Asharoken Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger said, referring to the more than 100 residents who gathered with Mayor Greg Letica, the board of trustees, Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and New York State Senator Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset). “It made it a fantastic event and a phenomenal success in every way possible.”

The new village hall opened for business last month and is a large expansion from the previous building — the ground floor alone is about 3,000 square feet. There is a larger, improved space for the police station, and the whole thing was built to be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient, with LED lighting and spray-foam insulation.

According to a statement, Letica said at the dedication that the process to get to the finish line has been long, and that Ettinger was a key player from the start.

“The project to build a new village hall was actually started almost 10 years ago … initially as an expansion to our old village hall,” Letica said. But funding either an expansion or a construction of a new building was always a major concern.

Ettinger said he started organizing the renovation project when he first became police commissioner, and was told he could go ahead with it as long as it didn’t increase taxes. That was when Ettinger decided to raise the money through donations.

Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica and Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger at the front entrance of the new village hall. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica and Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger at the front entrance of the new village hall. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

“Within the first 10 days of announcing that, I received a check for $10,000 from a resident,” Ettinger said. “Before you knew it, people were sending in checks and pledges left and right. And within the next year and half, we already had $175,000.”

But when Hurricane Sandy hit three years ago, irreparably damaging the structure, the village ditched all plans of renovating it. Letica said the storm forced everyone in village hall to abandon the building and start an “urgent project” to erect a new one.

Joan Ettinger, Mel’s wife, formed the Asharoken Fundraising Committee, which according to Letica, ended up raising $360,000 from more than 200 residents and “has enabled the village to fund the cost of this beautiful building.”

Letica said funding was also made possible with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which reimburses municipalities for repair work following natural disasters.

“Congressman Israel was extremely helpful with … processing our claim with FEMA and I am certain that if not for his personal support and efforts we would have not be able to receive the grant of $538,855,” Letica said.

He also said Marcellino helped the village obtain an additional $50,000 grant.

The total project cost about $950,000.

The new village trustee meeting room on the building’s first floor will soon have a donor board, where the names of people who have donated will be showcased.

A view of the front entrance of the new Asharoken Village Hall located on Asharoken Avenue. The building, which opened less than a month ago, has more space for police and village business. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Asharoken’s new Village Hall has got it all, according to Mayor Greg Letica.

Letica said the new structure is nearly three times larger than the old building — the ground floor is approximately 3,000 square feet. Most of that is made up of the village clerk’s office, an office for Letica, a small conference room, a kitchen and the village trustees’ meeting room.

The rest of the first floor and the second floor are spaces for the police department, including an office, an interview room, a locker room and storage.

Letica said the police department had about 120 square feet inside the old Village Hall, so its wish list was a bit bigger for the new building.

“There was no interview room, no office; there was no nothing,” Letica said.

Both the police department and the village clerk’s office moved into the new building about a month ago.

According to the mayor, this new Village Hall would not be possible if it weren’t for the involvement of village residents. The budget for the entire building was roughly $950,000 and residents opened their wallets to help.

“What’s great about this project is how we funded it,” he said. “To date, we have approximately $360,000 worth of resident donations.”

Residents have been donating money for nine years, ever since the idea to renovate the old village hall was brought up by Trustee Mel Ettinger. In October alone, Letica said, they received $13,000 in resident donations.

“We have roughly 300 families in the village and about 200 donated,” Ettinger said. “It’s incredible. And some of them gave tens of thousands and some gave $50. It was a conglomeration and obviously the overwhelming majority of people wanted to donate.”

Asharoken was also able to capitalize on money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and multiple grants to help fund the construction of the new building, because the old one took a beating during Hurricane Sandy. Letica said they received $530,000 from FEMA and about $80,000 in grants.

“After Sandy, it became more apparent that we had to do something,” Letica said. “And maintaining the old building made no sense anymore.”

The new village trustee meeting room will soon have a donor board, where the  names of people who have donated will be showcased on the wall.

“This is a really neat accomplishment by the village residents,” Letica said. “It’s something I think very few communities on Long Island could rally to do. I think it says a lot about Asharoken as a community.”

The new Village Hall is also much more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than the old establishment.

The building uses spray foam insulation, an alternative to traditional insulation, and LED lighting, which produces more light per watt than incandescent light bulbs. Both of those products lower utility bills and save on energy costs.

“We expect this building to be very economical energy-wise,” Letica said.