Dan Rattiner's Stories

Do Hamptons Highway Superintendents Run the Show?

Who runs the show in the Hamptons? In the normal scheme of things, you would expect it would be the supervisors in the towns and the mayors in the villages.

In recent years, however, there have been a whole lot of situations where, when push comes to shove, it turns out to be the man in charge of fixing the potholes, the Highway Superintendent.

“Our hands are tied,” says a mayor.

I know highways are important. But giving the superintendents the power to decide on important things is new to me. Do we ELECT the superintendents? Turns out we do.

Two years ago, for example, I got a call here at the paper from an upset citizen of Hampton Bays. Where were the garbage cans downtown? They had been taken away for fear they might be blown around in an impending hurricane. But then here it was a few months later and they had not been put back. Please look into this.

I did. Turns out that this was not negligence. The Southampton Town Highway Superintendent had decided not to put them back. He was sick of removing them and putting them back. The Town did not have jurisdiction on a state highway, which is what Montauk Highway is in downtown Hampton Bays. He had ordered a garbage can boycott. The cans would stay away until the State Highway Department put
them back.

I called the Town Supervisor. “This is the Superintendent of Highways’ decision,” he said.

After a while, however, with his point made and no move by the State Highway Department to do anything, Alex Gregor quietly did put the garbage cans back.

In East Hampton in 2010, the Town workers union was advised by some Highway Department employees that Highway Department Superintendent Scott King was allegedly verbally abusing workers on the job. One also alleged physical violence. In 2011, two workers complained of racial discrimination (charges were settled that fall). There were also letters to the editor about the temper and short fuse of the Highway Superintendent (other letters supported King). King stated he believed much of this was instigated by political agendas.

Had this been the head of any other town department, he might have been fired. But no. After an investigation into the initial allegations, according to The East Hampton Star, King had to attend anger-management classes, but the Town Supervisor did nothing more. “He’s an elected official,” the Supervisor said, referring to the Superintendent. “There’s an election coming up.”

Often at election time, small signs appear by the side of the road promoting one local candidate or another. When signs went up for the sitting Town Highway Superintendent, though, persons unknown quickly removed them in the night. Speculation was that some town employees were doing this. In any case, King lost the election.

As residents of East Hampton know, in both the town and village, enormous 60-foot telephone poles have gone up on narrow residential streets. They are a horrendous sight, but apparently our power company, PSEG, thinks they are necessary for the heavy new wires.

Turns out that in both the Village and the Town, it was up to the highway superintendent to sign off on this project. I spoke to Becky Molinaro, the Village Administrator who speaks for the Mayor.

“The head of the highway department is who gives the go-ahead,” she said.

In the Town, Supervisor Cantwell told me that independent of the Town, Highway Superintendent Stephen Lynch is who signed off on a permit “to break ground” to put these poles in.

You can say what you want about the sluggishness and inefficiencies of the endless hearings and public meetings that precede a decision by mayors and supervisors. But sometimes highway superintendents go off half-cocked. For example, consider the situation with the historic Sagg Bridge that runs across Sagg Pond. The bridge is narrow and anybody crossing it in a car has to drive really slow. There is a sidewalk on the bridge, too. Locals fish from that sidewalk. Last winter, Highway Superintendent Gregor decided that this old bridge needed to undergo massive repairs. Without input from the town, he had a new bridge designed with wider lanes, without a sidewalk (too bad, fishermen), and planned to have it built to federal requirements so that federal funding would pay for much of the replacement. The Feds provide almost all the funding when a bridge is made to state requirements, safe and strong enough for maximum loads that could include military vehicles such as tanks to cross it safely, in case of insurrection or invasion.

Protests were widespread about this. This bridge is as historic and rural as any covered bridge in New England, which certainly do not meet these state standards. Last month, Gregor threw in the towel. The bridge would not be replaced. And he wouldn’t be the one to fix it. He has recommended the Town sell it, or give it, to the Village of Sagaponack, which wants to just fix it as is, and likely will.

Finally, Highway Superintendent Gregor has become part of a controversy involving the naming of a road. Two years ago, Sister Jacqueline Walsh, walking along the side of Rose Hill Road in Water Mill, was the victim of a hit-and-run and killed. Witnesses had gotten the license plate of the hit-and-run vehicle, which turned out to be an SUV owned by a Water Mill resident. One of his employees, a young man from Guatemala, was driving the truck that day, and it was found by the side of the road further on. The young man has not been found. He apparently fled the country, perhaps back to Guatemala.

Last year, a sign reading “Sister Jackie’s Way” was put up above the regular sign naming that road. In the past, not only here but all around the country, signs have been put up to re-name a section of roadway after some beloved citizen. School Street in Bridgehampton, for example, is also named George Stavropoulos Way in memory of the late Candy Kitchen owner.

But that is something normally requested of the town or village and then voted upon by the board. For Sister Jackie’s Way, it turns out, the sign in her honor was paid for and put up by the Town Highway Superintendent without consulting anybody else.

How he could do that is sort of a stretch from another part of the job he does. For example, if a private citizen puts up a street name, the Highway Department might see it and have it taken down. The Superintendent does make that judgment.

Years ago, for example, I assigned a name to an unnamed dirt road on a map I was drawing to be printed up and distributed in this area. I felt dirt roads were fair game and I liked it as “Werewolf Path.” For 30 years, that was its name. A street sign was up on it. It was listed on other maps. But then, recently, after I proudly wrote an article about what I had done, it was taken down by the Highway Department. The reason, according to the Highway Department (I asked), was because my designation of it in 1967 was old, but not old and historic enough. It is now called Old Sag Harbor Road. So be it.

Sister Jackie, however, was not from these parts and was just walking by the side of the road headed to where she was staying at a religious retreat. A homeowner’s survey from the Town Supervisor’s office found that residents preferred not to be reminded of the tragedy and didn’t want the sign. It was taken down by the Parks Department after a Town Board request, but then the Highway Superintendent put it back up. After defending what he did, he did take it back down. Now there is a petition out signed by some local citizens to have it put back up.

Who is in charge here? I think I know.

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