Southampton ethics debate stymied
Two weeks ago, Democratic Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming proposed the town consider not letting members of political committees hold appointed offices within town government. Three other board members — Christine Scalera and Chris Nuzzi, who are both Republicans and Jim Malone, who is a Conservative — quietly voted her motion down without any commentary or debate among board members.
But this Tuesday, active Democrats throughout town cried foul during the open session of the town board’s meeting, while the board members who voted the proposal down said they thought the proposal shouldn’t be considered during the election season.
“I’m not sorry that I did it. I felt this was an opportunity to just grab a headline in the middle of the election season. I don’t have a problem with the public discourse. I think that I’ve been clear,” said Ms. Scalera. She said she believed the issue should be addressed during the town’s January reorganization meeting.
None of the three board members who voted down the proposal are running for election this year, and neither is Ms. Fleming.
“When is a good time?” asked Bruce King of Hampton Bays, who said that at one time it was seen as a given that people had to be involved in a political party to get anything done in Southampton.
“The town is moving away from that and thank god for that,” he said. “Get rid of the problem so nobody has any concern. I don’t know whether we’re going to have an open discussion or not… Do it. That’s all. See where it goes from there.”
Ms. Fleming said her proposal grew out of her ongoing work looking into making sure Southampton’s ethics policies are up-to-date, and added that both Southold and East Hampton prohibit party officers from serving on appointed boards. [Riverhead is just getting around to debating whether party officials should serve in elected positions, but that’s another matter] She said it came to her attention in her research that 11 of the 21 members of the town’s land use-related boards, which she said wield outsized influence in towns with high land values, are political party officers.
“The intent is a continuation of the ethics reforms that we started several months ago with the police reform,” she said. “You could be a registered whatever, could raise or donate money, and openly support candidates, you just couldn’t be a member of the committee. It creates a circle of influence that’s just not healthy in good government terms.”
“It reduce the opportunities for corruption inherent in dual office holding,” she added.
“Bridget, the inferences you are drawing are absolutely unfair,” said Mr. Nuzzi. “I think it’s absolutely disingenuous.”
Former Democratic town board member Sally Pope said she thought the board should have the discussion.
“It is important. I am really struck by the fact that this motion for public hearing and public discussion was struck down by three members of the town board who thought it was the wrong time to have the discussion,” she said.
“I am not fearful,” said Ms. Scalera.
“It sounded like it,” said Ms. Pope. “Why would someone not want this to be a public discussion? Why would they say this was the wrong time?”
George Lynch of Quiogue, who serves as treasurer of the town’s Democratic Committee, said that he thought voting to deny a public hearing “almost never happens. Perhaps it never happens.”
“It was a very, very bad deed. It was a shocking, indefensible defense against proper democratic procedure,” he said. “I knew what was going on with these three boards. I wasn’t too troubled by it. I figured, ok, what can you expect… But to see what the three of you were willing to risk by trampling on proper procedure, I’m wondering if it isn’t a bigger deal than I thought. When I see how far you’re willling to go to protect this arrangement, I wonder if there isn’t something really bad going on.”
Mr. Nuzzi chastised Mr. Lynch for not mentioning that he was a Democratic Party officer before making his remarks.
“How is that relevant to denying people the ability to speak?” asked Mr. Lynch.
“What are you thinking? Did you think we wouldn’t notice and did you think we wouldn’t care?” asked Nancy Mullan of Quogue, who sits on the town’s Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, of the board members who voted down the proposal.
Anti-Bias Task Force Co-Chair Dianne Rulnick of Water Mill agreed.
“I ask you to govern. I vote for you to govern,” she said, adding that Mr. Nuzzi had denied her a non-partisan voter registration booth at the San Gennaro Feast in Hampton Bays last weekend, but Republican Town Board candidate Stan Glinka had a campaign sign at the entrance to the fair.
“I am very upset,” she said. “I think it was brought up because it’s an ongoing problem. Four years ago, we had a planning board of seven [members] and it was brought up that it should be reduced to five. It was viewed that the two Democratic and least senior people on the board — Jacqui Lofaro and Alma Hyman — if it had been reduced to five, they would have been eliminated and it would be 100 percent Republican, as it has been dominated for years.”
Maggie Finnerty of Southampton said she remembered a time when elected officials didn’t vote in lockstep along party lines, but she said things have changed across the nation.
“I have some conflict about this,” she said. “People who are very active in parties are extremely active in communities, but after we’ve seen what happens here sometimes and what happens in Washington, we have to separate the party thing from what we actually do in government. I would at least like a public hearing on this.”
“If we don’t have an obligation to increase peoples’ confidence in government, who does?” said Ms. Fleming, to a smattering of applause from the audience. “There are many people in the Town of Southampton who feel that this is not right. This is not good government to have this inside baseball feeling to government.”
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, the only board member currently running for office, sat quietly through the whole debate, before saying that she would like to at least have the public hearing, instead of having members of the public speak in open session when their comments aren’t on the record. She said she would like it to happen before this January’s reorganization meeting, so that the board can use it as a guide when appointing new board members at that meeting.
Ms. Fleming said she intends to keep introducing the proposal until the board agrees to hold a public hearing. Her resolution is available online here.