Greenport mayoral candidates face-off in first debate

In stark contrast to the recent chaos surrounding the upcoming Greenport Village elections, three mayoral candidates faced off Tuesday night in the first debate of the season — and barely mentioned the ongoing dispute over whether all of them will even appear on the ballot. 

Greenport Village Mayor George Hubbard Jr. is running against two challengers, Kevin Stuessi, a consultant for residential and commercial development projects, and Richard Vandenburgh, co-owner of Greenport Harbor Brewing Company and president of the Greenport Business Improvement District. 

Earlier this week, facing public outrage, the Village Board filed a petition in State Supreme Court challenging its own clerk’s determination that seven of the nine prospective candidates for mayor and trustee failed to file the appropriate paperwork to get on the ballot. 

The seven candidates said they had been misled about the requirements by village clerk Sylvia Pirillo, who oversees village elections. 

For more than two and half hours before a crowd of about 100 residents in the Greenport High School auditorium, that topic was hardly center stage, as moderator Rena Wilhelm, a local business owner and community leader, asked each candidate questions on a broad range of topics, including short-term rentals, development in the village and the village’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Hubbard said he has been a member of the village board for 16 years — the last eight as mayor — and that he wants to complete a series of projects that were launched under his administration. He said he’s honored to be mayor and truly enjoys the job. 

Mr. Vandenburgh stressed his 34 years in the community, his extensive work with the Business Improvement District and the numerous Greenport boards and committees he’s worked on over the past decades. 

“I believe my record and my engagement in the community stands on its own and speaks for itself,” he said, vowing to bring “transparency and stability” to village government. 

Mr. Stuessi said his main priorities, if elected, would be affordable housing, infrastructure and what he described as preventing “overdevelopment of the hotels” in the village. He promised deeper community engagement on issues vital to village residents and stressed his ability to “stand up” to developers. 

The two challengers presented themselves as agents of change. Both were critical of delays in updating the LWRP, of a failure to strike a deal on the Peconic Jitney passenger ferry proposal and a failure to take advantage of available state grant programs set up for small municipalities like Greenport. 

In contrast, Mr. Hubbard presented himself as an experienced realist dealing with the perennial challenges that face small village governments. In many cases, he explained why some specific projects haven’t been completed. 

While Mr. Stuessi offered a number of concrete ideas and presented a specific plan of action, Mr. Vandenburgh frequently suggested finding “new ways” to tackle ongoing problems that have long vexed the current administration without going into specifics.

Mr. Hubbard said that running a village is a “very complicated business” and that the connections he’s made during 16 years on the board have given him the knowledge and the skills to pass budgets with “minimal tax increases” year after year, adding that in eight years, village taxes have risen just 6.3%. 

Mr. Vandenburgh envisioned a different kind of village, one run “more like a business,” where “when you walk into Village Hall you should be treated as if you’re walking into a hotel” — with employees acting as “concierges” who can swiftly and efficiently answer questions, solve problems and treat residents with respect.

Mr. Stuessi, who spearheaded the campaign that led to the current administrative moratorium on development projects in Greenport’s key commercial zones , said he is best suited among the candidates to “stand up” to developers, whom he described as being too influential in village politics. 

“Developers are not just knocking at our doors,” he said. “They are sitting in our living rooms.”

In response to a question as to why an exception should be made for him to run for mayor despite only recently retaining a Greenport address in order to be eligible — while some residents in the Greenport ZIP code are still ineligible to vote — Mr. Vandenburgh stressed that while he hasn’t actually lived in Greenport Village until recently, he has devoted decades to serving the community.

“After 34 years, I feel like I’ve established a significant basis to say that I will, and I intend to, live in the Village of Greenport,” he said. 

The candidates were asked if they “own[ed] any properties or had vested interests within the Village of Greenport or otherwise, that would pose a conflict of interest.”

Mr. Stuessi said that he did not. “I don’t own any commercial property on the entirety of the North Fork. Nor do I have any partnerships in the businesses on the North Fork. Nor do I advise or counsel anyone about businesses on the North Fork. I have nothing that would compromise me in serving my duty as your mayor.”

Mr. Hubbard said he only owns his home. While acknowledging he owns the brewery, property in Southold and has “small interests” in other area properties, Mr. Vandenburgh said “there’s nothing in terms of my ownership … that would ever create a conflict.” 

Asked about the issue of illegal short-term rentals in the village, Mr. Stuessi suggested that the most efficient solution is technology. 

“We have a code enforcement officer that wears more hats than any person should,” he said. “He’s also the building inspector — he’s supposed to be enforcing rental laws — and at the same time he’s supposed to be chalking tires on weekends. I can’t even fathom how this is possible. 

“There are ways to put an immediate stop to short-term weekend rentals that are happening illegally,” he continued, suggesting that the village partner with a company that “offers software on a monthly subscription price, that goes out and very quickly determines who has properties that are being rented illegally within the village and then files [an] action.”

Mr. Hubbard said that code enforcement was an ongoing issue in Greenport because the salaries the village offers to prospective employees are not competitive enough. 

“We’ve been advertising for three years for extra code enforcement officers. Right now, we have four open positions in Village Hall,” he said, leading to a situation where when “one person is sick, everything comes to a halt.” 

Mr. Vandenburgh took the opportunity to point out that Mr. Stuessi rents out a property in the village on Airbnb, charging as much as $700 a night during the peak summer season. 

Mr. Stuessi replied that he has never once violated village laws against short-term rentals and said that his “longer term plan” is to move his mother into the space he currently rents out. 

Mr. Stuessi said he supports the administrative moratorium enacted by the village and believes it should remain in place at least until the LWRP is updated. 

“The [LWRP] in the governor’s office is from 1996,” he said. “That was before the iPhone.” 

Mr. Vandenburgh and Mr. Hubbard spoke to both sides of the moratorium issue. 

Acknowledging that he’s “been back and forth on the moratorium,” Mr. Hubbard said he felt at this point that if it continues, it “could be detrimental to the downtown business district. 

“We got served with one lawsuit [over the moratorium], and I’m afraid there will be more coming up if we don’t come up with an endgame.” 

Mr. Vandenburgh said he does not support a full moratorium, and that he believes the existing administrative moratorium was an overreaction to the delays in getting the LWRP updated. He said he supports “smart planning.” 

Mr. Stuessi said that Greenport is not taking full advantage of federal and state grant money available to small villages. 

“I believe this village needs a plan, we should have already had our hands out to both the federal government and the state government looking for funding, we should have been getting funds to make repairs on everything we need — whether it’s the bulkheads that are going to age over the next several years, the docks [or] the fisherman’s pier that is starting to fail. 

“These are things that need help,” he said. “We also need to look at revenue generating … This past year, the governor enacted a new grant program [aimed at small villages] that we could have applied for last year … We could have but we did not apply.” 

Mr. Vandenburgh said he felt the village’s “failure to effectively communicate” scuttled plans last year for a seasonal Peconic Jitney passenger ferry between Long Wharf in Sag Harbor and Mitchell’s Park in Greenport. 

“We haven’t been able to sit down and tell the Peconic Jitney people exactly what we want them to do,” he said. 

Mr. Stuessi said that “under the right circumstances, some sort of transportation [between the North and South forks] should be considered.” 

Mr. Hubbard said that the village has been working closely with the state Department of Transportation to revamp the ferry queue to allow for up to five lanes of traffic. He said the village has been and continues to be stymied by a lack of sufficient bus and train routes between Riverhead and Greenport that could cut down village car traffic. 

Despite the ongoing controversy over whether all the nominated candidates would appear on the ballot, there was only a passing reference to the issue on Tuesday night, and it came very late in the proceedings. 

At the end of the debate, Mr. Stuessi noted that “we find ourselves at a crossroads … [in relation] to the election. Seven of us were disenfranchised.” 

If necessary, he added, “I have a plan for that too — we’ll have a write-in campaign.”