Talk and Tension at OBA Winter Meeting 2023

MEETING SCREENSHOTS pictured top, from the left: OBA President Maria Silsdorf, OB Trustee Christopher Norris and OBFD Fire Chief Ian Levine. Botton from the left: OB Deputy Mayor Matthew Blake, OB Chamber of Commerce CoPresident Jennifer Moritz Morano and Robert Cernilli of Cernilli Remodeling.

By Shoshanna McCollum

The Ocean Beach Association (OBA) Winter Meeting, held on Tuesday, March 14, was both a mixture of routine business to kickoff the upcoming season, as well as discussion of matters that were anything but routine. It is a village trustee election year after all, and that tends to shake things up.

“Elections in Ocean Beach are often won or lost by a very small margin of votes,” OBA President Maria Silsdorf said in her opening statement to the audience of 94 individual stakeholders who logged onto the Zoom meeting as she urged the membership to register to vote in Ocean Beach.

She also mentioned that the OBA Candidates Forum would be held on Saturday, May 27; the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach Elections on Friday, June 2; and the OBA Summer Meeting on Saturday, June 24 – all at the Ocean Beach Community House.

Guest speakers included Holly Etlin of the Ocean Beach Community Fund, who said that there would be five dock concerts scheduled this summer, that the Kids Art Fair would be “reimagined” this summer to be more inclusive of more Fire Island communities, and that the annual poetry reading might be making a comeback.

 Village of Ocean Beach Environmental Commission (VOBEC) Co-President Camille Guigliano discussed expanding “beach stewardship” with more Buckets on the Beach stations at beach overpasses so that beach goers can undertake their own self-guided coastal cleanups, as well as installing more water bottle refill stations and that VOBEC had retained an attorney to assist in the drafting of more substantial tree protection legislation.

Ocean Beach Youth Group (OBYG) Camp Director Sophie Pollak announced that OBYG is hiring senior staff (visit if interested) and that the camp would be returning to Fire Island School District’s Woodhull Elementary School facility for a number of their programs. Also, a newcomer to make use of Fire Island School will be the Ocean Beach Recreation Program as announced by Patricia Brahe.

Among Ocean Beach Village officials to make presentations included Chief Lifeguard Jillian Weinstein who stated that her department is also hiring as well. (Email inquiries to [email protected].) Ocean Beach Fire Department (OBFD) is seeking volunteers, which are needed because OBFD Chief Ian Levine stated that last year set a new record of 385 sounded alarms. (Requests of interest should be emailed to [email protected] before June 15, 2023.)

On the subject of alarms, Ocean Beach Police Chief George Hesse informed the viewers that malfunctioning smoke detectors sounding-off presented an ongoing problem over the winter and urged homeowners to replace batteries timely and to update their systems. He also acknowledged that the ongoing situation of unaccompanied minors coming to the village in large and often rowdy groups remains a concern in the summer that the police department is seeking solutions to, and that discussion about outreach to local school districts is being explored.

The next order of business was presentations by the candidates running for the two open village trustee positions in June, and it is a crowded stage of contenders.

By coin toss, incumbent Christopher Norris was the first to speak. Running for his third four-year term, Norris has held the office since 2015 and spoke to the audience about the importance of a “democratic mindset.”  He further spoke about his belief that addressing quality of life issues in the village “ought not be so difficult” to enforce.

Ian Levine announced he would be stepping down as OBFD chief, a position he has held nearly a decade, and would be running as a challenger for one of the open trustee seats. He emphasized his long-standing record as a public servant and urged listeners to visit his platform statement online at Vote4Ian, a page he created on Facebook. Levine is the husband of OBA President Maria Silsdorf.

Matthew Blake, also an incumbent trustee running for reelection, has held his seat since 2011 and has held the title of deputy mayor within that office for almost as long. There were rumors circulating over the winter that Blake would not be seeking a fourth term, but clearly his presence here proved such claims to be unfounded. “While new ideas are important,” said Blake, “so is experience and vision.” Unfortunately, hiccups in the streaming quality during Blake’s presentation made portions of his speech inaudible.

Jennifer Moritz Morano officially declared her candidacy at the Ocean Beach Board of Trustees meeting in person on Saturday, March 11, and elaborated on her platform at this virtual meeting three days later. She emphasized her longstanding record of community support within the village, as well as her civic engagement as co-president of the Chamber of Commerce. She pledged to do “what’s fair” and to “restore confidence.”

Robert Cernilli of Cernilli Remodeling was the last of the five candidates to speak at the meeting. He spoke about his record as both a public servant and first responder, which he believes will lend well to the public office position. This record includes the U.S. Coast Guard and the Nassau County Marine Bureau, as well as recovery work at Ground Zero during the aftermath of 9/11 and Flight 800.

The question-and-answer period of the meeting is when things became heated. At the winter meeting, the Ocean Beach mayor traditionally is one of the guest speakers. Etlin asked Silsdorf why Mayor James Mallott was not present. Silsdorf responded by saying that she had been informed that Mallott was not available to attend this meeting. It was further noted that he also had been conspicuously silent during the March 11 trustees meeting, passing on his delivery of the Mayor’s Report – a staple feature at that meeting. To this, audible snickering was picked up by Zoom attendees who failed to turn on their mute buttons.

Gina Ragusa then asked about the progress of New York State Comptroller’s Office audit report concerning the former Village Administrator Steven Brautigam’s contracted compensation package, which cited hefty overpayments according to the information released last October. This was the elephant in the room that had been lingering weeks before this evening’s meeting had ever begun.

On Feb. 27, Mallott posted a video on the popular private group Facebook page known as the Ocean Beach Bulletin Board. He appeared in an agitated state during the video address, while disputing the findings of that audit report after months of silence on the subject.

A subsequent email to the OBA membership on March 8 included a message from the OBA Board of Directors citing a letter that had been delivered to Mallott and the Board of Trustees on Jan. 25 – a letter that the directors believe gives some context to the video’s timing. The said video has since been removed from the Ocean Beach Bulletin Board forum.

Upon elaborating this information to the meeting participants, Silsdorf emphasized that she did not find the mayor’s response to the letter satisfactory and asked the three village trustees who were in attendance at the meeting if they would like to address any of the questions raised in their letter.

Responses by Blake, Norris, and Marco Armant (Trustee Dawn Hargraves was not present) were uniformly guarded and awkward, with the most coherent remark coming from Norris who said the mayor’s Facebook address was “not fully supported by all of the village board.”

 It was a contentious conclusion to the hour and a half long meeting. How this element will set the tone of the upcoming village election is anyone’s guess.

Editor’s Note: This article originally credited Holly Etlin for broaching the subject of the Ocean Beach audit at the March 14 meeting, when it was in fact Gina Ragusa. This article was revised on April 7, 2023 to correct this information.