All 10 candidates for the Southampton Town Board of Trustees met at a debate on Wednesday, October 16, at the Water Mill Community House to discuss many of the topics that the oldest elected body in North America deal with regularly — including land deals, the management of the Mecox Cut, beach access and the desire for a separate tax line.

Incumbents Scott Horowitz, Ed Warner Jr., Bill Pell and Ann Welker are looking to retain their seats on the five-member board, while candidates Andrew Brosnan, Thea Fry, Fred Havemeyer, Megan Heckman, Don Law and Eric Shultz all hope to get the voters’ approval to serve as a Trustee.

Immediately after introductions, Joseph Shaw, the executive editor for the Express News Group, the debate’s sponsor, addressed the “elephant in the room” and asked the current sitting Trustees whether they regretted their decision to allow a homeowner to take over a portion of a Trustee-owned property on Rose Hill Road in Water Mill, in exchange for maintaining the boat ramp, landscaping and various other aspects of the land.

Mr. Warner initially declined to comment on the matter due to pending litigation surrounding the deal. But incumbent Trustee Mr. Pell immediately started speaking on the topic. “I’m not afraid to talk about it,” he said.

He said entering an agreement with the adjacent homeowner was the wrong decision, and he would vote “no” if he could do it all over again.

Mr. Horowitz said he was not happy with the project but pointed out that every Trustee on the board at the time was in favor of the deal, despite Mr. Pell and Ms. Welker denouncing the decision after members of the community voiced outrage afterward in 2018.

Ms. Welker said she could not speak openly about the matter, but if she could go back with the knowledge she has now, she would have asked to table the resolution to enter into the agreement so she could look into it more. She also said she would have opened it up to a public hearing.

“If those things had happened, it would not have been approved,” she said.

Mr. Shultz, who is seeking to get back on the board after a two-year hiatus, and Mr. Havemeyer, who is looking to be elected as a Trustee again after a four-year hiatus, have both been vocally opposed to the Rose Hill deal.

Mr. Horowitz said the Trustees entered into the agreement because of issues with finances. At the time, the Trustees were experiencing staffing issues and wanted to come up with “an out-ofthe-box” solution to continue maintaining the property for the people of Southampton.

Mr. Warner did say that if the Trustees had the proper financing, they would have never entered into the agreement — they were trying to be creative, he said.

“Making a poor decision because of poor finances is not a good idea,” Mr. Brosnan countered.

Just about every candidate agreed that entering into an agreement to maintain the Rose Hill property was a bad decision for one reason or another. One of the main reasons was that there was not a public hearing.

Ms. Heckman said a public hearing would have allowed conversation that could have resulted in a creative solution, while Ms. Fry said the Water Mill Citizens Advisory Committee should have been approached.

Mr. Law also agreed a public hearing should have been held, and if one had, “We wouldn’t even be here tonight.”

The issue of Trustee finances was another topic that was discussed during the debate — primarily a separate tax line giving the Trustees the ability to levy their own tax to support their budget.

“The tax line is the single most important thing the Trustees and the people in this community need,” Mr. Horowitz said.

If approved, a separate tax line would allow for a taxing district to be set up similar to a fire district. They would not be allowed to pierce the 2 percent state-mandated cap on tax levy increases, nor would they be able to issue bonds to borrow for capital projects.

Mr. Horowitz said the town would never be able to threaten the Trustees’ funding.

Mr. Pell said he was in favor of the tax line at first, but began to question what the budget would look like. Currently, the Trustees get services from the town — things like office space, staffing and lawyers. Mr. Pell said he wanted to make sure the Trustees would not be charged more than budgeted, which is why he wanted a breakdown.

Mr. Shultz said the purpose of the tax line was not only to separate the finances from the town so the Trustees could manage their own budget, but it was so they could apply for grants.

“It’s inconceivable that the oldest continually elected board in North America does not have the same taxable rights as a little fire department in the Adirondacks with a pickup truck,” he said. “They have control of their destiny.”

Like Mr. Pell, Mr. Havemeyer questioned what the budget would look like, but the consensus of all of the other candidates was that the tax line was needed.

Ms. Welker added that she was concerned about the sustainability of the Trustees if they were not funded properly. Some municipalities like Brookhaven, no longer have a board of trustees.

One of the recent issues that stressed the importance of having a tax line was in early October, when Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea threatened to stop funding the management of the Mecox Cut — a thin strip of sand separating the Atlantic Ocean and Mecox Bay that needs to be dredged a few times a year to flush out the bay — if they approved a 91-page document called the Mecox Management Plan, which he was critical of.

Despite the threat, all five Trustees voted to approve the management plan.

Mr. Horowitz said there was an urgency to approve the plan because one of the key figures with the Army Corps of Engineers was getting ready to retire, and rather than start over with a new official, it was important to push it through.

Ms. Welker said she understood Mr. Shea’s remarks and the need for everyone to be on board, but also that time was of the essence.

Even though he voted to approve the document, Mr. Pell said during the debate that the board should have waited, because now there is a rift between the Trustees and Mr. Shea.

When Mr. Havemeyer was a Trustee, he was in charge of managing the cut, and his decision to open or close it was based on salinity or water levels. Now, he said, the process is “ultra complicated.”

Ms. Heckman suggested that when Mr. Havemeyer managed the cut, there may have been fewer regulations.

While salinity and depth are important, Mr. Brosnan said other factors like dissolved oxygen and the presence of threatened piping plovers also weigh heavily.

“We need to look critically at that document to look at the data, to look at the science, and not release things like enterococcus bacteria in high concentrations into a potential swimming area when the beaches are crowded,” he said.

When the plan was first discussed, Mr. Shultz said, he spoke with Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman who said to keep the document simple. Instead, he said, what was created was a “90-page boilerplate document.”

“Mecox Bay has plagued the Trustees’ decision making process for years,” Mr. Shultz said, acknowledging having a plan is a good idea. “There’s too many agencies involved in the decision-making process. Home rule is being eroded. The Trustees need to be more flexible. Mecox cut is a living, breathing organism. Every time that’s opened, it’s a different set of parameters.”

Ms. Fry also said having a plan was a good idea, but that it needed to be simplified.

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