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Jan 3, 2018 10:37 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton's First Female Town Trustee Says She's Up To The Task

Ann Welker is the first woman to serve as a Southampton Town Trustee. GREG WEHNER
Jan 3, 2018 10:37 AM

As the results began pouring in on election night, Ann Welker didn’t know what to expect.The 54-year-old from North Sea had never run for public office before, had never even served on any kind of political committee. Until last fall, when she and her running mates were pitted against three entrenched Southampton Town Trustee incumbents, she had never participated in a debate.

What she did realize was that on a ticket that featured three men—fellow Democratic challengers Gary Glanz and Ron Fisher, as well as incumbent Independence Party member Bill Pell—she was the long shot simply because of her gender.

Though other women have tried to secure seats on the 332-year-old Board of Trustees, whose members are charged with overseeing the town’s bay bottoms and waterways, none has ever been able to break the gender barrier.

That changed on the evening of November 7, 2017, when Ms. Welker, an exercise physiologist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, became the first woman elected to serve as a Southampton Town Trustee.

“I was in disbelief,” Ms. Welker, who finished with 6,463 votes to secure the fifth and final seat on the board, recalled during a recent interview.

“It’s embarrassing that Southampton Town has not had a woman on this board before me,” she continued, though she was also quick to credit her fellow women—and society in general—for her historic victory.

“It wasn’t me who broke the glass ceiling—it’s our society right now,” she said. “I’m opening the door for others. I hope others now step up.”

Historically, members of the board have been men of varying backgrounds, but many have had some sort of experience on the water. Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr., for example, works as a commercial fisherman by trade, and knows the area’s waterways like the back of his hand, as have many former Trustees.

Ms. Welker said she is joining the board with a fresh set of eyes. Though she doesn’t make a living on the waters like Mr. Warner, she grew up in Tuckahoe understanding the concepts behind marine ecology, and involved in activities surrounding the water.

Her parents, Mary and Ral Welker, were educators who moved to Southampton from Seattle in 1965, just after Southampton College opened. Her father was conducting graduate work at the University of Washington and was hired by Southampton College to help establish a marine science program—making him one of the founding faculty members of the program.

Her mother was a middle school teacher who taught at Southampton schools.

Both parents had an influence on the passion that Ms. Welker has for the water and the environment.

“It was dinner table conversation,” said Ms. Welker, explaining that everything revolved around those two topics. Her father, who died nearly five years ago, was a marine ecologist who would take his daughter out on the boat with the students for a learning experience.

In the summers, Ms. Welker said, when her mother was off from teaching, in the morning she would have to make her own bed, clean her room, weed a row in the garden, and then make her own lunch. Once that was done, her mother would take her and her two brothers, John and Bill, to the beach. Most of the time it would be one of the bay beaches, because her mother, who was not a good swimmer, felt it was safer.

The daily activities almost always included Ms. Welker and her two brothers dragging a seine net through the water and finding all sorts of treasure—colorful shells, tropical fish and even seahorses.

When her father had a day off, which Ms. Welker said was only about five times per summer, he would take the family to the ocean beaches, where the kids all learned to respect the power of the ocean and became stronger swimmers.

As a teenager, Ms. Welker began lifeguarding, and landed a job with the Town of Southampton at Flying Point Beach. “I think lifeguarding was probably the best job I ever had,” she said. She and her co-workers would take runs to Scott Cameron Beach and, at times when the surf was good, would ride waves at the closest break.

Even today, Ms. Welker likes to spend her spare time boogie boarding, surfing or paddleboarding waves at the top local breaks.

Her passion for the water has led her to volunteer with the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force, which focuses on water quality. The program takes samples of water from water bodies throughout Southampton Town and delivers them to the Stony Brook Southampton marine laboratory—the modern continuation of her father’s early efforts—where they are tested for enterococcus algae, a coliform bacteria and fecal indicator.

Colleen Henn, who works with the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Taskforce, said Ms. Welker is great to work with.

“She learns really quickly and puts others before herself,” Ms. Henn said.

Ms. Henn said Ms. Welker was very instrumental in coordinating and conducting the testing of 20-25 water samples from across the town at the Southampton Lab at Stony Brook last winter, for enterococcus algae. Given her experience and her passion, Ms. Henn said, she is looking forward to seeing what Ms. Welker does as a Trustee.

“She’s connected to the water, that’s for sure,” Ms. Henn said.

On Friday, Mr. Warner, one of her new colleagues, said he is encouraged to see new blood on the Board of Trustees, which was established in 1686. He doesn’t know Ms. Welker personally, but he said he has heard nothing but positive things about her. Because of her passion for improving water quality, Mr. Warner said he thinks she will be a perfect fit for the board.

“I welcome her aboard as an elected official and congratulate her,” Mr. Warner said. “When she’s in there, man or woman, it doesn’t make a difference. You just gotta do your job.”

Mr. Warner added that the board is made up of five individuals from different backgrounds. Those various backgrounds all come into play when it comes to working on projects, as long as political differences are put aside.

Ms. Welker’s term as a Town Trustee began on January 1, and she said one of her main focuses will be to find ways to improve water quality.

“My focus will be learning as much as I can, but I am committed to working toward making a difference with the degraded quality of our waters,” she said.

For the past two months, Ms. Welker has attended Trustee meetings and work sessions in an effort to fully understand her new role. Ms. Welker said she’s learned that a Trustee’s role is much more than simply regulating docks and bulkheads; it also entails beach access, shellfish projects, and figuring out how to utilize Community Preservation Fund revenues to benefit the more than 25,000 acres of bay bottoms, shorelines, waterways and marshes in the town, on behalf of the residents.

Ms. Welker said she remembers when the first major brown tide struck the waters of Southampton in the 1980s. She and her brothers used to snorkel for scallops quite often. The year the brown tide hit, she said, her father had just returned from a workshop on acid rain in Canada and noticed right away that the brown tides were connected with what he had just studied.

“When that happened, there was no harvest,” Ms. Welker said. “Maybe there was, but it was in much deeper and colder water than we could get to with a snorkel.”

As an elected Trustee, Ms. Welker will be replacing Eric Shultz on the board. Mr. Shultz served as a Trustee for 22 years, going through 11 election cycles. As he steps away, Mr. Shultz will take with him a wealth of knowledge, not just with the various lawsuits the board has become involved with, but also the inner workings of the board.

“Eric has been a long-standing and extremely capable steward of the waters of Southampton Town,” Ms. Welker said. “We, as a community, need to acknowledge and express gratitude for his lengthy service on our behalf, and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Mr. Shultz declined to comment on his tenure with the board, saying he simply wants to “fade away.”

Still, Ms. Welker said she hopes Mr. Shultz will continue to give back to the community, adding that his experience is invaluable and a huge loss.

During her election campaign, Ms. Welker said, she did not play the “woman card” often, because she didn’t find it necessary. It wasn’t until partway through the campaign when she realized that her potential victory was much bigger than she originally thought.

Ms. Welker said a woman came up to her and asked how the campaign was going, and she told her that it was challenging. At that moment, she said, the woman looked at her and replied, “Yes, but because you are doing this, now other women can.”

Ms. Welker added that she didn’t think being elected as a woman was a big deal, or that it meant she had bigger shoes to fill. Instead, it’s just another perspective, she said—a woman’s perspective.

“I am looking forward with hope,” she said. “I think hope is a really important quality with which to approach these next two years.”

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Congratulations Ann!! Your vote is crucial on many issues that affect us all, especially when it comes to increased beach access.
By bigfresh (3921), north sea on Jan 4, 18 11:39 AM
1 member liked this comment
Wishing Ann all the best in her service to the Town. It's a historic victory and I look forward to continuing to work with the Town Trustees to protect our precious waterways. Ann's a serious and intelligent person and I know she'll be a great addition to the good work the Trustees do!
Jan 4, 18 1:33 PM appended by legislator
Legislator Bridget Fleming
By legislator (1), Sag Harbor on Jan 4, 18 1:33 PM
Welcome Ann! It's a joy to see you there and I'll know you'll make us all proud.
By Turkey Bridge (1890), Quiogue on Jan 4, 18 2:43 PM
Congratulations to YOU Ann. Everything I read about you in the above article I know to be true. I am sure you will do your best to work with the men of the Board of Trustees. They are more interested in the good management of the waters surrounding the island. People who have not been brought up living in the area should be quiet and learn by watching those who have spent their lives caring for the waters and land. Your parents gave good example. sign me JMR
By summertimegal (90), southampton on Jan 4, 18 3:29 PM
1 member liked this comment
She taught me to swim in Big Fresh Pond over 30 years ago. A perfect fit for trustee. Nice and caring person to say the least.
By thepresssucks (21), watermill on Jan 4, 18 3:49 PM
Ann will do an excellent job.
By Draggerman (840), Southampton on Jan 4, 18 5:22 PM
1 member liked this comment
A very big congratulations to you Ann. Im sure you will fine being a Trustee most
Brian Byrnes
East Hampton Town Trustee
By bink (2), east hampton ny on Jan 7, 18 11:09 AM
Congratulations Ann! Thrilled for you and our community!
Leslie ~ Ellie's mom ;)
By Caligrl70 (1), Southampton on Jan 8, 18 12:30 PM
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