When I took office as supervisor in January 1994, Huntington Town government was a mess. Its finances were in trouble. Other pressing issues included revitalizing Huntington Station, the need for affordable housing, a shortage of parking in Huntington village, environmental preservation and open-space acquisitions.
I was a Republican then, and I was elected to a split board: four council seats evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. I switched parties some years later because I felt Democrats’ priorities were more aligned with our constituents.
The issues were contentious, the solutions were difficult and they defied party-line votes. To achieve what we needed to achieve, I forged alliances that led council members to put political affiliations aside.
That has been my approach during my time in office. As I prepare to retire, I look back on accomplishments — including getting AAA bond ratings, creating environmental programs, ending the logjams that stalled Huntington Station revitalization, creating 1,400 units of affordable housing and Long Island’s first town open space preservation bond act. These could not have been done without a series of town boards whose members recognized the need to implement measures that improved everyone’s lives.
One of my unfulfilled goals, though, is convincing the state to refine the tax cap, allowing for implementing or continuing progressive programs such as open-space purchases by exempting them from the tax cap if they are referendum-approved.
In some ways, the policies-before-politics approach, as practiced in Huntington, sets most local governments apart from what’s happening in Washington. This is apparent to those of us in government, and to residents whose criticisms of town government, fueled by the national discontent, have dissipated the closer they look at us. What once were monthly criticisms offered during town board meetings have evolved recently into more evenhanded critiques.
The differences between the local and federal levels today are starker than ever. On the national level, the focus has become more about winning, and about winner-take-all, than about compromising to get results. Some might say that’s politics. I say that polarization is not good government. Our representatives in Washington need to take a lesson from those of us involved in local government, because we know that good government is good politics, not the other way around.
Another major change over my years in office has been the extent to which the public is more informed, more vocal and more involved. It is much easier for individual opinions to reach us through email and social media. And, at least in Huntington, people do not need to attend meetings to see what has been discussed and what actions have been taken. They can view meeting videos on the town’s TV channel and its website.
This is a two-edged sword. While it is easier to reach and hear from residents, sometimes it is harder to gauge whether comments represent a groundswell or just outpouring from a disaffected relatively small number that happens to be the most vocal or savvy on social media. And in our online world, it is also easy for people to weigh in on local issues that do not directly affect them.
The challenge is to avoid knee-jerk reactions, take a step back, take a deep breath and make the assessment on the true depth of public sentiment before choosing a course of action. And in a world that demands instant action, resisting the temptation to act first and ask the needed questions later is sometimes the hardest thing to do.
Achieving consensus takes time. That was true 23 years ago, when I dealt with Huntington’s then-pressing problems, and it is true today for all levels of government. It is a message I pass on to whoever succeeds me, and to all fellow officeholders on all levels.
Frank P. Petrone is a Democrat.