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Burke-Gonzalez, Leon Eye East Hampton Town's Top Post

Thu, 11/02/2023 - 12:04

Democrat wants to build on record, Republican says it’s time to change

Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, left, and Greta Leon are facing off for East Hampton Town Supervisor.
Durell Godfrey and East Hampton Town Republican Committee Photos

No matter who emerges the winner when the Suffolk County Board of Elections releases its unofficial vote count on Tuesday night, East Hampton Town will have a new supervisor and she will be a woman. Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is the deputy supervisor, is running on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines to succeed Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who announced earlier this year that he would retire from town government. She faces Gretta Leon, the Republican and Conservative Party nominee and a political newcomer. In interviews last month, the two candidates talked about the issues, the job, and their backgrounds.

 

Kathee Burke-Gonzalez (D, WF)

“I think I have the greatest job in the world,” Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said of her 10 years on the town board. “I love public service, serving my community.” Her time on the board follows nine on the Springs School Board, the last two as president, and, before that, a career in advertising. “I have the skillset to help move the town forward,” she said.

The Valley Stream native married and moved to Montauk in 1996. She and her husband, Joe Gonzalez, bought a house in Springs soon after “because we were drawn to the Springs School. We were going to start a family.”

In a discussion of problems facing the town, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez pointed first to climate change adaptation. The downtown Montauk beach stabilization was a short-term solution to protect the easternmost hamlet’s commercial core, she said, ahead of the long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation project, which is to begin here in the coming months and will see the beach bolstered with 450,000 cubic yards of sand. 

“Long term, we have to plan how we adapt to climate change,” she said, and the town has applied to New York State for a $600,000 grant “to help us hire consultants to have that conversation.” Strategies are expected to include beach, dune, and bluff restoration; flood-proofing of infrastructure, and elevation of some roads. “We have to have a great deal of study on managed retreat,” she said, noting the town board’s adoption of the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, or CARP. That is “a forward-looking document for the next two to three decades, but its time has come.”

“Also, I am really proud of our environmental record,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “We continue to leverage our community preservation fund to purchase open space, recreation, and farmland properties to protect our shorelines and for historic preservation.” The town is aggressively using the portion of C.P.F. money that can be used for water quality projects to address threats to ground and surface water, she added. “And we continue to make elimination of greenhouse gases a guiding principle,” following the board’s declaration of a climate emergency.

The pace of the town’s upgrade to its emergency and personal wireless communication infrastructure has been much criticized, but Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that the town board has taken “a very methodical approach,” hiring a consultant to inventory, map, and assess existing towers, produce a coverage map to identify gaps, and conduct a poll that had more than 1,600 respondents. “All that information helped us rewrite the wireless code so we could streamline the approval process and have it dovetail with federal regulations. We produced a draft wireless plan, presented it to the public, the planning board had a discussion,” and a second public hearing to solicit comments on a draft wireless telecommunication master plan that recommends solutions to coverage gaps was held on Oct. 19.

Also criticized by the board’s opponents is the pace of constructing a new senior citizens center to replace the existing center on Springs-Fireplace Road, a building that is more than 100 years old. Senior citizens “had originally wanted to stay at the current site,” she said. “We realized there wasn’t enough property there,” and once a train trestle was raised, “we were seeing larger vehicles coming through there, there was a redevelopment of the corridor.”

The town acquired seven acres on Abraham’s Path in Amagansett, where the new center will be built. “I think it’s important to point out, when we have the most successful projects, it’s when there’s robust community engagement,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. Community workshops were held in person and via video conference, and “people really heard from a

cross-section of the community, mostly seniors.” The new center is projected to be completed in December 2025.

Some residents have also criticized the pace of addressing the acute shortage of affordable housing. “If you look at our record, since 2020 we have provided and built over 100 new affordable apartments and homes,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. She pointed to “projects in the pipeline” including 50 units under construction on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton, another 50 slated for Route 114, and 16 detached houses to be built on Pantigo Road, a development to be known as Cantwell Court. “I think a game-changer for us was when the supervisor declared All Hands on Housing,” an initiative announced at the beginning of 2022, “and we divided up responsibilities and took on different projects.”

East Hampton voters passed a community housing fund proposition last year, which authorized a .5-percent tax on some real estate transfers in addition to the 2-percent transfer tax on real estate transactions for the community preservation fund. It is projected to raise $4 to $6 million in 2024. This “will be helpful to get projects started,” she said, but “an apartment unit is estimated at about $500,000,” or $25 million for 50 units. “I think we’re going to be teaming up with other groups,” she said, speaking of discussions with school districts and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, which is building an emergency department near Town Hall, “so that we can maintain the fabric of our community.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez also noted work to provide mental health services for adolescents. When she ran for town board in 2013, school officials “had sounded the alarm that our kids were in distress.” The South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative was established, and the Family Service League and Phoenix House conduct outreach to students. “We had a mental health crisis before Covid, and it was only exacerbated by Covid.

. . . We started a communitywide conversation about what our kids were going through — cyberbullying, challenges with dating, making sure they’re in healthy relationships, what parents can look for regarding vaping, things like that. That’s something I’m really very proud of.” She also worked with the town’s Human Services staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, when it provided some 88,000 meals “because we wanted to keep seniors home and safe.”

Should she be elected supervisor, “I am looking forward to leaning into department heads and staff. They bring so much expertise and knowledge and care about our community. I’m looking to take a collaborative approach — that’s my leadership style.

“I’m a huge proponent of community engagement,” she added. “We will work together to move forward.”

 

Gretta Leon (R, C)

“I grew up here,” Gretta Leon said when asked why she wants to be supervisor. “I love this place. It’s a dream, but it’s also challenging to stay out here. I’m in it to see change. It’s long overdue. . . . I really want future generations to be able to enjoy living out here and be part of the community. And I want the generations here, local families, to be able to stay here.”

Local people are being displaced, she said, and others struggle to remain, herself included. “We have to try to keep up with everything. I don’t want to leave, I don’t want people to leave. I’m very tired of the turnover that’s been happening in town. I don’t think it’s good for the economy; it’s not good for people either. If you want to live here, you should be able to.”

The present town board, she said, is “not really listening to the people.” Residents voice their concerns at town board meetings, she said, and “I feel like they’re not listening to them, to the community’s needs. It’s ‘we’ve done studies,’ but nothing that says ‘we’ll look into it, we will take your opinion into consideration.’ I think they’ve failed us in forgetting what their place is. The people vote them in and give them that post. That’s where they failed us, they’re not doing what they should be doing, which is leading the community and really taking into consideration what everyone needs.”

As supervisor, she “would be making the quality of living better out here,” she said. “That goes hand in hand with affordability, which is a huge issue. We have affordable housing issues, and these huge houses” that are incongruent with their parcels. “I don’t think anyone needs such a huge house.” She also cited overdevelopment and water quality, “which to me is insane, because some of the C.P.F. goes directly to water quality, and I don’t see any progress in that. It’s been years.”

As a resident speaking to the board, “I would say what I’ve always been saying: You have to focus on affordability issues, helping business owners thrive

— and small-business owners, because they struggle, too. Our first responders need more help, more staff. We need more teachers. But it all goes back to affordability issues. How we make this town more affordable, stop catering to one side and actually become a community. It’s not about a short-term solution, it’s not putting a Band-Aid on something. It’s a long-term solution for the future generations.”

“It sounds like I’m complaining,” Ms. Leon said, “but I am being honest and truthful, because I live it every day. My generation does not live here.” She can live in the town only because her parents do: She lives with them, she said. “If not, I can’t afford a $1 million, $2 million, $3 million house.” Wages and salaries in the town are not commensurate with the cost of living, she said. “We need to create a livable wage for people to stay here, which probably means we have to open our horizons on creating more jobs, and not just trade jobs but white-collar jobs.” Better transportation infrastructure would spur job creation as well as allow commuting UpIsland where job opportunities are greater, she said.

Ms. Leon came to East Hampton when she was 1 month old, she said. She is a doctor of dental sciences and holds a master’s degree in project management. “In dentistry, you have to deal with a lot of people,” she said, and be both an investigator and a problem solver. “You have to look for different ways to fix things.” A dentist operates a small business, she noted. “You have employees.”

Her master’s degree “has a lot to do with scope work, timelines, solving problems. Planning, investigating, reviewing, looking for long-term solutions. . . . Leading is actually listening and taking into consideration what other people have to say in order to make something better and incorporate their train of thought into someone else’s. We can’t do things ourselves, we always rely on each other.”

People are tired of not being heard, Ms. Leon said, describing an imbalance between government and citizen. “It’s not getting better, it’s just getting worse.” To her opponent, she asked, “Where have you been? Because you’ve already been on the town board 10 years. If you’re already in office and you have the power to reach higher officials, or the power yourself to do something positive, why haven’t you done that yet? That is what’s leading me in this campaign.”

In East Hampton Town, people also vote this year on races for two town board seats, nine town trustees, and a town justice. The candidates for town assessor and highway superintendent are cross-endorsed by both parties. Early voting continues through Sunday. The Windmill Village housing complex at 219 Accabonac Road in East Hampton is the town’s early-voting site.

 

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