Compromise reached in Greenport election row

In the face of overwhelming public outrage, the Greenport Village Board voted 5-0 Thursday night to extend the filing deadline for seven prospective candidates who had been unexpectedly removed from the upcoming village election ballots over a paperwork dispute. The board agreed to extend until Monday the deadline for the paperwork to be completed. 

Absent from the standing-room-only meeting at the Greenport Fire Department was the official at the center of the controversy: Village Clerk Sylvia Pirillo. Mayor George Hubbard and other village officials said Ms. Pirillo was tending to a family emergency. 

The affected candidates all said that they were misled by a pair of letters sent by, or at the instruction of, Ms. Pirillo, in the past week.  

In the first letter, dated Feb. 14, Ms. Pirillo informed the candidates that they had been nominated and that their “name and party shall appear on the ballot as such. Kindly note that the last day to file a certificate of declination is Feb. 17, 2023.” 

However, in a subsequent letter from Town Attorney Joseph Prokop, dated Feb. 22, the seven non-incumbent candidates were informed that they “did not … comply with the requirements of Election Law Section 6-144, which required you to file a proper certificate of acceptance with the Village Clerk by Feb. 17. I am therefore writing to inform you that pursuant to State Law your name cannot appear on the ballot as a candidate for office in the 2023 election.” 

The election law provision cited by Mr. Prokop makes no mention of a requirement to file a letter of acceptance, and only states that the candidate must be notified of the last day to file a certificate of declination. 

By the end of the contentious meeting, every board member, including the mayor, had expressed their dismay at the way the controversy played out. 

The seven candidates are Richard Vandenburgh and Kevin Stuessi, who are running for mayor against incumbent Mr. Hubbard, and Alison Tuthill, Lily Dougherty-Johnson, Monique Gohorel, Patrick Brennan and William Swiskey, who are running for two open trustee positions against incumbent Jack Martilotta.  

In one of the night’s most dramatic exchanges, Southold Town Trustee Liz Gillooly polled the board and demanded to know whether each member agreed that the letters were unclear.

Trustee Bess Phillips said, “I don’t believe it was clear.” Trustee Julia Robins said she “found it totally inappropriate and misleading.” Trustee Peter Clarke said he was “disappointed that so many qualified and distinguished candidates” were left off the ballot. “I had questions about it myself when I got my letter,” Mr. Hubbard said, referring the first letter from Ms. Pirillo. Mr. Martilotta also expressed concerns, telling the seven candidates, “I feel horrible … I feel sick that you’re not on [the ballot].”

Mayoral candidate Rich Vandenburgh (left) and trustee candidate Lily Dougherty-Johnson (right) were two of seven candidates that had initially been disqualified from appearing on the ballot. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

Lisa Gillooly then asked the board, “who has the decision-making power to restore the ballot and thereby restoring the trust in the village? Because I have to tell you … this breaks my heart.  I am for free and fair elections. It’s part of our right as citizens of this nation, let alone citizens of this village. And this is the most distressing thing that could be.” 

“Believe me,” Mr. Hubbard responded. “I’m distressed about this too.” That comment was met with widespread laughter. Still, he insisted, “the only person that can restore the names on the ballot is a state supreme court judge.” 

By the end of the meeting, Mr. Hubbard had changed course and called for a resolution that the candidates be allowed on the ballot, and vowed to accept “whatever repercussions that happen legally with that.” The measure passed unanimously.

But not before the board — and especially the mayor — came under withering criticism from one resident after another, who took to a podium for more than an hour, hurling accusations of deceit, election rigging, pettiness and incompetence, as well as numerous demands for Ms. Pirillo to be fired.  

Addressing the audience, Ms. Phillips said that “you as a group, you’re upset, but if you don’t think the rest of us on the board here are upset? Yes we are. I’ve been sick about this since I first heard about it. I’m upset how it processed out, the communication. 

“But I think you need to give us the opportunity to hire an attorney to take these suggestions … and let’s see if we can correct the situation.” 

With the March 21 election only weeks away, that suggestion did not sit well with village residents. 

Stepping to the podium, Tony Spiridakis insisted that “the vote [to include the seven on the ballot] should happen right now so that you guys … turn this around and get the faith restored, because it’s gone right now.”

Former Greenport Village Mayor David Nyce, called it “unconscionable that the village clerk did not help applicants for this election.”

Addressing Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Nyce said “this sits directly in your lap, sir. Yes, the clerk runs the election, but the mayor, at all times, is in charge of the personnel within the village — appointed and otherwise, and if you wanted a free and open election — you would have made sure every applicant, every candidate, had all the information they needed to run.” 

In another memorable exchange, Mr. Brennan, one of the affected candidates, told the board, “I don’t know if a mistake was made [or] if some kind of incompetence has come into play here. I don’t know if someone deliberately misled in order to gain a political advantage. Those are matters for the village trustees, and perhaps with the aid of law enforcement.

“Here’s what I know,” he continued. “At some point over the last week, one or more people in the village administration noticed that none of the outside candidates had correctly completed their acceptance forms but the two incumbent candidates did so. Now I’m only speculating here, but perhaps they noticed that the election information put out by the village board was at somewhat of a variation with state law. That would naturally have raised questions.

“Instead of bringing those questions to light,” Mr. Brennan continued, “evidently, they decided to seek counsel and protect themselves. They didn’t bother to notify the public that perhaps an election irregularity might have occurred. They didn’t notify the candidates. They didn’t show any decency towards our neighbors. They did not show any respect for these candidates. 

“I expect the mayor and the trustees to clean up their own mess. And if you can’t lead,” he concluded, “then get out of my way.”