As a promise of change hangs over the Smithtown supervisor election, residents will have three very different options when they enter the voting booth Nov. 7.
On the heels of his victory over 40-year incumbent Pat Vecchio in the Republican primary in September, Councilman Edward Wehrheim (R) faces off against Democratic candidate William Holst — an assistant county attorney and former Suffolk County Legislator — and Independent candidate Kristen Slevin — a local business owner and political newcomer — as the race for the top position enters its final stretch.
The three candidates sat down at the TBR News Media office in Setauket Oct. 19 to discuss their stances on a variety of Smithtown-related issues.
Wehrheim, a lifelong Smithtown resident who has voiced his discontentment with the way Vecchio has run town hall for the past five years, is halfway through his fourth term on the board. He vows to get more work done than his predecessor, if elected, and proposed all elected town officials be considered full-time employees.
Wehrheim said he will hit the ground running and work diligently to make sure long-dormant downtown revitalization initiatives — like bringing sewers to Kings Park, apartments to Smithtown and working with civic groups to turn the New York Avenue school property into something fitting for the town — are pushed forward as quickly as possible.
Wehrheim also wants to make Smithtown’s government more transparent for residents.
“We need to have information or public relations officers there so the public has more access to the work sessions and they know what’s going on,” he said. “Right now, it’s not clear what’s going on in the agendas. The agenda has 75 items, labeled A to ZZ, and nobody understands that. We need more clarification. Whoever is elected to supervisor has to do what’s right for the community.”
Admitting that Smithtown has “a very closed board,” the Republican candidate said he will advocate for more teamwork and openness to allow board members to push legislation of their own. He proposed a business advisory council made up of members from the chamber of commerce, civic groups and local businesses to make new development plans.
“The problem, though, has been that the current town board and the supervisor, in particular, either do nothing or come up with plans that are totally unrealistic in terms of what is appropriate for the area,” Holst said in response to the town’s lack of downtown revitalization. “I think it takes somebody with my background — one who understands land use, knows what is going to be possible in a certain area and has a sense of community.”
Holst, who was president of the Smithtown school district board from 1992 to 1993, touted his experience consolidating two high schools into one to fix declining enrollment. He said, similarly, in downtown Smithtown, “you have to sell off existing [town] buildings and consolidate them to New York Avenue.”
The Democrat also cited that he created the Downtown Revitalization Citizens Advisory Panel during his term in the Suffolk County legislature representing the 12th district. As a former vice president and president of the Greater Smithtown Chamber of Commerce, Holst said he worked to get paved public parking behind stores on the north side of Main Street — an example of his revitalization experience.
“I think I’m the best person for the job to get people to come to a consensus and make things happen,” Holst said.
He questioned the commitment of Slevin, the 40-year-old owner of Yottabyte Craft Chocolate and Candy in Smithtown, who got on the ballot after gathering more than 1,500 voter signatures across party lines this past summer. She has freely admitted to never setting foot inside town hall.
“I’m an outsider — a regular person,” Slevin said. “When I decided I wanted to get involved with the town, I started watching everything online.”
Slevin said she never entered this race thinking she would actually win but is proud to be a voice for the 75 percent of people, mostly young adults, who don’t vote in the local elections or involve themselves in politics at all. She pointed to Vecchio’s reign as “a perfect example” of depriving an entire generation of the opportunity to lead and bring new ideas forward.
It’s [not that] my generation that doesn’t care about local politics. It’s because we’re taking care of our kids, our parents, struggling to hold onto a job, continuing our education, and getting advanced degrees,” she said. “When you have [Vecchio] running the town for 40 years, — my entire life — you just take it for granted. Then one day, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, the whole house is falling down. How did I miss it?’”
If elected, she wants to implement term limits and proposed council districts for board members to improve elected officials’ accountability. Slevin said she’d like to see Smithtown be, “a small town USA that maximizes our spot on the Washington Spy Trail” with elements of Sag Harbor and Northport Village — mixed communities that are walkable, bikeable and pet-friendly.”
Even if she is not elected, she hopes any and all Republicans and Democrats out there feeling disenfranchised by local governments continue to stay active in their parties.
The three candidates stood on common ground in regard to the prevalence of opioid and heroin in the town. Wehrheim said local government has a role in it and plans to make education seminars and hearings on the topic mandatory among town council members, while Holst agreed it was a problem that needed to be addressed.
Slevin said although in Smithtown “we don’t talk about these things,” she’s glad there has been an open dialogue on it within the last year. She wants to not only address people’s access to the drugs but also the psychology behind why they’re taking them.