Southampton Village Mayor, Trustees Clash Over Scheduling of Special Meeting Earlier This Week - 27 East

Southampton Village Mayor, Trustees Clash Over Scheduling of Special Meeting Earlier This Week

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Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren.  DANA SHAW

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren. DANA SHAW

authorCailin Riley on May 31, 2023

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren clashed with the village trustees at a special meeting on Tuesday morning, May 30, saying that the board violated New York State Open Meetings Law by scheduling the meeting without giving proper notice to the public and the media.

He also accused the trustees of using the special meeting to pass a resolution that he said would amount to ballot harvesting ahead of the village election, set for June 16.

The meeting was scheduled for the primary purpose of ensuring that the village could meet state-mandated requirements that would allow it to extend health insurance benefits to members of the Southampton Village Ocean Rescue Squad.

The office of State Senator Anthony Palumbo had sent notice to Southampton Village Clerk Cathy Sweeney on April 18 to make the village aware that certain bills require what’s called a home rule request before the State Legislature can act on them, and the disbursement of health benefits to Ocean Rescue members fell into that category. The letter asked the village to fill out the home rule request form and return it to the state.

Southampton Village Attorney Andrew Preston emailed the trustees on May 24 letting them know that he’d been contacted by Palumbo’s office informing him that the village would need to complete the necessary requirements to offer Ocean Rescue members the opportunity to purchase health insurance for themselves and their families — in line with benefits afforded to members of other volunteer organizations in the village — before the final day of the State Senate’s session on June 8. In order to do so, it was necessary to schedule the special meeting, Preston advised.

Warren said that although the village could have handled the issue sooner, considering the initial letter was sent to the village in April, he was not necessarily opposed to the use of a special meeting for the purpose of extending the benefits to the ocean rescue squad — and that resolution passed unanimously at the meeting.

What he did take issue with was the inclusion of another resolution on the agenda: to approve opening Village Hall on Saturday, June 10, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to allow residents to pick up absentee ballots for the upcoming election.

He said providing advance notice that Village Hall would be open on June 10 was a move the trustees made to provide an advantage in the election to Trustee Bill Manger, who is running against Warren for mayor, as well as Trustees Robin Brown and Roy Stevenson, who are aligned with Manger. He also said the resolution should have waited for the regular meeting on June 8.

“The problem is when you’re supposed to have an emergency meeting and you’re throwing on a resolution that the public hasn’t seen,” Warren said after the meeting. “They were taking advantage of an emergency meeting to do this, because this action gives them an unfair political advantage that will benefit weekenders and will allow for essentially their biggest backers to bring in absentee ballots for them.”

Aside from the accusation that the inclusion of the resolution was a political move, Warren said his biggest issue was that the meeting did not comply with Open Meetings Law, saying proper notice for the meeting was not provided 72 hours ahead of time, which is what state law requires.

Sweeney spoke at the meeting, pushing back against the mayor’s assertion, saying that she posted notice of the meeting at the kiosk in Village Hall on Friday, and posted the agenda on the village website on Sunday, and also sent it out to the trustees on Sunday, thus fulfilling the 72-hour requirement. She acknowledged that she did not send direct notice of the meeting to members of the media until Tuesday morning. The failure to send notice to the media 72 hours in advance of the meeting was something Warren said constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Law.

The New York State Division of Local Government Services instructs villages that when a meeting is scheduled less than a week in advance, direct notification must be given to the media no less than 72 hours in advance “to the extent practicable.” The Southampton Press received notice of the special meeting from the clerk 25 minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

Warren also said he did not know the meeting was being held until half an hour before it began — an assertion the trustees pushed back on, with Deputy Mayor Gina Arresta pointing out that emails about scheduling the meeting began circulating to the trustees and Warren on Wednesday, May 24. “If you had a problem, you could have said something six days ago,” she said.

Manger, Arresta and Stevenson took issue with the mayor’s claim that the resolution to open Village Hall on June 10 was a political move.

“For you to bring politics into this is unbelievable,” Stevenson said, pointing out that last year and in previous years Village Hall has opened on a Saturday to allow residents who need absentee ballots to pick them up. He and the trustees pointed out that there was never a formal resolution put on the agenda to do so, but the mayor never objected to the measure in the past and, in fact, supported it.

“I’m sorry if you think giving people the right to vote is bad, Mr. Mayor,” Stevenson said.

Later on, Stevenson took Warren to task for his continued objection to the meeting and the inclusion of the third resolution on the agenda. “You contest everything if you don’t get your way,” he said. “You don’t want to be mayor — you want to be king.”

Stevenson and Manger accused Warren of trying to disenfranchise voters.

Warren said that he has heard from residents who were frustrated with the procedure in past years to open Village Hall on a Saturday to allow residents who reside primarily in New York City or another location to pick up absentee ballots and said it could open the door for some residents to illegally cast votes in two different municipalities. He said that when he recently overheard the possibly of opening Village Hall on a Saturday being discussed, he insisted doing so required a board resolution.

Former Southampton Village Trustee Joe McLoughlin, who lost his seat to Manger in 2022, said he was opposed last year to the opening of Village Hall on the weekend to allow for absentee ballots to be picked up, and said he would be opposed to it again this year if he was still in office. He called Southampton Village a “political ticking time bomb” earlier this week, and said that while he supports the right of all residents to vote in elections, there has been a large and alarming increase over the last three years in absentee voting.

“While ballot harvesting isn’t illegal, we should ask ourselves why this is even happening in the first place and what is at stake,” he said.

McLoughlin said he did not recall any discussion taking place while he was still in office among the trustees or between himself and the mayor related to the appropriateness of opening Village Hall on the weekend to allow residents to pick up absentee ballots.

Warren said that, despite whether he had raised strong objections to it in the past, placing the resolution to open Village Hall on June 10 on the agenda for Tuesday’s emergency meeting was wrong.

“Mr. Preston may be correct about an emergency situation based upon Ocean Rescue,” he said, referring to the village attorney and his assertion that the meeting was in line with Open Meetings Law requirements. “But what is not an emergency is doing a notice so Village Hall can be open on June 10 so that people who do not reside in the village or do not live here Monday through Friday can pick up absentee ballots. That is the furthest thing from an emergency.”

At Stevenson’s suggestion, the board agreed to add the resolution to the agenda for the next meeting, set for June 8, to pass the resolution a second time as extra assurance that they are following proper meetings protocol.

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