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Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming Discusses Challenges, Initiatives At New Job

Amanda Bernocco

Bridget Fleming said the most difficult part about transitioning from the Southampton Town Board to the Suffolk County Legislature has been adjusting to the scope of the issues and the size of her district.

When she assumed the 2nd Legislative District seat in January, Ms. Fleming went from helping manage a $91.1 million annual operating budget to a $2.9 billion one, and also saw the size of her district increase from a single town to more than three as her new district encompasses the entire South Fork—including East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island towns, as well as the southeastern portion of Brookhaven Town.

“The biggest challenge is just the size of the job, the diversity of issues, and the geography and all the different players in such a large government structure,” Ms. Fleming said this week. “But people have been wonderfully gracious. Everyone in the Suffolk County government, my colleagues in the legislature, everyone has just really been gracious in helping me figure it all out. I’m very happy at this point.”

Though she faces a somewhat daunting job, Ms. Fleming was quick to credit her half-decade as a Town Board member for assisting in her ongoing adjustment.

“I have to say my five years on the Southampton Town Board really have been very useful,” she said. “Everything from looking at budgets, to understanding issues in the district, to understanding just how government operates. You can’t necessarily learn them unless you lived with them, so the hands-on experience at the town has been very valuable.”

She also pointed out that she is viewing her new post, as one of 18 Suffolk legislators, as a full-time commitment, noting that she is winding down operations at her private law practice in Sag Harbor to focus on her county duties. In fact, she plans to wrap up her practice for good once she satisfies her few remaining clients.

While sitting in her new county digs in Sag Harbor last week, Ms. Fleming shared details regarding the first piece of legislation that she has supported.

Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski, who represents 1st Legislative District, which spans the entire North Fork and includes Riverhead and Southold towns, as well as Fishers Island, was pushing to have some future meetings of the legislature held at the county center in Riverside. The idea behind the legislation, Ms. Fleming explained, is that such a change would make it easier for East End residents to attend meetings of the legislative body.

The measure was passed at the legislature’s organizational meeting on January 4 and, on March 1, the first of 15 meetings for 2016 was held in Riverside. Prior to that, all of the body’s meetings were held in Hauppauge, located more than 30 miles west of Riverside.

She estimated that it would take a Sag Harbor resident between 80 and 90 minutes, depending on traffic, to reach Hauppauge, or more than double what it would take them to drive to Riverside.

“I’m really proud of that,” Ms. Fleming said of the legislation, “especially for a general meeting of the legislature, [where] any speaker is given three minutes. So, to drive an hour and 20 minutes so that you can speak for three minutes really discourages participation in government.”

She also credited her counterpart on the North Fork for introducing the measure.

“It was Al Krupski’s initiative when I was new on the legislature, and I sort of went out and helped him pull it across the finish line,” Ms. Fleming said. “I was gracious to the western legislators to be open to our concerns there. It was a good welcome for me from my colleagues up west.”

New Legislation

Earlier this month, Ms. Fleming introduced her first resolution as a county legislator. The local law, which was adopted at the March 22 meeting, mandates that the Suffolk County Planning Commission always include representation from someone who works closely with the environment.

The 15-member commission—which is in charge of reviewing site plans, zoning actions, as well as land use and planning policies throughout the county—must represent eight different backgrounds, including law, business, real estate, labor and transportation. However, it was never mandatory that one of the members represent the farming and agriculture trades until Ms. Fleming’s resolution was adopted.

“There actually is a farmer on the commission now, but there is nothing in the charter that says there has to be,” Ms. Fleming explained, pointing out that farming plays a large role in local business on the East End.

She was referring to farmer Carl Gabrielsen, who now represents Riverhead Town on the planning commission. Mr. Gabrielsen serves as CEO of Gabrielsen Farms LLC, one of Long Island’s largest greenhouse operations. His farm supplies flowering plants throughout Long Island and the metro areas.

She noted that having a farmer sitting on the board is critical because the environment must always be taken into consideration when making planning decisions, especially on the East End.

“There’s no question that both Al Krupski and myself have a unique role in county government because our needs and concerns here on the East End are very different from most of the issues that are important to our Suffolk County friends up west,” Ms. Fleming said.

She noted that other topics that typically carry more weight here than in western Suffolk County include the preservation of open space and the desire to improve public transportation.

Big Shoes To Fill

Since taking office in January, Ms. Fleming has been developing plans to follow-up on initiatives started by her predecessor, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. Those initiatives include improving water quality and transportation options, as well as battling ticks and mosquitoes on the East End.

Along the way, she is keeping in close contact with Mr. Schneiderman, who took over the top seat in Southampton Town when Ms. Fleming assumed his former seat at the county dais.

“She’s off to a great start,” Mr. Schneiderman said of Ms. Fleming. “It’s not an easy job. It’s building networks and being able to deliver.”

Mr. Schneiderman added that Ms. Fleming occasionally calls him with questions on how to navigate county government, but noted that she seems to be doing well with understanding its finances and reaching out to the other legislators.

Since settling into her new office, Ms. Fleming has been meeting with Peter Scully, a representative for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, about his Reclaim Our Water Initiative. Ms. Fleming said she wants to figure out ways to expand Mr. Bellone’s effort so that it also focuses on more of the East End.

Through the initiative, the county is testing advanced septic systems at homes and businesses across Suffolk that it has not yet approved for widespread installation. The goal of the initiative is to reduce the flow of potentially harmful nitrogen that has been blamed on constantly reemerging brown and red tides. In Southampton Town, one septic system is being tested in East Quogue and another will soon be installed this spring at Meschutt Beach in Hampton Bays.

It was Mr. Schneiderman who brought the county’s attention to Meschutt Beach, after one of the eight cesspools servicing The Beach Hut overflowed last summer.

“A lot of the Reclaim Our Water Initiative focuses on sewers … That’s mainly for the Forge River, the Carmans River [in Brookhaven Town]” Ms. Fleming said. “You know, densely populated areas that are on sewer systems and upgrading those sewer systems, which is great and very important. And, at the same time, very different from what we need out here.

“So, I’m working with Peter Scully, and meeting and talking about the possibility of expanding that program that they’re doing to include larger systems, and mid-sized systems, finding more locations that are suitable,” she continued.

Ms. Fleming is also taking a hard look at the county’s public transportation system, which Mr. Schneiderman also had his hands in before exiting the position due to term limits.

“My predecessor, Jay Schneiderman, was successful at expanding the bus service to Sundays, which was hugely popular and important,” Ms. Fleming said. “So now I am turning my attention to trying to help economic development to take a hard look at the public transportation system and see what’s working and what’s not working.”

Additionally, she intends on taking a comprehensive look at previously completed studies focusing on the county’s public bus systems and what can be done to improve them. For example, Ms. Fleming said the S92 bus servicing the East End is always crowded, while other lines with bigger buses are often empty.

Ms. Fleming is also picking up where Mr. Schneiderman left off when it comes to fighting ticks and mosquitoes. She hopes to get the Suffolk Department of Public Works, which often uses larvicides to control populations of the bugs, and the Suffolk Department of Health to work together to find mutually agreeable solutions. She noted that she met with officials from both offices just last week.

“I think things have been happening in very many different sectors, but I think what is lacking is a centralized focus from both the health impact and the public works control of the bugs aspect,” Ms. Fleming said. “I think we’re really at a good place to move forward with that. I think we could find funding for that and I think the science is there.”

So far, Ms. Fleming said she thinks she is doing a solid job at getting her head around the topics and encourages constituents to contact her if they have any issues or concerns.

“I have really good traffic through the district office here and I want to keep people coming to the Washington Street district office,” she said. “It’s centrally located from East Hampton and Southampton, and it’s not too far from Shelter Island, so people should feel welcome to come and call no matter what kind of issues they’re facing.”