Southold Highway Supe’s Vegas trip a bad bet

Southold Highway Superintendent Pete Harris won’t get his chance to go to Las Vegas on the town’s dime next month.

Mr. Harris had planned to attend a construction industry trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center March 22 through 26 to look for a payloader and skid steer for the town, but at a work session Tuesday morning, four Town Board members frowned at the trip’s $1,374 cost.

Sending the highway superintendent alone to Sin City wasn’t what swayed the board to nix the trip. “Pete’s one of the few people I know who could go to Las Vegas and not have any fun. I have no qualms with that,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell at the work session.

Mr. Russell said he’d received an overwhelming amount of correspondence from members of the public who did not want Mr. Harris to go on the trip after Mr. Harris, at a board meeting two weeks ago, launched into a public tirade over the board’s concerns about funding the trip.

The trip had initially been slated to cost taxpayers nearly $2,000, but Mr. Harris proposed Tuesday cutting the public funding to $1,374, after he made new travel arrangements.

Money was put aside for the trip in the 2011 town budget, according to Mr. Harris, but Mr. Russell said that was no reason it had to be spent.

“I know the travel line” in Mr. Harris’s departmental budget “was large, mostly because of the cost of getting things to Fisher’s Island. That’s still going to be a cost,” said the supervisor. But “nobody ever said, ‘Let’s put $2,000 in the budget to cover CONEXPO in Las Vegas,’” he added, referring to the trade show, called CONEXPO-CON/AGG.

Board members pointed out that other town employees had gone to conferences and had made much less costly travel arrangements. Councilman Vincent Orlando said that Planning Director Heather Lanza recently stayed with friends while attending a conference in Boston to save the town money.

“We’re billions of dollars in debt in this country,” said Councilman Al Krupski. “It’s all a good idea, but it’s got to stop somewhere. I don’t think we can afford all these things.”

Mr. Russell added that the proposed Las Vegas trip came on the heels of Mr. Harris’s request that the town pay for his overnight lodging when he went to a conference on nearby Shelter Island last year. The town declined to do so, and Mr. Harris instead had to take the $17 round trip ferry ride each day of the conference, which he said he was forced pay himself.

“We had no choice but to turn that down,” said the supervisor of the overnight lodging on Shelter Island.

Mr. Harris said that, with the town planning to spend nearly $300,000 on the equipment, the advantage of talking directly with every manufacturer in one place, without dealing with salesmen, would make the Las Vegas trip worthwhile.

“I have a difficult time discriminating between a manufacturer and a salesperson,” said Councilwoman Louisa Evans. “A manufacturer wants to sell you a machine too.”

Also at Tuesday’s work session, Joanna Lane and John Betsch, members of Southold Voice, a non-profit group run by waterfront property owners concerned about environmental issues, urged the town to incorporate social media into its FEMA-mandated emergency management plan. Their group is a finalist in a FEMA contest called “The Challenge,” which provides funding for innovative emergency management strategies.

Mr. Betsch and Ms. Lane pointed out the importance of Facebook and Twitter during the recent uprising in Egypt. The sites also helped communities in Australia manage when they were hit recently by a huge cyclone.

Some members of the Town Board seemed wary of the new technology.

Councilwoman Louisa Evans said that she didn’t understand how Twitter worked, prompting Councilman Al Krupski to quip, “They’re still resisting electricity on Fisher’s Island.”

Other members of the board said they didn’t know anything about how Twitter worked beyond its news feed exploited by attention-grabbing celebrities.

“You need to be able to convince people that Twitter is not just junk,” said Ms. Evans.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said that he thought Twitter should be incorporated in the town’s emergency plans. Councilman Vincent Orlando suggested that the town use it to notify people when Town Hall is closed due to bad weather. When that comment drew a laugh from Ms. Lane, Councilman Chris Talbot asked her what was so funny.

“I think it’s funny that Town Hall is closed when there’s a storm. That’s when you need information,” she said. Town Board members using Twitter, she added, could keep the public informed of hazards from their kitchen tables at home, but they should not be unavailable when the public needs them the most.

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” she said.

The board made no decision Tuesday on whether to support the plan.

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