Election 2011: Supervisor, challenger don’t agree on much

Scott Russell and Robert Meguin

Two men are in the running for Southold supervisor, the town’s highest elected post, and both know a thing or two about public service.

Two-term incumbent Scott Russell, a former tax assessor, has won accolades from the public for his non-partisan style and fiscal responsibility. Challenging him is Robert Meguin, a criminal attorney and former advisor to county judges who has also served as Babylon budget director, a military policeman, and an architect of the town Democrats’ revitalization efforts launched last year.

Mr. Meguin, the town party’s coleader, readily admits to being a “reluctant candidate” who stepped in when no one else sought the nomination. He describes Mr. Russell as a free spender who when it comes to fiscal restraint “just doesn’t get it.”

Financial issues are also central to the Russell campaign, but the supervisor says he and the other Town Board members made difficult decisions during the early days of the national economic meltdown to lessen the blow on local taxpayers. Because of that, he says, Southold is far better off that many Long Island communities.

If re-elected, Mr. Russell hopes to complete several projects, including renegotiation of collective bargaining agreements with town employees, which will be on the table next year, and a comprehensive master plan slated to be finished in August 2013.

Mr. Meguin has advocated a regional approach to solving issues, including creating a light rail network to help alleviate East End traffic.

“Southold is a very diverse community,” Mr. Meguin said at a Suffolk Times candidates’ interview last Friday. “It’s becoming more and more diverse. We’re all very neighborhood conscious. We’ve got to break that mold. There are regional solutions.”

Mr. Russell, however, said that he understands the “Yankee libertarianism” mind set of many Southold residents.

“It’s hard to get people in East Marion to believe things that happen in Mattituck affect them,” he said. “We have a very straightforward approach to getting things done.”

Mr. Meguin called Mr. Russell a “caretaker” who seeks to appease voters instead of leading them. Mr. Russell argues that he’s made straightforward and nonpartisan governance a hallmark of his administration.

“I don’t want to apologize for looking to build consensus,” said Mr. Russell.

The Democratic Party had at one point considered cross-endorsing Mr. Russell, but Mr. Meguin said he thought “how are we supposed to be a credible party and have an alternative?”

He said, “I always thought there were people far brighter than me who could do this. That wasn’t the case this year.”

During the campaign, Mr. Meguin chastised Mr. Russell for proposing a small pay increase last year for himself and other elected officials. Mr. Russell, who said he hasn’t taken a pay raise in several years, dropped the proposal after public opposition.

“I work for them. I’m their employee. I listened,” said the supervisor.

The two view the Planning Board’s decision to approve a new 7-Eleven in Mattituck, which Democrats strongly opposed, quite differently

Mr. Meguin said that Planning Board members were afraid they’d be sued if they voted against the store, even though the burden of proof is very high for those challenging municipal decisions.

“It’s very hard for people to win,” he said. “There is great deference to municipalities’ decision.”

Mr. Russell said that, while the convenience store’s location on the corner of the dangerous intersection of Route 25 and Factory Avenue is not ideal, if 7-Eleven or “Joe and Mary Bag-of-Donuts” bought the 7-Eleven property, it would look nice because of Southold’s architectural review laws.

He added that in an effort to reduce traffic, the town is looking to the Mattituck Plaza shopping centers’ owners to create access to the store through the shopping center parking lot.

The two candidates are also at odds over the handling of the town’s lapsed police contract, which will be decided through binding arbitration.

Mr. Russell said that he had asked officers to accept a pay freeze in the first year of their contract, as the CSEA employees did a few years ago, but the union refused.

Mr. Meguin asks Mr. Russell if he’s willing to threaten to lay off police officers in order to force their hands.

“If we can’t cut the salaries, maybe we need to reduce the police force,” the challenger said. “Let’s face it, it’s the best job in this town.”

Mr. Russell, who used potential layoffs as a bargaining tool in his last negotiations with the civil service employees, said that he’s unable to do so with police. The department is already operating with a skeleton staff and is required by contract to maintain certain staffing levels.

Mr. Russell said that this is just one of many ways the town government is constrained by state laws.

Mr. Meguin said that Mr. Russell should be banging on doors at the state. Mr. Russell suggested that Mr. Meguin go to Governor Andrew Cuomo himself to challenge those issues. He added that Mr. Meguin, as a Democratic party leader in the town, might be able to get further in discussions with the governor, since they are both members of the same party.

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