It was late on election night when Thomas Gardella, running unopposed for Sag Harbor Village Mayor, carried three chairs across the meeting room at the Sag Harbor Fire Department. He offered them to Steven Tekulsky, the village’s associate justice, who was running for re-election against Mr. Gardella’s preferred candidate, Carl Irace, who ultimately won.
That simple act, a sort of reach across the aisle, says a lot about the kind of politician the new mayor may prove to be. In village board meetings, Mr. Gardella, as deputy mayor, kept his comments short and often sought consensus.
In a phone conversation with The Star after his victory, he seemed intent on building bridges, which could be just what the village needs after a turbulent couple of years. Neighbor-vs.-neighbor controversies over the Marsden lots, Adam Potter’s proposed mixed-use building development behind Main Street, and the Covid-related building boom have unsettled many longtime residents.
“We have to focus on what we have in common,” the new mayor said. “I don’t think anybody that wanted that field, I don’t think any one of them wanted to hurt the environment.” His opinion on the failed Marsden proposal was not important, he said: Looking back was futile. “What’s important is what we do next.”
The biggest challenge facing his 2.2-square-mile village, he said, is to provide affordable housing for those who keep it running, but he knows it won’t be easy. “I’m concerned with what we do and how it impacts the whole environment. Not just the harbor and wildlife, but the human beings that live in our community.”
As part of a multi-step plan involving the reconstruction of the firehouse on Noyac Road, he envisions dedicating an area now used by the Department of Public Works to affordable housing. The D.P.W. building would move to the village impound lot, near the transfer station on Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. As mitigation, the mayor said, he would offer to preserve village lots that border the greenbelt. He has discussed that plan with Dai Dayton, president of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, he noted.
“The idea is to show we can protect the environment, while building something for emergency services and doing something for affordable housing all at once. We don’t always have to be at each other’s throats,” he said.
“Part of the whole purpose of village government is to push back on overdevelopment and consider how we’re affecting the overall environment. We have properties now that can be repurposed. It’s all about being a good steward. Is my project going to benefit the overall health of the village? I wish everyone would ask that question to themselves.”
Mayor Gardella will revisit the role of the village board in assessing site plans, he said, perhaps shifting some power back to the planning board. “I can say I support or oppose a plan, but the size and scale, and any variance that may be needed, that’s not my decision, it’s up to the boards. They’re the ones that are going to steer a project according to village codes.”
Water quality initiatives in the harbor and connected areas are also top-of-the-list items. “Whatever we can do as a village government to help and encourage these initiatives, we will do,” Mayor Gardella said. He will actively seek community collaboration and involvement as well, he stressed. “In order for this to work, I need to hear from people that are out there, rather than just a small group.”
Regarding the contract of A.J. McGuire, the village’s chief of police, who has been working without one since June 2021, Mr. Gardella has already met with a labor attorney and will meet shortly with Chief McGuire.
At 58, Mayor Gardella is perhaps an unlikely politician. He attended William Floyd High School before heading to the U.S. Army as a member of an airborne division. After he left the military, he moved in to his parents’ house on North Haven, living on the lower floor.
A serendipitous plumbing issue brought Fran Schiavoni of G.F. Schiavoni Plumbing to the house, and he wound up hiring Mr. Gardella, then an amateur plumber. The mayor credits his 13 years at G.F. Schiavoni, which back then employed mainly veterans, with easing his transition from soldier to civilian. Ultimately, he started his own plumbing business, which he still runs today.
Affordable housing is personal to Mayor Gardella. “We talk about affordable housing — to save money, I lived in my parents’ house, and we shared expenses. For two years I worked as hard as I could, saved, and was pre-approved for a $150,000 mortgage, which allowed me to buy the house I’m in now.”
The mayor has lived in the village for nearly 30 years, and has six children, five daughters and a son. One daughter, Tracy, had to move away because she couldn’t find an affordable place to live. That made him sad, he said, but he is happy that another daughter, Gemma, is an emergency medical technician with the village ambulance, and that his son, Thomas, works for the Department of Public Works.
Mr. Gardella credits his decades-long involvement with the fire department for giving him a taste for politics. In 2013, he became second assistant chief; in 2014, he was first assistant. By April 2015, the 150-member department elected him chief. When his term finished, he sat down with then-Mayor Sandra Schroeder, who asked him to consider running for the village board.
He ran, and was defeated by Aidan Corish, who remains a trustee, by just five votes. “He ran an excellent campaign. I congratulated him and told him I wasn’t going anywhere, and if he ever needed help I’d be around to support him,” said Mr. Gardella. In the next cycle, another trustee, Jim Larocca, asked him to run for the board with him, on the Windmill line. He won, running unopposed, and when Kathleen Mulcahy beat out Sandra Schroeder in the mayoral race, she asked him to be deputy mayor.
Two years later, Jim Larocca announced his intention to challenge Ms. Mulcahy for the top job.
“I said to Kathleen, ‘nothing against you, but I support Jim,’ said Mr. Gardella. “He had an outstanding résumé. He beat her by 26 votes. I still have a good relationship with Kathleen. To her credit, she doesn’t hold any hard feelings.” Mr. Larocca kept Mr. Gardella on as deputy, and then this winter, encouraged him to run for mayor.
“I’ve been involved with the last four village administrations. I have a pretty good feel about things we should be doing and things we shouldn’t be doing. I have a different approach. My thing has always been to build a team, that’s what’s key to me. They may have different opinions, but if I can keep people focused on common goals and what’s important, I’ll be fulfilling my purpose.”