The two candidates for Southold Town Supervisor faced off in person for the first time Thursday night.
And the Democratic challenger came out swinging.
In the roughly hour-long debate at Peconic Landing, Democratic candidate and town building department employee Damon Rallis peppered incumbent Republican Supervisor Scott Russell with frequent attacks on his leadership and management skills, and accused Mr. Russell’s administration of playing favorites based on political party.
Mr. Russell vehemently denied that allegation and responded in kind, pointing out his fiscal record with the town and combined efforts with nearby municipalities, while also bringing up his opponent’s spotty attendance at community forums.
The debate, sponsored by The Suffolk Times and moderated by editors Grant Parpan and Joseph Pinciaro, focused on many of the hot-button issues of the past year — including traffic concerns, helicopter noise, water quality improvement and justice court reform in the wake of a theft scandal — with a crowd that applauded and even laughed as the candidates traded barbs.
Read below for the candidate’s responses to each question of the debate in their own words. Some answers have been condensed:
Question: Eighteen months ago, the Town Board authorized spending $36,000 on an audit of its Justice Court system after it was learned that a now-former clerk had stolen more than $230,000 from the town’s bail fund. To date, the findings of this audit have not been released. Should the public be concerned about that?
Damon Rallis: Absolutely. I don’t think there should be any question … The Town Board was made aware of discrepancies along the way, but we didn’t look into it. A few years went by and a lot of money was stolen. We have an audit from the comptroller that was published last year that found numerous instances of mismanagement in the way we handle money and in the way we handle time in Town Hall. We have a very expensive time management system in Town Hall. It cost us $156,000. That’s your money and we’re not using that system to the best of its ability … We work with the honor system. You know what happens when we use the honor system: $256,000 gets stolen from Justice Court.
Scott Russell: The ongoing justice court audit was the result of the scandalism of a previous clerk. It’s a mess that everybody has every right to be concerned [about]. This [audit] goes back far beyond three years. It doesn’t necessarily mean [more] criminal behavior, but certainly accounts that just simply weren’t managed well, weren’t handled well and frankly weren’t overseen well … The town actually doesn’t have the unilateral right to go and get the records from the judge … Actually New York State didn’t find inappropriate behavior. What the state audit did was it made recommendations … They didn’t say our time record keeping system is bad, in fact their findings found no discrepancies. We basically have three different time systems and they recommended all departments go on one.
Q: Many different uses have been discussed for the school and recreation center on Peconic Lane. The Justice Court is also crunched for space. Do you believe the town is best utilizing its buildings and what improvements might you offer?
Russell: We’ve done some independent investigations and evaluations of our existing infrastructure … But we’ve done a lot of capital projects over the last decade. We’re in the process of updating that infrastructure. People should keep in mind we built a new animal shelter for $3 million. We built a new transfer station at $3 million. We bought a Peconic school and renovated it for a little over $1 million. We put in a fuel management system and fuel depot for $1.5 million. We have a maintenance garage on line to be built this year for $3 million. Our priority after that should be justice court.
Rallis: Yes, this Town Board has made some improvements. I don’t think it’s safe yet. It’s a zoo in there. In that lobby, you have people coming to pay their taxes and you have people that are coming in to be processed and go in front of a judge. A court officer quit — that’s why we’re addressing this now — a court officer quit because he feared for his own safety. In 2008, The Suffolk Times ran two consecutive articles about the fact that the justice court was unsafe. And my opponent at that time was quoted as saying I want to make safety in justice court and Town Hall a priority. Fast forward to 2014, a guy quits because he doesn’t feel safe … It’s groundhog day all over again. When it takes six years to address a priority, we have a problem.
Russell: In 2009 I wanted to make justice court a priority, the problem was, we all recall, we hit an economic buzzsaw in 2010. Southold couldn’t pay its existing bills, let alone new ones … Personally I would have made a justice court priority over a maintenance facility, but we have huge investments in the garage … However, he’s right. We could have done more to make the building safer. The letter of resignation from the court officer was a point well taken and the town responded.
Rallis: There was grant funding available to at least put in some sort of metal detector. It should have been some sort of priority. Again, if that’s a priority that’s something we should have addressed in 2008 not in 2014 when a good employee has to leave because [he] feared for [his life].
Q: What ideas do you have to keep younger residents from leaving Southold Town and how might you as a Town Supervisor get them more civically engaged?
Rallis: The number one problem we have here in Southold Town is the lack of affordable housing … [In] three terms in office, this administration has failed to put forth a reasonable affordable housing solution. Other communities across Long Island, across the country have answered the call to create affordable housing for their workforce. In my opinion it comes down to a lack of leadership … You hold a lot of forums about affordable housing and we all sit down and discuss it and we all agree … but no one’s rolling up their sleeves and coming up with a plan for the big picture.
Russell: Affordable housing is a very important issue. I’m glad my opponent finally embraces it. We’ve had affordable housing seminars. He hasn’t showed up to any. He hasn’t gone to the affordable housing advisory commission and suggested ideas he says he has … they’ve been meeting monthly. He has yet to go … I think he forgets that the Cottages was built while I was supervisor.
You need to engage the students early. The first thing I did as supervisor was create a youth bureau. We have students coming in. We have students doing environmental projects.
Rallis: My opponent likes to point out all the meetings I don’t go to. I’m not the supervisor yet. He’s tried this angle a few times. A measure of someone’s involvement in the community is not how many Town Board meetings they attend … I’m out there. I’ve got my finger on the community.
Russell: It’s a communitywide problem that’s going to require communitywide solutions.
Q: How do you balance the town’s needs to preserve land with the need for jobs?
Russell: I created an economic advisory commission … This group is very good at promoting small business, promoting self-employed people … The reality is Google isn’t coming to coming to Southold Town. We don’t need retail. We don’t need per diem jobs. What we need is meaningful employment that’s going to provide career opportunities for people … It hasn’t been easy but we haven’t stopped trying.
Rallis: I have to agree with Scott. We’re not going to survive on retail jobs … We’re losing jobs here. Lewis Marine closing is another example … I still have a problem with the fact that the supervisor believes that we have these forums, and if you want to have a voice, you need to come out here and speak or too bad. We can do more, we can do better. It takes leadership to bring people into town. We’re not in the business of marketing for these property owners, but maybe we should be.
Russell: We talk about having these roundtable discussion that’s exactly what these forums are … The rock throwing has to stop. I think we’re all working towards a common goal.
Rallis: When the housing advisory committee is saying you’re not providing us with the leadership we need, maybe we have a problem.
Q: Where do you stand on the issue of a plastic bag ban?
Rallis: I support the plastic bag ban as an environmentalist, as a human being, as a guy who uses reusable bags. I don’t understand what’s so hard about drafting legislation, holding a public hearing and then voting for it. If I’m elected town supervisor I’m only one voice on the town board, lets face it, but what’s the harm in bringing it to the public? My opponent has stalled on that for a year.
Russell: Evidently my opponent’s opinion on this has evolved because a year ago, he ridiculed the town for having the forum and said it was silly to talk about this because it was unenforceable. I want bags to disappear from the landscape. I think the county is in a better position to do something meaningful about it. I think that if at least we took Riverhead off the table, I would be the first to support a ban.
Rallis: Yes, a year ago, I said a plastic bag ban isn’t going to work because you’re not enforcing your existing codes. And let’s face it, people’s opinions can change. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about listening to the community and talking to people out there. And that’s what I do.
Russell: Getting community input is important. A nice way of doing that is hosting forums. [applause] I work for this community … I have a business community that’s having a hard time struggling to compete with the corporate giants to the west … I think there are better ways to do away with single use plastic bags.
Q: There has been discussion recently of creating a part-time wildlife manager in town to help address the deer problem. What might this person accomplish and what other steps need to be taken?
Russell: The first thing they’re going to do is work with our land preservation committee… But we can do more. We can expand our inventory of hunting areas in our town.
Rallis: What we need to do with the wildlife manager is ensure that that employee is properly trained, that expectations and goals are spelled out that the individual is monitored and that those goals are met … We’ve dropped the ball on similar positions. Look at code enforcement. This administration has ignored advice from experts when it comes to code enforcement this administration has provided minimal training when it comes to code enforcement staff and it’s failed to follow its own policies and procedures … We have to hire them based on qualifications as well, not who they’re related to in Town Hall and not what their political party. [applause]
Russell: We are going to have a clearly defined role for the management officer who will be reporting directly to the Town Board. The credentials, I agree with. In fact, it’s a civil service position and civil service spells out what the criteria and qualifications are before you fill the position … I’m not aware of us not following policies and procedures. I’m certainly not aware of the town hiring people based on political affiliation. Most employees are actually civil service list. The town doesn’t have discretion. Damon raises this issue a lot. It was a Republican Town Board that hired Damon.It was a Republican Town Board that moved Damon into code enforcement at his request. The Republican Town Board changed the title just to hire him and it was a Republican Town Board that negotiated with his union when we moved him back to his old job to make sure the salary stayed the same. I don’t see the partisanship.
Rallis: Actually my salary didn’t stay the same, but that doesn’t bother me. It was a Republican Town Board that hired me. If we want to get into this discussion, yeah, I brought it up. [Laughter] Look, I was a Republican. The Republicans love to walk around and say that I used to be a Republican. Let me tell you something about Southold Town, about growing up in Southold Town, about being born in Southold Town. The first thing you’re told by your parents: you better register Republican if you want a job out here. [applause] You better register Republican if you want to run a business out here. If someone comes up to me in Town Hall and says “You know, I really want this promotion. I switched my party affiliation. That makes me sick.”
Russell: I wasn’t a registered Republican when I was first nominated when I ran for office.
Q: This summer we saw numerous fish kills in the Peconic Estuary. What do you see as Southold Town’s role in solving regional water quality problems?
Rallis: I support the efforts being made by Suffolk County to look into alternative systems but these systems are expensive … The time to act is now. All the East End towns are dealing with this … We have to stop passing the buck in some situations and saying this is a county situation … If you’re going to build a 124-unit subdivision development in my community under my administration then you’re going to be held to the highest standard.
Russell: Southold has shown a leadership role here. I am actually meeting with East End supervisors and Legislator Krupski. We’re trying to form an East End septic district. Suffolk County finally, slowly but surely, is starting to recognize alternative treatment systems. Most of Southold’s septic issues are residential. Currently none of the alternative systems are permitted, but in the near future they’re going to be.
Rallis: I’m glad to hear that.
Q: The town takes in a significant amount of revenue from beach stickers, yet some bathrooms and the beaches themselves are in poor condition. Any plans on upgrading facilities and/or beaches?
Russell: Beaches are overused to the point of being abused. We partner with community pride programs. We work hand in hand with them … The volunteerism in this town is astounding. We can probably expand that even more by creating a volunteer corps.
Rallis: Some of the beaches do have bathrooms… and they’re often locked when you need them or they’re not very clean. I tend to agree with my opponent … We do have a very strong group of volunteers there.
Russell: What we do is try to maintain them. We have a very responsive [Department of Public Works] … We can’t have someone there 8 hours a day.
Q: Each year roads are getting busier and busier it seems. How can you address concerns residents have over traffic and road safety?
Rallis: I really like the idea that my running mate Debbie O’Kane has been talking about looking … to entice maybe some sort of public transit, non-profit privately funded [entity]. I imagine something coming out from Tanger running out to Orient on a regular basis with corporate sponsorship. Traffic is a problem. Traffic is a nightmare … We do need these people to come out here. One of the things I got really concerned about is by passing this short term rental ban, in my opinion you’re putting more cars on the road … That’s not going to solve our traffic problem.
Russell: I don’t know that I can tie short term rentals into the discussion [laughter]. Southold Town is part of the East End Transportation Council. We’re a robust member there. We actually partially funded a study a few years ago from a think tank in Washington … they identified how we can create our own East End rail … This East End rail transit authority would require that the MTA cede its assets and the income it produces from the East End … it’s a tremendous tremendous piggy bank for the MTA and they don’t have to provide anything back in services. That’s not going to happen overnight. What we do in the meantime is smaller initiatives. We stop hair-brained schemes to bring 18-wheelers across the ferry. We tried some traffic calming measure. I know it was somewhat unpopular to ban special road events during the busy season but the fact of the matter is it wasn’t making our problem better, it made our problem worse.
Q: Do you believe the current Town Board has made prudent fiscal decisions?
Russell: Of course we do. We run a very tight fiscal ship. We had our bond rating increased last year. It’s the highest bond rating we’ve ever had. We keep our debt profile managable. Certainly there are some expenditures over the years that we cold have done better at, but that’s like any government. I think one of the cornerstones of this administration and the board I work with is fiscal responsibility. I think we have a better fiscal record than just about any municipality on Long Island. We’ve weathered a very difficult financial storm just about six years ago and I think we came through with flying colors. [applause]
Rallis: It’s true we have a healthy fund balance, strong bond rating keeps us under the tax cap … We look good on paper, but how is Town Hall being managed. To the best of my knowledge … this administration has held just two department head meetings in calendar year 2015 … No one inside Town Hall is offering leadership or guidance. That’s the role of a town supervisor.
Russell: The department head meetings are basically used to deal with common issues, common challenges. The department heads and I have very good communication on a daily basis. Most of the issues they face are unique to their office so they need to be dealt with one-on-one with them. Some of those common issues get resolved in a department head meeting, but having or not having department head meetings is no reflection on leadership.
Rallis: I disagree. I think if you’re managing a business, you should be meeting with your managing staff once a month. We used to do that … I do find it odd that our two department head meetings, one was right after the alleged theft inside of justice court and the other was right around the time the justice court officer quit because of security. Are we gathering together to put out fires. Maybe we should be gathering together once a month so that these fires don’t start [applause].
Rallis: We’ve sat here tonight and heard about specific issues. We agree on most things. We agree that helicopter noise is an issue, we agree that plastic bags should go away. We agree that we want to do the best …. My opponent and I are vying for a job and that is the job of town supervisor and I believe the role of a town supervisor is to manage the day to day operations of Town Hall … Politics? Favoritism? It really has no place inside Southold Town … We need some balance and I’d like to bring that balance if you’d give me your vote November 3.
Russell: I’ve been here for 10 years. I’m going to say basically “this is my record” and “this is what I’d like to continue to do,” and that’s basically to continue to run the town in a tight fiscal manner. Having a town that’s healthy financially makes everything else possible. We have a very progressive environmental program … My opponent once said that needs a government that’s proactive, not reactive. Not necessarily. We need a government that’s both. We need a government that’s proactive that has vision, which is what we embody in the continued work on the comprehensive master pan. But we also need a government that can respond to challenges as they arise. We had a challenge this past year with historic churches going on the market. Southold Town Board came together with a new piece of legislation promoting the protection of these structures. It’s those types of things that come at you that you didn’t see two or three years ago … The agricultural industry is undergoing a lot of changes. It has new needs. Higher production, less land. We need a town that has policies, procedures and town code that are able to adapt to those needs of that vitally important industry … Southold is celebrating its 375th anniversary this year. Southold is sustainable … Nobody needs to come in to save the town from itself. We’re doing fine. I know people are saying we need change. Change into what?