Column: North Fork Chamber made the wrong choice

Let me see if I’ve got this straight.

The North Fork Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of its new president, Cross Sound Ferry’s Orient terminal manager Andy Binkowski, selects Cross Sound Ferry’s owners, the Wronoski family, as co-recipients of the chamber’s first-ever Community Service Award.

(Said Mr. B., referring to the Wronoskis and co-recipient Kevin O’Connor of Bridgehampton National Bank: “Those names first stuck out in our minds.” As well they might. After all, the Wronoskis sign the man’s paycheck!)

Am I the only one to see a conflict of interest here, or the irony of honoring a company that has done as much as any other entity to negatively impact quality of life on the North Fork?

As for the conflict, imagine newly elected chamber president Troy Gustavson announcing that The Suffolk Times has won the chamber’s first-ever Community Service Award. The resulting din would be deafening, and rightly so. Even if Mr. Binkowski — whom I’ve never met and I presume to be a decent fellow — had recused himself (which he should have), couldn’t the chamber have come up with a more deserving recipient?

For the record, I have no quarrel with the selection of Mr. O’Connor, mostly because of BNB’s certifiably long history of giving back to this community. But Cross Sound is an entirely different story.

But first, a bit of history. Back in the mid-1990s, at a time when Times/Review Newspapers was publishing Crossings, the official in-transit magazine of Cross Sound Ferry, I was invited to lunch by the ferry company’s general manager, Rich McMurray. (It was at Orient by the Sea. I had the fish sandwich. He picked up the check. Yes, I know, we should have split it.)

Rich wanted to know what The Suffolk Times had done to generate brand awareness and make friends and influence people in the community. (Remember, this was at a time when Cross Sound was perceived largely as an out-of-state company with little or no involvement to speak of in North Fork affairs.) Get involved in organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, I advised, and support worthwhile local organizations and causes, just like The Suffolk Times does.

I realize that hardly qualified as rocket science, but Rich seemed genuinely taken by the concept. And, man, did he and Cross Sound take my advice over the ensuing years — much to my growing personal consternation (remember, this was before the introduction of the high-speed passenger ferry) and much to the benefit of the dozens of volunteer fire departments, youth athletic teams, school trips and other beneficiaries the ferry company has supported with its dollars.

My consternation stems not from any reservations about the money that has flowed to deserving local organizations and individuals, but from my sincere belief that Cross Sound gives to the community for the wrong reasons — namely to purchase good will and, more importantly, silence.

Is anyone really going to talk about the true impact of ferry traffic on our environment, on our roads and on the cost of policing Southold Town, after Cross Sound has cut them a $1,000 check or donated a ferry boat for a fireworks cruise? Of course not. And that’s largely why, in my opinion, Cross Sound writes the checks and donates the use of its boats.

As a business organization, the chamber could and should have weighed the trickle-down economic benefits of ferry traffic against the environmental impact of the hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks (more and more trucks!) traveling to and from the ferry every year, and the incremental extra costs of policing those vehicles on our highways.

If ferries and ferry traffic are so desirable, why aren’t other communities lobbying to host them? Short answer: because they know better.

And if Cross Sound Ferry and the Wronoskis truly want to be good neighbors, let them agree to collect fees of $1 per car and 50¢ per passenger to be deposited directly into the coffers of Southold Town — just as they do in the form of the user (or “municipal landing”) fees they collect (and deposit in the coffers of the Town of New Shoreham) on the ferries they operate to and from Block Island.

Then, and only then, should this company from New London, Conn., be considered for a community service award here on the North Fork.

Irony of ironies: Two-time convicted murderer Robert Waterhouse may have saved my life, and the life of the former Joan Giger Walker, this week.

Long story made short: Joan and I were scheduled to drive to Raiford, Fla., on Sunday in preparation for my scheduled Monday morning interview with the death row inmate, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Feb. 15. Our route would have taken us on the northbound lanes of I-75 near Gainsville, Fla., where a multi-car pileup caused by fog and smoke from a brush fire resulted in 10 deaths early Sunday morning.

But we didn’t make the trip because on Friday, three days before the interview he had agreed to, Waterhouse sent the following hand-written note to Florida State Department of Corrections officials: “At this time I would like to cancel my media interview with Troy Gustavson.”

No explanation for his change of heart was given. And, considering what transpired two days later on I-75, no explanation is asked.

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Mr. Gustavson is a corporate officer for Times/Review Newsgroup, which publishes the Riverhead News-Review, The Suffolk Times and Shelter Island Reporter newspapers.