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Feb 26, 2014 11:47 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Board Debates, Adopts Politcal Guidelines For Board Appointments

Feb 28, 2014 11:37 AM

The Southampton Town Board adopted a sweeping overhaul of its regulatory boards’ future makeup on Tuesday night, blocking members of any one political party from holding more than three seats on a board, in hopes of soothing concerns about conflicts of interest and political patronage.

Starting with next year’s appointments, no more than three members of any party may serve on any one of the town’s three land-use regulatory boards: the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Conservation Board. The limit will be enforced only as seats on the boards come up for reappointment, two or three at a time each year, until the mandated political balance is achieved. The law places no restrictions on party coalitions or on board members switching parties once they have been appointed.

The amendment to the town’s ethics code was passed by the Town Board in a bipartisan vote but over the objections and pleas for further limits on political involvement from Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who had also introduced legislation barring political committee members from serving on regulatory boards. The board rejected Ms. Fleming’s bill in its third trip to the table.

The board members who voted in the majority for the new restrictions said the bill imparts a political balance to the boards and should quell concerns of patronage and influence peddling, without restricting those members of the community most prone to public involvement from serving on regulatory boards.

“What I heard people coming up and saying had nothing to do with their political activities or affiliation, it all had to do with the preponderance of one party on a board,” Councilwoman Christine Scalera said in an interview after the vote, referring to the Republican Party’s decades-long dominance of regulatory board seats. “I could wrap my head around that. I see how there could be a misperception of political influence because of that. That’s why I came up with this [legislation]. It is not a watered down version of what Bridget proposed, it’s apples and oranges. I really feel that was politically motivated and unconstitutional.”

Prior to last month, the Zoning Board of Appeals had been comprised of five Republicans, one Conservative and one Democrat. All but the Democrat, Adam Grossman, were members of their party’s committee. In January the Town Board, with bipartisan support, removed two of the long-serving Republicans, Ann Nowak and David Reilly, and replaced them with a registered Democrat and a registered Independent.

Party committee members are elected by registered voters in each voting district and then cast representative votes for the party’s nominees for elected offices in town elections. In the wake of a scandal that spotlighted connections between the Southampton Town Police Department and the Republican Party, the Town Board voted to bar police officers from serving as political committee members. Ms. Fleming sought to extend the ban to appointed board members, citing years of anecdotal evidence and expressions that there was a widespread impression that political registration could get one a leg up before the Republican-dominated boards.

Critics of Ms. Fleming’s law had said it had no real teeth since any board member could simply resign their political committee seat without it really changing their stripes, and served only to inhibit freedoms of association and speech.

Both bills were efforts to address a perception that political influence has been at play in the review of applications before the town’s regulatory boards. On Tuesday night, the board heard a chorus of critics of both proposals.

“I see this law and the prior law regarding committee membership as a subversion of the electoral process, stripping the voice of the people, and I think it is just a bad idea,” said John Bennett, a Southampton attorney and Republican Party committeeman. “Political affiliations have very little, if nothing, to do with land use decisions. It is a canard that is usually brought up by the party that is not in power. And it assumes that Republicans and Democrats have different philosophies on land use, which is just silly.”

Supporters of reform were split in their support for the correct path.

“I like the freedom of association which ... guarantees me rights wherever I want to go,” said Dieter von Lehsten. “The resolution talks about the balance on committees so that no party has a majority, which I think is a really good idea.”

But the idea of enforced balance was also seen as toothless and hamstringing board members from appointing a supremely qualified candidate simply because of their party affiliation.

“Our rights to free speech are constricted in all sorts of ways: you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater, judges can’t speak out ... you as Town Board members cannot speak on personnel matters ... for very good reasons,” said Mackie Finnerty. “As far as balance on the boards ... you still could appoint three Republicans and three Conservatives and I don’t see how you’re any further along.”

Ms. Fleming first brought up the issue last spring, introducing her bill to ban members of political committees from serving on the boards. Her proposal failed twice in the face of opposition from the former Republican-Conservative coalition majority, made up of Ms. Scalera and former Councilmen Chris Nuzzi, a Republican, and Jim Malone, a Conservative. Ms. Fleming introduced it again shortly after the new Democratic-Independence coalition took the majority, but quickly found that the support she once had from Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst was gone.

The supervisor said that in the absence of alternatives, she had supported Ms. Fleming’s proposal, albeit with a certain level of discomfort over the restrictions on associations. When an alternative was brought to her, she said, she saw it as a better way to address the concerns at the root of the issue.

“I am not comfortable under any circumstances with curtailing anyone’s right of association and being part of a political committee is just that,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “I also believe that when we appoint people we appoint them with the belief that they will take their oath of office seriously and not let any other affiliation [override] that. If they do ... we need to take action.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said she plans to propose further amendments to block the Town Board from leaving seats vacant and to stiffen the penalties for any board member found to be allowing unethical influence seep into his or her official decisions.

Her colleagues twice thwarted Ms. Fleming’s efforts to have the limitation on committee members enacted on Tuesday night. The initial bill failed when the resolution to adopt it was read and none of the other four offered a second to bring it to a vote. Later, with the alternative bill on the table, Ms. Fleming made a motion to make an amendment to that bill providing the additional limitation on committee members. She again received no second.

After the meeting, Ms. Fleming said she felt the exercise had served a good purpose.

“I’m also proud that our efforts met with some success,” she said in a message. “Reform doesn’t happen in a day. The original resolution opened up an important conversation and gave voice to many community members who have felt excluded or disadvantaged. That’s good. And at the end of the day, we did enact ethics reform on the land-use boards, however imperfect it might be.”

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I support this resolution......weighing how we look at things like this and how we look at the issues of transparency in gov't as well as what encourages people to come forward and to serve in whatever capacity it may be...
perception being 9/10 of the law, and if there is ever a perception that there is a conflict there, and that that is somehow abused on any one of these areas of representation, then I do believe that we have a responsibility to make
sure that that perception is alleviated ...more
By EastEndJoy (16), East Quogue on Feb 26, 14 2:08 PM
This resolution is a worthless stunt. Change your party affiliation for a month or two and your good to go. What happened to denying posts to committee members, etc?
By bird (827), Southampton on Feb 26, 14 2:26 PM
2 members liked this comment
That was what Fleming's resolution was about. ATH voted for it before the new board members were sworn in, then flip flopped. You would have to ask her. Business as usual in good old boy town.
By bobypines (7), southampton on Feb 26, 14 2:37 PM
1 member liked this comment
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' Ronald Reagan
By The Real World (368), southampton on Feb 26, 14 4:30 PM
1 member liked this comment
Did it occur to you that the problem is the people in the government, not government itself?

It's really easy to blame things, isn't it? They normally don't fight back...
By Mr. Z (11814), North Sea on Mar 9, 14 10:00 PM
Z, the people "in" the government "are" the government, don't you think? I mean the government is a reflection of its occupants.
By dnice (2346), Hampton Bays on Mar 9, 14 10:07 PM
It has had a massive amount of occupants in over two centuries. Government is a thing. People are not. Government is not incompetent, people are. Government is not greedy, people are. Government is not vindictive, people are.

Government is a system, not a person, but it's only as good and effective a system as the competence level of the people who tend to it. Though it may be a reflection of those who occupy it, it is still a system and separate from the people.

Blame the ...more
By Mr. Z (11814), North Sea on Mar 9, 14 10:48 PM
1 member liked this comment
Agreed. We need better people in the government -- but there is little accountability/incentives to make this happen.
By Beached Andy (3), Westhampton on Mar 10, 14 1:59 PM
So someone gives up his or her committee position, but continues to gather signatures on petitions, buys, and sells tickets to fundraisers, does all a party expects of a committee person, but does not have a title. Is he or she eligible for appointment?
By But I'm a blank! (1283), Hampton Bays on Feb 26, 14 5:21 PM
That was the joke of Fleming's supposed ban of committee people- even under that you could do all of those things. At least the resolution that passed is what claims to be- an attempt to provide continued politically diversified representation on each of the boards in question. I commend Scalera, ATH and the rest for making good on a promise to work together and put the residents first. Now let's move on!!!
By sassy (6), new york on Feb 26, 14 7:41 PM
Blank, that's amusing and hilarious entertainment. This is about ethical values, a concept long lost on Southampton politics. There is no law you can't find an exception to with an evil mind, which is why in examining a law and ethical issues, one examines both the spirit and the letter of the law and the two thresholds should be passed.

To argue that Bridget's bill can easily be rendered moot by resigning a committee post but still perform in real life virtually all the functions of a ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Feb 26, 14 8:52 PM
"every day activities in a southern hick town", "our little Northeast Appalachian town"
Why do you have issues with the south? Ever been there?
The very concept that in politics there could ever be a utopia where thing like this are normal activities is right across the street from the Emerald City of Oz.
Of course it doesn't pass the ethics test, that is the point. No ethics board could call out an appointee for just doing the business of a party, which is also known as participating ...more
By But I'm a blank! (1283), Hampton Bays on Feb 27, 14 10:07 AM
A big part, some would say the biggest part, of public service is keeping your word, being someone on whom people can rely to do what you say you'll do. Fail the people on that score a couple of times, and you're on the way out. Comes the revolution . . . .
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Feb 26, 14 8:06 PM
not to mention her campaign's fervent and aggressive production and pursuit of a video supporting Councilwoman Fleming's original resolution. The hypocrisy knows no bounds...
By sirpoochala (78), Hampton Bays on Feb 26, 14 10:27 PM
My condolences, George. I know you thought you were doing the right thing and acquiring a progressive Democratic board majority, albeit with members of the Independence Party.

Your power now resides in the denial of Wilson-Pakula's next cycle.

This resolution is a farce as you well know.

True ethics reform lies in recusals when contributor issues come up before the Town Board.

This amendment like Bridget's is simply another nail in the coffin of political party ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Feb 27, 14 12:20 PM
God love ya', turkey bridge! Looks like madam supervisor has failed the people more than a couple of times!! Let's hope the Dems wise up , otherwise, as so many have said for years, they'll be the laughing stock of Southampton town.
By EastEndJoy (16), East Quogue on Feb 26, 14 11:06 PM
Are you kidding East End, the Democratic Party IS the laughing stock of the town right now, especially of the Republican Party, as is so evident when you have drinks at Toscano in HB. Republicans are cowering with fear under the tables of the new Democratic control of the Town Board, between mouthfuls of delectable Veal Francese and Spaghetti a la Vongole

She is an infamous liar, double crosser, and the most untrustworthy political opportunist in the East End of long standing, as many Republicans, ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Feb 26, 14 11:55 PM
Turkey is correct. The people need fair and honest representation . Our elected should clearly stand united to protect our environment and rights granted under the Dongan Patent. Assuring unencumbered access to water and beaches. It is clear we must support our Town trustees. Its a wide ranging quality of life issue for ALL. Its not a political issue. Its a common sense issue.
By 007 (45), East Quogue on Feb 27, 14 6:26 AM
Wrong story
By But I'm a blank! (1283), Hampton Bays on Feb 27, 14 11:33 AM
... choice of political affiliation is a right. As such, I do not think you can mandate the composition of these boards. Is it any different from putting limits on board participation by way of religion, ethnicity or sexual preference. This is uncharted territory and this does not seem to make sense. Don't think it will stand up if challenged. Really just low-grade political maneuvering.
By William Rodney (561), southampton on Feb 27, 14 12:45 PM
True, choice of affiliation is a right, which is not in question. The issue is whether heavily partisan Committee political operators beholden to large campaign contributors like big developers and big oceanfront estate owners (issues behind the trustees imbroglio) should be appointed as regulators representing the overwhelming majority of citizens who are neither oceanfront estate owners or big developers.

Could committee members be campaign money blind? Possible. But we all know the reality, ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Feb 28, 14 3:42 AM
To eastend joy and the rest - you are all in bitter denial. How about you face the fact that Flemming is pulling you all (a few) around to the wrong side of every issue . She has clearly proven to be incapable of working with anyone and incapable of leading. How about you stop looking to blame everyone else for being able to effective at both.
By sassy (6), new york on Feb 27, 14 9:24 PM
Anna, or Anna plant, Bridget has many supporters precisely because she doesn't double cross nor dupe people in voting for her with video endorsements of issues and two months later, brazenly take a 180 degree position double cross of the many who supported her partly on that basis.

And that's typical, the kind of farce she's snowed the Dem Exec Committee with repeatedly, who frankly should resign en masse and let the others build from scratch and start over. This political Houdini act is ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Feb 27, 14 9:52 PM
Obbservant, your posts generally display an unnecessarily hostile sort of arrogance, but putting that aside, you are reasonably well-informed, and frequently take positions that make sense, however abrasively expressed.

Since you seem to have both interest and ability, I'll offer you the same challenge I recently offered to NTiger: Instead of carping from the sidelines, join those of us who are in the arena. Enter the fray directly and cope with these issues every day as we do. If your ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Mar 1, 14 8:46 PM
TB, I believe you want to do the right thing always. But you're in the wrong camp wasting your talents and energy.

You have a Dem Exec Committee in political LaLa land where huge political conflicts of interest are not only tolerated but celebrated. You have the virtual head of the Dem Committee (and its immediate past Chairman) acting as the Campaign Treasurer of the Independence Party standard bearer ATH, who has always treated your lone Democrat with disdain and contempt precisely as ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Mar 2, 14 7:30 PM
I point...If I may.....you stated, "You guys need to learn from your political masters, the formidable Republicans....... who have virtually turned Town Hall into the Republican Town Headquarters. They're the best, you're the worst."
The Republicans have had vast numerical superiority in voter registrations in the town since the Civil War. I get your point, but political masters.....no.....they have had more votes?
By SHNative (554), Southampton on Mar 2, 14 8:33 PM
Obbservant, I'll take that as a No Thank You. Note, please, this is a challenge, not an offer -- a challenge you're declining. People who decline challenges are often said to lack courage. That may or may not be true for you, but we'll never know, because you choose to sit it out and spew invective instead of getting in there and working for the change you talk about.
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Mar 2, 14 9:09 PM
SHN, I certainly agree with your historical perspective as an explanation for the Reps' historical dominance. But the registrations are now at virtual parity, and getting narrower by the year. And it's actually much closer than it appears because people who come to these parts expecting to do business are told of the reality that you can't do that as a registered Democrat or if you want a job at Town Hall.

Thus, people end up as registered "Blanks" or turn Republican for business or Town ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Mar 2, 14 9:19 PM
Can someone explain why "We" haven't pushed for recall laws in New York State? No matter what perceived malfeasance goes on, only in the severest of cases are those elected removed from office.

It's high time "We" had another way to light a fire under the high rhetoric, and broken promises.
By Mr. Z (11814), North Sea on Mar 9, 14 10:04 PM
1 member liked this comment