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East Hampton Supervisor Bill Wilkinson talks his meteoric rise and fall

William J. Wilkinson, a Republican, is the supervisor

William J. Wilkinson, a Republican, is the supervisor of the Town of East Hampton. (June 18, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Joseph D. Sullivan

As his time in office shrinks down to just a few weeks, East Hampton Supervisor William Wilkinson could be forgiven for occasionally wondering just how his political career went so bad so quickly.

In just two years, he went from being the savior of a town on the edge of financial ruin to coming within a handful of votes of losing his first re-election bid in 2011. Then on Election Day two years later he wasn't even on the ballot.

His Republican Party decided to not run a supervisor candidate this year. And when some Republicans forced a write-in primary, popular Democrat Larry Cantwell announced he would not accept GOP cross-endorsement even if he won.

It was important because 13 Republicans cast primary ballots for Cantwell. Wilkinson got just one.

It was a stunning political ending, made more stunning by the fact that -- with a host of polarizing issues dividing the town -- Wilkinson has never been attacked for following a political agenda. If anything, his critics say, he never got involved in the normal give and take of politics.

If they're right, much of the meteoric rise and fall of Bill Wilkinson may come down to a matter of style, not substance. And, he would agree.

"I believed that I was elected to lead," Wilkinson said as he discussed his experience in Town Hall. "At election time, they [voters] decided when they elected me that my policies were acceptable. They told me to go ahead and implement them."

As the supervisor sees it, he was initially elected in 2009 with a 2-1 ratio and a mandate to control the debt choking the town, consolidate inefficient departments, trim services and reduce the workforce. And, he did it -- so well that in June the New York Department of State gave East Hampton Town a $536,425 award for government efficiency for eliminating its $30 million debt, downsizing 26 separate departments into just 13, trimming $4.2 million a year from the operating budget and cutting taxes by 18 percent in his first year in office.

But, those changes were barely enough for him to win re-election two years ago.

Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who has navigated the political waters on the South Fork for decades and was once Southampton Town supervisor, says Wilkinson was going against a long-standing trend -- East Hampton gets more Democratic each year.

Republicans can get elected, especially if Democrats do something bad, he notes, but they rarely stay in office.

And, in an odd way, Wilkinson's spectacular success in dealing with the town's biggest crisis changed the political dialogue almost overnight. Suddenly, things that didn't seem as important when disaster was in sight took on a new prominence once the big threat was gone.

"He did such a good job in restoring stability to town finances, it wasn't even an issue four years later," Thiele said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who considers Wilkinson a friend, said Wilkinson was at his best dealing with the town's financial problems, and again after superstorm Sandy struck last year, personally inspecting the damage and working to get needed funds, including a $50 million grant to rebuild the beaches. "He didn't make friends with everybody, but he got the job done."

But that style may not be a good fit in East Hampton, where different issues can make different parts of the community divide along ethnic, economic and social lines. There is even no widely accepted agreement on just how to protect the beaches from erosion before the next big storm.

Wilkinson got the town out of debt, but he never solved the problems of airport noise or substantially reduced overcrowding in Springs. And when town records showed an increase in summonses to Springs absentee landlords, he was attacked because those cases languished in town justice court.

David Buddha of Springs, who has often criticized -- and sometimes praised -- Wilkinson at town board meetings, said you always knew where you stood with the supervisor, and that was not always a good thing. "Bill's more of a 'My way or the highway' type of guy. He's not a good collaborator from my perspective," he said.


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