East Hampton Councilwoman Theresa Quigley was wandering the hallway outside the town board room Tuesday yelling about allegations of her “reign of terror” over the town. There were rumors and innuendo in emails about attorneys general looking into the Republican board members’ decision to hold public hearings on zoning changes right before they leave office at the end of December. There was yelling and bickering, name-calling and awkward silence. And there was a promise by Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson that the town is going to “implode on its own” when Democrats take control of the board come January.
It was just like a typical work session for this dysfunctional board, with the ante upped a couple notches.
With 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy to see how East Hampton could have come to this point. In this solidly Democratic town, three Republican political neophytes —Mr. Wilkinson and his running mates, Dominick Stanzione and Theresa Quigley — might not have been elected on a reformist platform four years ago if their predecessor, former Democratic Supervisor Bill McGintee, hadn’t left the town in a financial shambles.
But straight out the gate, Mr. Wilkinson’s management style, honed in the corporate world as a Vice President at Disney, rubbed East Hampton the wrong way. Throughout his tenure, there was never an agenda available before work session meetings, leaving the public with no idea whether an issue they cared about was going to be discussed. Every action he took behind closed doors, no matter how small, was seen as a violation of public trust. When confronted, he immediately became defensive, saying that what he was doing was in the best interest of the town. While that may have been the case, his defensiveness did little to instill confidence in his leadership.
Ms. Quigley, for her part, seemed to descend into paranoia at every perceived attack from Democrats, claiming to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy when, she said, she was just trying to do the right thing for hard-working people in East Hampton.
Mr. Stanzione combined easy affability and his role in public service — he drives an ambulance for the Amagansett Fire Department and helped set up the Amagansett food pantry — with a businessman’s hand of cards played close to his chest. There were a few things that he believed in, and there was no room to give on those things. Back when he started on the board in 2009, he told me he was excited to learn more about aviation as the town board’s liaison to the airport. In the end, his enthusiasm for that airport cost him this month’s election.
Early on, Mr. Wilkinson and his running mates pointed to their overwhelming 2009 victory as a mandate from the people to change the way things were done, despite massive protests as they began to slash the town budget after they inherited a $27 million deficit from Mr. McGintee. By the 2011 elections, that mandate had all but disappeared, when Mr. Wilkinson won re-election by a mere 15 votes.
Enter new council members Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, who were elected in 2011. Ms. Overby, a longtime bigwig in the town’s Democratic Party, seemed to the Wilkinson administration to embody all that Mr. McGintee had ruined about East Hampton. Mr. Van Scoyoc, a mild-mannered, guitar-playing carpenter with common sense ideas, seems to have a bottomless capability to sit and listen to shrill attacks from Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson, waiting down the clock until the board majority turns in his favor.
Mr. Van Scoyoc told Mr. Wilkinson on Tuesday that he thinks the supervisor only speaks with him when he’s angry with him. Mr. Wilkinson said he’s not angry with Mr. Van Scoyoc. He’s compassionate.
“I know you’re compassionate, Bill. I appreciate that,” Mr. Van Scoyoc deadpanned at Tuesday’s meeting. It could have been the statement of a dog who’d been kicked to the ground, or it could have been the statement of a sly fox. Your perspective on that probably depends on the side of the aisle on which you sit.
After four years of making unpopular decisions, Mr. Wilkinson said Tuesday that he didn’t run again this year because “it’s not my forte.” He’s right.
At one point in Tuesday’s work session, while the board was holding a typically dysfunctional debate over how much money to include in next year’s budget for health care costs, Ms. Quigley just plain lost it. She and Mr. Wilkinson wanted to budget for a 5 percent increase, due to new guidance from the New York State insurance plan that costs might not go up as much as the town had originally budgeted for, but Mr. Van Scoyoc suggested they leave the increase in the budget at 10 percent, as Mr. Wilkinson had originally proposed.
“I can’t take it. I don’t live in this world of circular talk…It’s really at the point of insanity,” she said, getting up from her chair, yelling and gesturing wildly at the board. “What the F is going on in this town. I’m so sick to death of the political posturing in this town.”
“Attorney general…f*&$!” she said as she stormed off the podium, through the audience and out to the hall. “Political games, posturing, ranting, circular reasoning, talking for the sake of talking, good god. Attorney general, god damn man, over a public hearing. You people are so political.”
“This is about your reign of terror,” said Mr. Wilkinson, sarcastically.
“My reign of terror? My reign of terror?” she yelled as she paced through town hall.
Mr. Wilkinson called for the board to recess until Ms. Quigley regained her composure. After they came back, he explained what was going on. It seems since the Republicans on the town board voted two weeks ago to hold hearings on potential zoning changes which, if approved, would pave the way for more development, they’ve been receiving all sorts of hate mail. The hearings will be held Dec. 19.
“We’re big people. We can take it as it comes,” said Mr. Wilkinson, who began reading some of the letters and emails his board has received or been made privy to in the past two weeks, including ones describing their board’s tenure as a “reign of terror,” saying “those three are bastards,” “it’s time to get the dirt out on Dominick Stanzione,” accusing the board members of having a financial interest in the zoning changes and a letter to Ms. Quigley’s sister that stated that the erratic behavior of the Republicans since the election earlier this month has attracted the national media and the attorney general.
“Bring it on. Bring on all the investigations you want,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “The Attorney General of the United States? Scheiderman? Bring it on. Stop hiding behind your emails and tweets.”
“Can anybody tell me what is biased about a public hearing?” he added. “You have 300 or so people and you have no idea of what’s going to come out of their mouths? What’s so inappropriate about listening to the people of the town? There’s a lot of bad going on here. You people better address it quickly or it’s going to implode on your own. It’s absolutely disgusting what’s going on here.”
The board did pass the $69.4 million 2014 budget in a 3-2 vote, with the 5 percent increase for health insurance costs. The Republicans voted for it and the Democrats voted against it.