For Smithtown voters who worry that some whippersnapper will take the place of Patrick Vecchio, whose 40-year reign as town supervisor is believed to be a state record, Edward Wehrheim is a candidate who can offer reassurance. The GOP town board member, who knocked off Vecchio in a Republican primary, has been working for the town five years longer than Vecchio himself.
Wehrheim, 69, worked for the town’s Department of Parks, Buildings & Grounds from 1972 until 2003, the year he was elected to the board, serving as the department’s director for 14 years. The combination of roles, and his lifelong residency in Kings Park, give him a grounded sense of what the community needs and a vision of where he’d like to lead it, even as he concedes that he will meet significant opposition.
That’s the Smithtown way. While the time for progress came a long time ago, that progress will be hard fought, as shown by the margin of Vecchio’s 83-vote loss to Wehrheim.
Wehrheim says that if elected, he will have three top priorities: Revitalizing the downtowns of Smithtown, Kings Park and St. James; addressing the deterioration of parks and recreational facilities; and pushing town board members, who earn about $65,000 a year, to treat their jobs as full time. Progress on all three fronts is needed. But where Wehrheim shines as a candidate is in his willingness to state a vision for the town’s future. He says that aspects of successful downtowns such as Huntington, Patchogue and Babylon can serve as models. He says more apartments are needed, and that while Smithtown, a “bedroom community on the North Shore,” doesn’t need five-story complexes, three- and four-story buildings make sense. Building them near the town’s three train stations, he says, will create walkable downtowns that won’t increase road traffic. He wants to develop the portion of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center that is not parkland as a hub of both technology jobs and residential development, a brave statement in a town where development dreams go to die. And he proposes to leverage the sterling bond rating Vecchio only boasted about to repair roads throughout Smithtown.
Wehrheim’s Democratic opponent, William Holst, 65, is an attorney for Suffolk County from Nesconset. He has significant experience in public life, including time on the Suffolk legislature in the late 1990s and terms as board president of both the Smithtown Central School District and the Greater Smithtown Chamber of Commerce. He also ran against Vecchio for this office twice, in 2001 and 2005.
Holst argues that in Wehrheim’s 14 years on the board, he already should have fixed the town. In truth, though, Vecchio has run Smithtown with an iron fist and a closed door. Town board members often have been both powerless to introduce their own legislation and in the dark about Vecchio’s plans. More important, Holst lacks Wehrheim’s clear vision for the future, and his willingness to lead and influence public opinion when necessary. Holst does not think development is possible at the psychiatric center. Asked to name downtowns Smithtown should look to as models, Holst could not.
Vecchio’s stewardship gave residents stability and low taxes. But his lack of vision led to a lack of change and growth that eventually became crippling.
Wehrheim has the vision and experience to lead the town forward.
Newsday endorses Wehrheim.