Village finances—several payroll errors and a number of questionable payouts, in particular—have dominated the Westhampton Beach political landscape over the past year, making for a lively election between two incumbents, Trustees Hank Tucker and Patricia DiBenedetto, and a former board member, Toni-Jo Birk.
Touting the fact that the outside audit they pushed for unearthed those issues, Ms. DiBenedetto and Mr. Tucker are running together again under the Lightning Party banner in hopes of preserving their majority on the five-member board. Ms. Birk, who served on the board for six years before losing her reelection bid last year by just two votes, is running alone as a member of the Beach Party.
Patricia DiBenedettoMs. DiBenedetto, 51, who is seeking her second two-year term, said the trustees have been productive over the past year in uncovering several payroll errors that led to $22,000 in employee overpayments, as well as questionable spending that the mayor authorized without the trustees’ knowledge. In response, the board has installed a system of checks and balances that she said will prevent similar issues again and require that future expenditures be approved by the entire board and not just Mayor Conrad Teller.
“I think what we’ve been able to do is find accountability,” she said.
Though the state comptroller’s office determined that the village’s finances were sound, Ms. DiBenedetto and Mr. Tucker pushed for an outside auditor to examine the books, despite what she called “resistance” from the mayor and former Village Clerk/Treasurer Rebecca Molinaro.
Last month, the board adopted a policy requiring that the trustees approve certain payments, such as bills or contractual employee payments, before they are made. The trustees deemed that action necessary after learning that Mr. Teller authorized several payments, including allowing Police Chief Ray Dean to buy back vacation and comp time, and granting a former building department employee, Susan O’Rourke, who is now deceased, a six-month sick leave without alerting the other trustees. The moves account for upwards of $30,000 in payouts.
“I had to become a statistician the past year just to make sure that what was equated and being put down in numbers was really what it tolled out to be,” Ms. DiBenedetto said.
She added that she would like to take a careful look at the village’s policies and procedures to determine that their intent is to serve the residents, rather than the agenda of employees. “I think a lot of things we have right now are really a matter of interpretation,” she said, adding that such vagueness opens up the opportunity for abuse.
Ms. DiBenedetto has lived in the village for 10 years with her husband, Mauro, and their two children. She has been active since her arrival, she said, and has served on the Village Planning Board and the beautification committee.
“I think for the first time in a long time the trustees are really propelling the village in a positive motion,” she said.
But a shift resulting in the Lightning Party losing its majority would halt that momentum, she added. “Hank and I are trying to stay together as a team, and the mayor is trying to split us up and it’s sad,” she said. “We have the best interest of the village in mind, and he is trying to split us up.”
If reelected, Ms. DiBenedetto said she would like to focus on making the village more vibrant in the off-season, namely by planning more events to draw in visitors. “I think we have the ability to do that,” she explained.
Earlier this month, the board adopted a resolution the directs the village planner to come up with the estimated cost and procedure for updating the village’s master plan, a document that outlines zoning. The action came after repeated requests from Westhampton developer Andrew Mendelson that the words “grocery store” be added to a portion of the zoning code so that he could build a supermarket on land he owns on the west side of Old Riverhead Road.
Ms. DiBenedetto said she supports taking a look at the master plan. “It’s not a matter of whether Westhampton Beach needs another grocery store, it’s a matter of looking at the zoning and making it current,” she explained.
She also said she would like to take a more proactive role in searching for grants that may ease the financial burden of repairing the drains and sidewalks on Main Street. That should be part of a five- or 10-year plan, she explained.
Hank TuckerHank Tucker, 52, who is seeking his fourth term in office, said he plans to continue scrutinizing village finances if he is reelected. He is proud of the critical approach he took in examining the village’s books, specifically in calling for the outside audit and then implementing checks and balances to mitigate such issues in the future. “We opted as a majority to not just sweep them under the carpet,” he said.
Though he did not agree with the payments made to Ms. O’Rourke and Chief Dean, he declined to comment further on those situations. “I’m not going to talk about specific payments to employees,” he said. “I’d like to look forward. I think going backward is not an option.”
Mr. Tucker added that despite those problems, he feels that the board members, and the mayor, have worked well together. “I think I’ve been a trustworthy steward of the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “To move forward, I think you need some forward-thinking.”
One initiative he’d like to undertake if reelected is searching for grant money that could be available to help cover the costs of larger projects, such as repairing the drains and sidewalks in the downtown business district. He said he has researched the possibility of installing a sewer system there that would support new development and protect the local waterways—something he cares about, he noted. He added that he thinks the village will need county, or perhaps state support to make it happen.
Mr. Tucker, who has four children with his wife, Patty, owns Holey Moses Cheesecake in Westhampton. He said that as a trustee, he has a responsibility to listen to his constituents, and if they are calling for the board to reexamine the master plan, they should consider it.
“I want to preserve the character of the village and, at the same time, look at progressive ways to add value to the village,” he said.
He described himself as an independent thinker. “I’ve always stuck to my core values and I don’t waiver from that,” he said. “If something is not right, I’m not afraid to say it.”
Toni-Jo BirkMs. Birk, a Boston native, and her husband, Bart, have lived in Westhampton Beach for more than 20 years. The couple own Bike ‘n Kite on Potunk Lane. She previously served on the Board of Trustees from 2006 to 2012, but lost her bid for reelection to a fourth term last June by two votes.
Personal losses have made the past few years challenging, she said, but she has emerged with a new focus on what is important. “I’m a different woman than I was a year ago,” said Ms. Birk, who is 53. “My priorities are clear.”
If elected, Ms. Birk said she would like to work toward establishing a recreational center, such as a park with baseball fields, a skate park or a community pool, a facility that all generations of residents could enjoy.
She said she wants to work with her fellow trustees effectively on moving the village forward. It has been six years since the board adopted an update to its master plan, and she said she thinks it would be prudent for the trustees to do so if enough residents support that action. That course would not necessarily result in the approval of Mr. Mendelson’s request for a supermarket, she added.
“I want to be a voice for the people,” she said, adding that she makes herself available by giving out her cellphone number. “If our residents want us to look at something, and there is enough response, we should be able to look at it. That’s what we’re here for.”
Despite accusations from her opponents that she stood idly when issues with the village’s financial issues began to take shape, Ms. Birk said she was never made aware of miscalculations that led to the errors in payroll in her last year in office. Had she known, she said she would have taken action.
If elected back to the board, Ms. Birk said she would like to sit down with the clerks of other municipalities, perhaps in Southampton Town, to ask what checks and balances they have in place and what more can be done in Westhampton Beach to prevent such errors in the future.
Like the other trustees, Ms. Birk said she would like to maintain the character of the village and work to establish a long-term plan that would outline improvements, such as better drainage and new sidewalks on Main Street. “If people want to come into town, I think we should make it easy for them to do business,” she said.