Sarah Nappa reflects on her Southold Town Board term

After one four-year term on the Southold Town Board, Sarah Nappa is ready to step down.

“I don’t really know what’s next,” she told a reporter from The Suffolk Times during a lengthy chat regarding her brief political stint last Wednesday. “We’ve got our kids [Leo and Enzo] and we want to focus on them a little bit, they’re 10 and almost 8, so they’re coming into some big years of their own. I don’t think I would ever be able to say that the work is done. I think that there’s always more work. I do feel pretty happy with a lot of what I accomplished while I was there. And a lot of that was just changing culture at Town Hall.”

The most obvious shift in culture during Ms. Nappa’s time on the board was her mere election as a Democrat. She began her tenure as the sole member of the minority party and, two years later, Democrats won two additional seats on the board and clinched a historic six contested races overall. Less obvious was her delivering on the campaign promise to bring transparency and accountability to local government. Throughout her tenure, she made concerted efforts to involve her constituents in Town Hall affairs, from pushing the board to hold meetings over Zoom during the COVID-19 lockdowns to reaching out to her community in person or via email to attract them to volunteer on committees that help engender change, as well as addressing police reform and accountability.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell described Ms. Nappa as “very constituent-oriented” and “very approachable.” He said her decision not to seek reelection came as a shock to him.

“She was headed for certain reelection. That would have been a foregone conclusion by anyone, she would have easily been reelected,” he said. “She lost a quarter her first term because of a pandemic that no one saw coming, and she got a lot done in three years. Could you imagine what she would have gotten done if she had her whole four? And then you throw another four on top of that and you’re talking about her pretty substantial body of work.”

Councilman Greg Doroski said he empathizes with Ms. Nappa’s “tough choice to step back.”

“It’s really hard raising a young family, having a part-time job with the town and having another job,” he said. “It’s a real challenge for everyone. Look at Sarah, Brian [Mealy], me and Jill [Doherty], we have multiple jobs. Trying to balance that, you add kids into it, you add a house into it and it’s a lot … Childhood is very, very short. I see it with my kids.”

Ms. Nappa grew up in Littleton, Colo., just outside of Denver, before earning a Bachelor of Science degree in animal and equine science from Colorado State University. She then studied one year at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she met her husband, Anthony Nappa. Before the couple started Anthony Nappa Wines and settled in Southold in 2008, Ms. Nappa racked up a resume that includes experience teaching English in Greece, Italy, Peru and South Korea and studying at the Italian Culinary Academy in both New York and Italy. For the past eight years, she and her husband have grown crops on their Shared Table Farm at their Southold home.

Throughout the decade leading up to her successful bid for office, Ms. Nappa said she believed residents like herself wanted more direct involvement in and accountability from government. She said wanted community members to feel more comfortable as active political participants.

“One of the things that was hard for people is that Town Hall is intimidating,” she said. “People still feel that way, but I think it’s a lot better … It was incredibly intimidating, even for me, after I was elected, but I had to push through without fear because the voters put me there.”

Being a political rookie, as well as the sole Democratic voice on the Town Board, Ms. Nappa said making her voice heard was a challenge at the start of her term.

“Scott [Russell] and I definitely had our fits and starts at the beginning, but I think we got to a really good place where we can work well together,” she said. “And the board turned over in two years and it’s been a whole other dynamic.”

“I actually didn’t know what to expect,” Mr. Russell said of his first impression of the councilwoman. “She came on board, and it was pretty evident early on that she was an extremely hard worker. The assignments that she was given, she certainly put a lot of effort into. And she was at a bit of a disadvantage because she started and then we went into a COVID-19 lockdown … There were a lot of things I’m sure she wanted to roll up her sleeves and get right to and COVID-19 just made that a little difficult.”

To try and bring Town Hall to the people, Ms. Nappa directly tapped the community to fill the town’s various volunteer committees that formed during her tenure. Among those she recruited was Liz Gillooly for the Southold Justice Review and Reform Task Force, a temporary body that formed in 2020 in response to former governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203. The order called for the evaluation of local police departments’ practices in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked a wave of protests and calls for reform throughout the nation. Ms. Nappa first met Ms. Gillooly when the pair worked at the now closed Scrimshaw in Greenport, where Ms. Nappa was a chef and Ms. Gillooly a server.

As the sole progressive voice on the board, Ms. Nappa staunchly supported the Southold Justice Review and Reform Task Force. When that body presented its recommendations to the board, Ms. Gillooly said Ms. Nappa was the only board member receptive to its suggestion that the board form a permanent committee focused on reform.

“The Town Board was not very receptive to the idea of formalizing the committee,” Ms. Gillooly, a Democrat who currently serves on the Board of Trustees, said. “That was one real sticking point, where the task force felt [if the board was] not going to listen to that recommendation, then some of the other ones aren’t going to be as effective. Sarah really fought for us, and while it wasn’t exactly the committee that we envisioned, she was able to help form a different type of working group … She really fought for continuing the program and continuing the outreach and continuing the work even after the task force was disbanded.”

Members of the task force helped form and continue to serve on the Community Outreach Implementation Working Group, Ms. Gillooly said, for which Ms. Nappa serves as a liaison to the Town Board. Throughout her tenure, she also served as liaison to the land preservation, aircraft noise steering and water advisory committees, as well as the youth bureau, the deer management task force and the transportation commission.

Mr. Russell noted that Ms. Nappa’s various efforts with these groups were especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The transportation commission [which tackles] all the infrastructure challenges, she was leading every meeting,” he said. “She literally kept that transportation commission together. Frankly, without her, I don’t think we’d still have one today. She kept it together at a time when it was very hard to get people to participate because of the understandable nervousness over COVID-19, but she kept it going. You could say the same thing about the implementation committee of the Justice Review and Reform Task Force, she led those meetings.”

Keeping true to her promise of transparency and accountability in local government, Ms. Nappa pushed for the Town Board to hold meetings virtually over Zoom so the public could participate in Town Hall proceedings during lockdowns. She also pressed for greater accountability in the aftermath of the May 29, 2020, retirement party for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, which violated state orders limiting gatherings to 10 individuals. Immediately following community uproar, Ms. Nappa requested Southold Police Department Chief Martin Flatley attend a work session to discuss the department’s then-ongoing investigation into the handling of calls from residents regarding the party. The board eventually hired an outside attorney for what became a two-year investigation, which resulted in disciplinary action for multiple employees, including the temporary suspension of Chief Flatley. Ms. Nappa said she received “tremendous support” from nearly 200 residents who commended her for her outspoken handling of the situation. Among those community supporters was soon-to-be board member Brian Mealy.

“I think she honestly dealt with the police party issue,” Mr. Mealy said. “I felt proud that she was trying to make sure we were doing things the right way, that we were following the rules and that there was accountability … I’m proud that she stood up when it wasn’t popular, when it was tough to do, when she was by herself.”

Ms. Nappa was careful to never enter a board discussion blindly. She researched topics discussed prior to work sessions and discussed them with knowledgeable community members to better understand the issues.

“When I think about Sarah, the biggest thing that comes to mind is her commitment to always being prepared for every meeting that she attends,” Ms. Gillooly said. “She always does her homework, and with everything that the Town Board has to deal with, it’s no small feat for her to be prepared for every single meeting. She definitely set the standard that I strive to live up to, doing all the background research before showing up to any meeting.”

Since Ms. Nappa joined the Town Board, she has had a voice in hiring a consultant and forming a committee to update the town’s zoning, adopting the Community Housing Plan and issuing a duty statement to hire a community housing staffer. While she has had a hand in Southold’s future, she does not believe one person should wield decision-making power for too long.

“I don’t think that it necessarily serves the local community to have to have career politicians,” she said. “I think that everybody should be involved in local government, everyone should have a voice. The more people that you have, the more ideas that people bring to the table. Everyone should have a turn, and we should all be working together.”

Regardless, at least some of her colleagues would like to see her remain involved.

“Over the past few months there’s been a running joke on the board where any time a position comes up we go ‘hey, that would be good for Sarah! Why don’t we hold that for Sarah?’ ” Mr. Doroski said. “I could see her serving on one of the volunteer committees or commissions. I think there’s still good work to be done … I think we’ve not heard the last from Sarah, either in the short term or the longer term, where we may see her run for office again hopefully.”

For the time being, Ms. Nappa will focus her energy on her and her family’s future. While she will not serve on the Town Board, she said she will not ignore the community’s concerns or local government.

“I’ll definitely still be involved, for sure,” she said. “I’ll still stay involved, especially with some of the committees. Maybe that will be through one of the more organized groups, or maybe I’ll just show up to Town Board meetings. I’m not going anywhere.”