Greenport trustee candidates face off in final debate

At the second and final debate among candidates running for two open trustee seats on the Greenport Village Board on March 8, the five competitors weighed in on a variety of topics that hadn’t been covered in the first debate.

In introducing themselves to the audience, Mr. Swiskey presented himself as straight-talking, common-sense candidate who is also a veteran of village battles. Current trustee and deputy mayor Jack Martilotta touted the board’s accomplishments in the past eight years, particularly the administration’s success in keeping tax increases to a minimum.

Ms. Dougherty-Johnson presented herself as a hometown candidate who has been active her whole life in village-related work. Ms. Gohorel cited her years of work on various village committees and community-focused projects, while Mr. Brennan described himself as a local shipwright and marine mechanic who understands the challenges faced by waterfront businesses.

Election Controversy

Early in the debate, moderator and former Greenport School Board president Heather Wolf asked the candidates to each publicly address the ongoing controversy over the election ballots.

Earlier this week, three of the five trustee candidates entered into a stipulation with the village board that allowed their names to appear on the election ballot — following a bitter dispute in which the candidates accused Village Clerk Sylvia Pirillo of misleading them about the requirements.

The candidates who signed the stipulation are Ms. Gohorel, Ms. Dougherty-Johnson, Mr. Brennan, as well as mayoral candidates Richard Vandenburgh and Kevin Stuessi.

Mr. Swiskey confirmed that he would be running solely as a write-in candidate.

“I refused to sign the stipulation because I felt it violated my constitutional rights to even file a complaint about what’s going on in this election.” Earlier this month, Mr. Swiskey filed a complaint with New York State Attorney General Leticia James’ office over election interference by village administrators, particularly Ms. Pirillo and Village Attorney Joseph Prokop.

Ms. Gohorel disagreed with Mr. Swiskey’s assessment of the final stipulation, saying that amendments made to the original stipulation convinced her that her rights weren’t being taken away.  Ms. Dougherty-Johnson said her intention “was always to be on the ballot,” joking that her lengthy name could be especially challenging for write-in voters. (Write-in votes must correspond exactly with a candidate’s given name, with any spelling deviations rendering a vote invalid.)

Mr. Martilotta, echoing sentiments that other village trustees have publicly expressed, said it was “heartbreaking to see the whole thing unfold.”

He said he felt the need to curb his instinct to reach out to the candidates and support their effort to get on the ballot because the village attorney, Mr. Prokop, had told him any such actions could open the village up to litigation.

 Mr. Brennan took the most conciliatory view of the election controversy of all the candidates, saying that “the agreement that was ultimately signed was fair and reasonable” and noting that “a lot of people worked hard — the candidates and the people in Village Hall — worked hard to hammer out that agreement very quickly.

“Out of respect for all the work that went into it, I think it was important to sign it and participate [on the ballot],” he said.

Mr. Brennan used part of his closing statement to reiterate the need to forgive and move on.

“I do want people to be mindful that there are lots of good people on all sides of this controversy. These are real people: they have families, spouses, children, and it’s important to remember that they’ve done a lot of good work for the community. Let’s be courteous and respectful even though there’s been a lot of frustration.”

Tiny homes?  

Ms. Wolf challenged the unanimous notion among candidates at the first debate that the key to solving the affordable housing crisis in Greenport is obtaining more land from Southold Town — saying that “sounds like something we shouldn’t hold our breathe on.”

“I can think of a few ways we can handle it right within our own village limits,” Ms. Wolf said, and offered three suggestions.  

First, she suggested “we liberalize zoning laws to encourage accessory dwellings.”

“Tiny houses are a huge trend,” she continued. “They’re all over … We could allow them to be built in Grenport. We could flagpole lots, like they used to 100 years ago, and build houses one behind another.”

Third, she suggested that “we encourage and allow and incentivize second and third stories to be built on some of the buildings on Front Street … particularly on the north side, between, say, First and Third Streets.”

Ms. Gohorel said tiny homes lack dignity for the dwellers.

“Honestly, do we want basically a room that’s the size of queen size hotel [bed] to be someone’s house?” she asked. “Having tiny, tiny — basically a room — I don’t think that’s a dignity that anybody should be asked to live in.”  

 Ms. Dougherty-Johnson also pushed back on the question’s premise, saying the village must work with the town.

“Yes, I think we should do all of those things: accessory dwelling units, apartments downtown, but I also think [that] we are a tiny square mile within a larger community, and we do have to be working with that community, especially now that there’s going to be a community housing fund that we can access.”

Mr. Brennan also said he wants to build bridges with the town and county, and try and foster a more “regional mindset” in Village Hall. Mr. Swiskey repeated his belief that when it comes to affordable housing in Greenport, all roads lead to the Southold City Hall. “Affordable housing starts with the town,” he said, “which in my estimation had done squat.”

Mr. Martilotta said he was open to new ideas, but doesn’t believe tiny homes make sense in Greenport. “Tiny houses? Okay. I’m for housing, that’s fine with me, but there’s not that many [properties] that have enough room to even put one in the back.”

Village revenue streams

The candidates were asked whether the village’s existing revenue streams were being appropriately leveraged and what new sources of revenue could generate more money for Greenport.

Ms. Dougherty-Johnson said she thinks the revenue streams “are being leveraged appropriately but we could always do better,” urging more focus on net metering and more solar energy generated within the village.

She cited a town upstate that got a $2 million Department of Environmental Conservation grant to replace the refrigeration system for their ice-skating rink, a $50,000 hometown grant that … “could have been used for the Third Street basketball courts,” and a New York State Main Street grant program “that could help renovate the arcade.”

Mr. Brennan said he thinks that more can be done to increase revenues from existing fee structures, and said he is in the process of seeking a grant for a fire rescue boat.

Mr. Swiskey suggested charging more for sewage fees, particularly to large, multi-million dollar projects. 

Mr. Martilotta said the current administration has brought in $10 million in grants and said the board has been “looking for outside funding to help as much as we can.” Ms. Gohorel suggested re-hiring grant writers who had successfully sought grant money for the village in the past.

Sustainability, vitality and preservation

The candidates were asked to describe their chief concerns about environmental sustainability, marine vitality and waterfront preservation.

As the first respondent, Ms. Dougherty-Johnson leaned into her microphone and declared to applause that “we should put the green back in Greenport.

“We live in such a beautiful place: the water, the woods, the small town-ness. We’re a tree city. We should be doing everything we can to be as sustainable as possible.”

Mr. Brennan said it comes down to resiliency – “maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure,” and sustainability – “protecting the ground water, waterways and conserving energy.”

Mr. Swiskey said that, overall, thanks to years of work, things are in pretty good shape in Greenport. “Your sewer system is not under any great strain, the water system is fine, the electric system [is being] studied, and … our bays and beaches are clean.”

Mr. Martilotta agreed that, while “there’s always room for improvement,” the village is in good shape from an environmental perspective.

“We have a tree committee … We studied and are trying to figure out how to get grants for the Sandy Beach sewer extension. Sandy Beach is only place that’s not hooked up to the sewer system. So, we’re doing a really good job on that. As far as green power … you have green power now, from the Niagra Falls power station.

“As far as our infrastructure, we have spent in the last eight years in excess of $5 million redoing every piece of the electrical system … all the way down to the wires in the poles downtown that we’ve changed.”

Ms. Gohorel urged a forward-thinking mindset. “While it’s great that things have improved, how are [those improvements] going to impact our lives five years from now, ten years from now?”

Empty storefronts, derelict houses

The candidates were asked how they would approach the issue of absentee owners, both those that own derelict houses and those who own commercial properties with empty storefronts.

 Mr. Swiskey said he regularly counts the empty store fronts in the village and “there ain’t many more than usual.” He said what worries him is the restrictions on new businesses caused by the moratorium.  

 Mr. Martilotta said the village has done what it could to discourage blighted properties and empty storefronts, “but this is America, and property owners have rights.”

 “You can ticket them when they violate the code, we can reach out to owners and ask them to improve their properties … [but] you can’t force somebody to do something with a property.”

 Mr. Brennan said that even though the properties are privately-owned, “in a sense they are community property.” He said he’d like to further investigate why the current landlords “are doing this.”
Ms. Dougherty-Johnson suggested a vacancy registry or even a vacancy tax that would “incentivize” landlords and owners. She also urged changing the code so that “if what we want is retail stores, let’s make it super easy, and maybe we’ll be able to fill some storefronts.”

Ms. Gohorel cited the example of Mystic, Connecticut as a municipality that requires new businesses to be open year-round. “That’s something we should look into.”

The second and final mayoral race debate is scheduled for Tuesday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m. in the Greenport High School auditorium at 720 Front Street.

The election is Tuesday, March 21 at the Third Street Fire Station and polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.