Guest Spot: Town leaders? More like school bullies

I am very proud that Vail-Leavitt Music Hall continues to serve its mission to the community. We have managed to sustain ourselves through the efforts of great bands, including Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Lil’ Cliff & the Cliffhangers, Who Are Those Guys, Jessie Haynes, Bruce MacDonald, the EastEnders, Thursday Night Jazz Jammers and numerous others who gave of their time and talent to assist us in fundraising events over the last 10 months. Each of them were part of the annual Blues Festival over the last few years, and we sincerely appreciate their support at this crucial time in our organization’s history. For a more complete retrospective, I encourage readers to see the array of Vail-Leavitt memorabilia on display at Riverhead Free Library during August.

Special thanks are due to our treasurer, Vince Tria. His service to the music hall has been unquestionably meritorious through the last eight-plus years [and] an integral part of the efforts that restored and operated the Vail. Over that time, Mr. Tria was recognized with awards for his exemplary volunteerism by diverse groups including local media, Chamber of Commerce and Daughters of the American Revolution. These accolades have been rivaled only by the frequency of his often unfair vilification by those who perceive him as a political opponent.

This raises the thorny subject of local politics. Over the last nine-plus years that I have been part of the Vail-Leavitt executive board, we attempted to keep the Vail neutral. Our open rental policy provided ample opportunity for all local parties to utilize the hall for fundraising and made the Vail a comfortable forum for candidate debates, public meetings and civic events. In fact, a review of our schedule history shows that up to the town’s inaugural event of 2010, politically affiliated events were split almost exactly 50-50 between the Republican and Democratic parties, in addition to a larger number of nonpartisan Town Board meetings and events.

Our path since that inaugural is well documented in public records: a hostile takeover attempt of the Blues Festival followed by smear and innuendo tactics against us. When I offered to open discussions with town leaders in January, I was rebuffed and insulted. When I inquired about alternative sites or plans, those who had refused to negotiate in good faith suddenly expressed outrage. Finally, in April, as a last resort, I applied for two event dates specifically attempting to prompt town leaders to hold some talks — any talks — with my organization. For the record: Vail-Leavitt Music Hall board did not withdraw its special event applications this year; it was intentionally bypassed by the Town Board in favor of competing Business Improvement District Management Association proposals.

If the Town Board had read those two proposals, as I did, they would have found a compromise was easily attainable. The Vail proposed using its own outdoor stage, which wouldn’t have interfered with the BID’s use of the town showmobile. Despite my attempts to initiate a meeting prior to the Town Board’s action, none was scheduled. Both events were proposed as free admission, so why was the Vail’s specifically overlooked? Neither application included food or crafts vendors, but both food and alcohol were served at the July 16 BID event, legal violations retroactively remedied by a Town Board resolution days after the event. We all know that if the Vail-Leavitt had ever served alcohol without proper advance permits in place, the response would have been swift and severe. It’s also possible there was no proper event insurance in place for either BID event, exposing taxpayers to millions in risk because of the Town Board’s lack of due diligence in reviewing the applications.

The facts are clear. Vail-Leavitt has survived the past 19 months in spite of our town leaders. Local government should act to shield and support the Vail, not attack or ostracize it. One would think a charitable and historic community venue supporting itself independently deserved better. The music hall board never interfered with or criticized the quality of events produced by others, but the reverse cannot be said. When we urged others to talk with us, we weren’t given the opportunity to speak and were simply ignored. I believe our experience and input could have helped.

There was irony to be found in the BID’s “Mardi Gras” event. In the actual New Orleans version, the parades and music events benefit the local economy and also give financial support to many charitable and community organizations. In Riverhead, the event was produced solely for the profit earned by a few select businesses. Meanwhile, town representatives neglected and alienated the town’s oldest historic performance venue, run by an all-volunteer group that gave of its meager resources for community benefit throughout the year. The BID management association eventually and grudgingly offered the Vail a small rental fee to act as an indoor venue on Aug. 6, reminiscent of the schoolyard bully who swipes a dessert cake, eats most of it, then asks if you’d like the crumbs back. They and our Town Board should be ashamed of the manner in which they continue to treat Vail-Leavitt. Arrogance has become a conspicuous cover for an inept and bullying style embodied by these so-called leaders.

My contempt for them is exceeded only by the pride in my steadfast board and our supporters for moving us forward.

Robert Barta is president of the Council for the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Inc.