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July 6th, 2004

Hamptons Politics

by D. Clark MacPherson

To some extent the chicanery in the Hamptons is not unlike that of many other well-endowed resorts. As long as the money flows, everyone points fingers yet learns to tolerate the ineptitude and double-dealing. But when local politicians start to seriously interfere with the resort economy for their personal gain, people notice.

In the Town of Southampton the Supervisor (Patrick “Skip” Heaney,) a former fence company cum hardware store family member from Hampton Bays and Queens, lords over the Town Board; a group of four individuals who make the rules for all of us in this land of beach and sun (Kabot, Suskind, Kenny, Graboski). The fact that Heaney is running for another term as Supervisor as an unopposed Republican candidate is a story unto itself. We’ve already described the Hal Ross political operative, Skip Heaney, Southampton Press collaboration in past issues. For the last three elections, mysterious 11th hour drop-outs in the Democratic ranks have left no one to run for the 2 year post that controls what is done with hundreds of millions of dollars in Peconic Transfer Taxes and property taxes. Not to mention whatever other forms of appreciation are doled out by State and local law firms representing clients wishing to do business with the Town. Various approvals by the Town are absolutely magical in coming forth when the right law firm does the representation. Is that legal skill? We doubt it. No one will admit to any such “business as usual” but the Federal investigation several years ago gave us all insight into the envelopes of cash found on car seats for a communications tower. That totally prehistoric method, now eschewed, found both Heaney and Cannuscio wired when they talked to each other. Of course, none of that happens now. Wink, wink. And, nary another word in the Southampton Press about it these days.

Now, of course, we have a government that has managed to become a fairly well entrenched Republican prize, to the detriment of everyone ?ɬ if you’re not on the inside. To whit, cute maneuvers concerning the only real business in the Hamptons: real estate. First, the nightclubs that bring tourists, money and fun to the Hamptons are being totally co-opted. The Town Board recently passed a new law (Suskind, at least, did not vote for this) that essentially takes a club owner’s business away if it is found to be objectionable by the Town. Now, think about this. How would you like your business shut down, subject to the opinions and personal predilections of some local 35-year-old “Code Enforcement” officer with a gun and a badge, and perhaps a high school diploma? Not even Bush and Ashcroft aspire to this level of arrogance.

Second, we have the essence of this economy. Two years ago, the Mensa Society member of the Town Board, Carolyn Zenk, with the help of her associate Heaney, passed a law permitting the imposition of fines of up to $8,000 and/or arrest for violating the Group Rental law. The “and/or arrest” part was the deal-clincher. The law is unconstitutional (see the Islip ruling on what constitutes a “family”); this is a new twist on the mostly-unenforced requirement that people sharing a summer house obtain a permit. We previously questioned the wisdom displayed by the Town in doing this. Unfortunately, the SoHo Journal reported correctly.

We have all benefited from the success of “Operation Summer Shares,” staged with the complicity of the Southampton Town Police, the Code Enforcement Officers (there were only two), the Southampton Press (which just happened to have a reporter in the area at 9 a.m. one morning with a camera) and a Warrant from the Kangaroo Court of Southampton. Laura Court, in East Quogue, was the scene of the set-up. This little unconstitutional romp has literally put the final nail in the coffin of the summer rental business as well as investment in rental properties.

Young people now either go elsewhere or stay home. Wall Street professionals save their money rather than be threatened with arrest. Individuals who invested in second homes or rental properties have started dumping them on the market. And, they are dropping the prices. Under the guise of creating a family-friendly environment, local politicians have managed to place many businesses in jeopardy and have wreaked havoc on individuals, seniors, retirees, and others who invested in real estate rather than the stock market. Anti-New York, anti-Semitic, anti-investment attitudes fuel many decisions, whereby local politicians have managed to continue collecting tax money while thumbing their noses at the New Yorkers and non-voting, tax-paying property owners. All of this is because they were too lazy to enforce local laws effectively; they did not want to spend the money to supervise their own laws. So, using the Southampton Press, they just scare them away. Carolyn Zenk, the former Town Board member, had no excuse except for her own defective logic. The Town has spent virtually no money on the low-level professional capability of code enforcement. It is the same mentality that is shown by a Justice Court that refuses to remain open at least one night a week ?ɬ as is mandated by the requirements of the Unified Court System. This is true despite the fact it is the busiest Justice Court in the state. Well, it takes a lot of work to separate those New York City people from their money.

Local Real Estate Brokers report this year that summer rentals are less than ten percent of what they were three years ago and also report that houses which were formerly rentals have recently been reduced in price and dumped on the market because sales have slowed to a crawl. This is especially true in areas like Hampton Bays, East Quogue and Southampton, where there once was a healthy summer rental market. Despite draconian Southampton Press reports of arrest threats for renting your house, in areas like Quogue and Quiogue the town does nothing about noisy group rentals.

The glimmer of hope in Southampton politics has been the possible candidacy of Dennis Suskind. He’s currently a member of the Town Board, did not vote to implement the new law that can take away a club owner’s business, and is pro-New Yorker. There are reports of his possible candidacy for Supervisor of Southampton Town after this coming non-election in November. One thing he won’t have trouble doing is raising money for his campaign. The disenfranchised tax-paying non-resident homeowners who now have no voice in local government are behind him. Rumors have it that he also has a new loft in SoHo. Presumably, that is to help him maintain his sanity in the face of Hamptons politics.

The community in Westhampton Beach Village, which has its own separate government, has seen its image change drastically in the last 10 years. A similar problem exists there with respect to rentals. Sales have clearly slowed down. A larger New York population and a busier year round community is partly responsible. With an increase in its focus on the Arts, WHB has truly transformed itself into a family-oriented Hampton, unlike Southampton Town. The Westhampton Performing Arts Center had a significant impact on its cultural life and this has become a central focus.

The political structure of this Village, however, has been anachronistic. Mayor Strebel is the owner of a local laundry and has become less interested in the desires of his new constituency as he gets older and as the Village changes. He is the creature of his sidekick, a deft operator named Richard Haefeli who has been the much disliked Village Attorney. While he is rumored to be pulling down $300-400,000 per year from this little Village slot, Haefeli has managed to openly incur the wrath of business owners and professionals. At least among those who don’t have to hire him as an attorney to represent their interests in front of the Mayor and his Trustees: another little sweet pot of cash. There is no question that this little team does not want anyone to upset the apple cart despite winning by only 30 votes in the last election. The money runs too deep.Then there is the Village Building Inspector, a Mr. Houlihan. After having been “released” from this same post in the Town of Southampton, numerous lawsuits later, his Republican buddies in the Town (after it got too hot even for them with him around) got him a job with Strebel. He will undoubtedly have his own office in the new Village Hall that is costing us nearly $7 million dollars, not far from the Westhampton High School that will cost us over $30 million. A referendum was held only after nearly 400 local voters signed a petition. Of course, New Yorkers had nothing to say about any of this. This past spring, we began investigating the Houlihan team at the Building Department in Westhampton Beach.

There were a number of complaints in the Village and among the New York people about Building Inspector delays for political enemies and possible favors done for the Police Chief’s $2 million dollar plus investment property on Brook Road.

Houlihan has a Code Enforcement Officer sidekick Bridget Napoli, a village employee with a Glock automatic. Guns are big in Suffolk County; Freud is not. Proper fealty must be shown to Mr. Houlihan and his sidekick or you won’t get a building permit or subsequent approvals by the various inspectors to finish a job. Strebel hides and counts his money while doing the laundry, as long as Haefeli gives him permission. Haefeli deals with the really dirty laundry.

Years ago you could actually talk to Mayor Strebel. Now if there is a problem you get sidelined to the Village Attorney, Haefeli.?Ǭ?Ǭ You used to be able to walk into see the Building Inspector, Fred Showers and walk out with a permit to go to work on your house. Now, we have bureaucracy and stonewalling.

There may be help on the way. Tim Laube and Jim Kametler, two honest, hardworking young men with drive have just won the two trustee seats in the Village.?Ǭ By a very large majority. The balance of the Board has changed and it is very tenuous for the old “status quo.”

Strebel and Haefeli have gotten the message but, predictably, have ignored it.?Ǭ Obstructionist tactics have already started: a nice raise was pushed through for Ray Dean, Chief of Police (and relative of Strebel.) It pays to be connected, especially at someone else’s expense: ours. Stay tuned.

Countywide, the campaign for Assembly is yet another uncontested race by Republican/Democrat Fred Thiele while Tim Bishop is running to keep his seat in Congress from Mr. Manger, the Republican opponent. Apparently, only Democrats have opponents in Suffolk County. This intricate web of relationships is really not very important because it has all been arranged for us. We don’t have to worry our pretty little heads (except maybe for Bishop).

Many voters, and the Republicans, not to mention the Democrats who have allowed themselves to be repeatedly stabbed in the back — uniformly dislike Thiele. He has played the same cross-endorsement trick on Democrats going back as far as his race for Supervisor of Southampton. He promises the Democrats bi-partisan help and gets elected, only to jettison them after he’s in office. Brutus was a neophyte by comparison. He has also played this two headed coin trick on the Republicans. The real message has been received by all but Suffolk County Democratic leader Rich Schaeffer. Apparently, Schaeffer’s family connection (as godfather to one of Thiele’s children) is stronger than the de facto destruction of a political party ?ɬ his own.

Unfortunately, in the cross-endorsement “deal” between Rich Schaeffer (Democratic Party Chairman), the Democrats have once again been thrown to the wolves. Actually, Tree Wolf West, the unknown candidate who has zero name recognition and the same chance of winning the Assembly seat on a Democratic ticket.

Which leads us to observe that Tim Bishop has been perceived as underwhelming as a U.S. Congressman. There have been complaints from Republicans that he has done nothing ?ɬ one reason why Manger is running ?ɬ and the Democrats who got him elected are also complaining. One well-placed officer of a social service organization spoke to us on condition of anonymity and basically said that Bishop “has done nothing for us.” Bishop suffers from the same misconception that Thiele will help him. Manger, connected up to and into the White House (his father shared a room at Yale with the elder Bush), is well respected, to boot.

A judicious note. Kitty Kat, former Suffolk county District Attorney Catterson’s son, is a Supreme Court Judge. He was a U.S. Attorney for 12 years and head of the Asset Forfeiture Unit of the Eastern District ?ɬ where the “forfeited” money gets funneled to various Police agencies (a very cozy patronage operation). As Suffolk county Supreme Court Judges go, he has gotten some respect – in spite of his father’s reputation for indicting his opponents or as favors for his friends while carrying a thick “black book” similar to Hoover’s. While stories of the car leasing scandal tainted Catterson senior years ago and lost him the D.A.’s Office – tarnishing his son’s reputation to a lesser degree -few people understood the real need for the cash, wherever it ultimately went. In spite all of the negative press, the cash was needed for campaign finances. The Elder always wanted to be a Congressman. Catterson’s bar was not only home to D.A. negotiations but the place for business away from his office ?ɬit was where deals were made. He took Sheriff Mahoney down for not doing his deals away from his office, among other petty personal vendettas. As a side note, the current D.A. in Suffolk County is a former attorney with a law firm that primarily represented Police. Recent indictments appear to be balanced and fair, and there is a respect for civil rights and protection of the community. But, several of the police officers who have been investigated, and even indicted, have walked. No prosecution, no slap on the wrist, and no will to review the abridgment of abusive behavior on the part of the police. The jury is still out on Spota, but one should be optimistic.

Which brings us back to the two recent Pataki appointments to the First Department:?Ǭ two Republicans:?Ǭ James Catterson (Kitty Kat) and John Sweeny. Incidentally, it was Sweeny who ruled against lesbian couples adopting children, which was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Kitty Kat was originally placed with Gail Prudenti in the Second Department (Brooklyn, Staten Island, north of New York City and Long Island). But Prudenti hails from an active political family that goes back 50 years on Long Island and has a long memory. She could not abide the Kitty Kat on her bench, at least in part for the nasty past involving the leasing scandal. But Catterson is at least a mediocre judicial mind and deserves a chance. So, where was he sent?

We’ve got Catterson in Manhattan along with Sweeny, who doesn’t like lesbians in the First Department Appellate Court. No ethics problem here.

At least Pataki is sending Judge Robert Lifson (former Chairman of the Huntington Republican Party) to the 2nd Department.

Little Black Books certainly are worth reading.

D. Clark MacPherson

Filed Under: Articles | Politics | the Hamptons

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