Moments into a Suffolk Times debate between Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Democratic hopeful Damon Rallis earlier this month, it became clear the challenger was not afraid to take the gloves off in the ring with the incumbent.
Mr. Rallis was responding to a question about an audit of the Southold Town Justice Court that was ordered after a court clerk stole more than $230,000 from the town’s bail fund. It’s the biggest scandal in recent town history and, depending on where you place the blame, the largest pockmark on the supervisor’s decade-long record.
Mr. Rallis, rightfully, came out swinging.
“We work with the honor system. You know what happens when we use the honor system: $256,000 gets stolen from Justice Court,” Mr. Rallis stated with authority.
It set the tone for the remainder of the debate, where the challenger took frequent, aggressive shots at his opponent’s record.
There was one problem with Mr. Rallis’ approach: Mr. Russell was comfortable defending his record and he spent much of the next hour outlining the many accomplishments of his four terms in office.
It’s one thing to rip Mr. Russell over what happened at the Justice Court — even if he maintains that the blame lies elsewhere. It’s something else to attack him on the subject of the town’s finances, for example.
By questioning why it’s taken six years for the town to begin improving safety conditions in the Justice Court, Mr. Russell was able to remind Mr. Rallis that the economy has forced local governments to slow progress that becomes too costly. Despite a shaky economy, the supervisor pointed out throughout the evening, the town has paid down debt to improve its bond rating while keeping tax increases to a minimum.
“I think we have a better fiscal record than just about any municipality on Long Island,” Mr. Russell said.
Long before this year’s supervisor race became official, the two candidates made it clear to anyone paying attention to online message boards and social media that they’d had a rift. Mr. Rallis, a town employee, and Mr. Russell have had several contentious back-and-forth debates over the years that have been hard not to notice.
As a candidate, Mr. Rallis continues to come off like a disgruntled employee enjoying any opportunity he gets to throw verbal jabs at his boss.
“No one inside Town Hall is offering leadership or guidance,” stated Mr. Rallis, who labeled Mr. Russell a partisan and a poor manager who rarely gets all of his department heads together.
The points the challenger makes fall flat if you believe the public is satisfied with the general direction at Town Hall, where, as the leader of a one-party Town Board, Mr. Russell clearly sets the tone.
The board has spent much of the supervisor’s current four-year term proactively addressing quality of life issues like short-term rentals, noise complaints and deer management. The town has also continued to make land preservation a priority.
While every municipality has its share of disgruntled citizens, they appear few and far between in Southold.
Mr. Rallis’ campaign failed to offer much in terms of ideas for how to fix Town Hall — and that’s probably because it isn’t exactly broken.
We do agree that Mr. Russell shares the blame for the Justice Court thefts, even if he does not. And his falling asleep at a Town Board meeting and flipping a town-owned vehicle earlier this year were definitely causes for concern (though Mr. Rallis didn’t even raise those issues during his campaign).
While Mr. Rallis would have you believe the town is in need of a change in leadership, we believe Southold has been well served with Mr. Russell as its supervisor. He deserves another term.