Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming’s proposal to keep political party committee officers from simultaneously sitting on the town’s three land use boards was dead in the water Tuesday night, as her fellow board members voted instead to pass a different bill that would limit the number of members of any political party one each board.
The lukewarm response from the public to the new bill, prepared in consensus by all of the board members except Ms. Fleming, did nothing to deter the board majority from voting to approve the change, which would ensure that no more than three members of any political party sit on each seven-member board.
Ms. Fleming’s proposition was shot down by the previous board last fall, but after two new board members were sworn in in January, she brought it back to the table, not expecting at the time that her fellow board members would prepare a different bill.
Southampton attorney John Bennett repeatedly said at Tuesday’s public hearing that, as little as he liked Ms. Fleming’s proposal, he likes the new proposal even less.
“This assumes that Democrats and Republicans have all the time different opinions on land use,” he said. “It’s just silly.”
Dieter von Lehsten, who co-chairs the town’s sustainability committee, said he thought Ms. Fleming’s law stifled freedom of association, but the new proposal might help.
“The second version is a very good idea,” he said. “If there’s no quorum, it might help.”
Julie Penny of Noyac said she preferred Ms. Fleming’s proposal.
“Three from each party? I don’t see it as a workable solution,” she said. “I think Bridget’s bill would be good. People have seen time after time when these boards could have said no to certain things, they said yes.”
Ms. Penny added that she believed the boards often say yes for political reasons, and added that citizens groups don’t have the money to file lawsuits against the land use boards to fight what they believe are bad decisions.
Hampton Bays school board member Rick Joslin said he looks at resumés all the time as a member of the school board, and he believes having a quota based on party affiliation will cause the town to overlook the qualifications of candidates for positions on the boards.
“This could prevent the better qualified person from being appointed,” he said.
Elizabeth McMillan of East Hampton, who said she worked on a video Ms. Fleming made touting her ethics reform, said she had done some research on ethics rules and doubted Ms. Fleming’s law would be effective. She said in neighboring towns that had enacted ethics reforms similar to Ms. Fleming’s proposal, there was no decline in the number of complaints from the public about perceived bias on the boards. She added that party officers who step down to join the land use boards often still continue on as de facto committee heads while serving the town.
She said she was in favor of a law that wouldn’t allow the town board to stack the land use boards with partisans, and she was heartened that the new proposal had bipartisan support.
Gene Polito of Noyac disagreed.
“I think the Fleming resolution is pure common sense,” he said. “To water it down is itself political.”
Town planning board member John Zuccarelli said there had already been two recent reforms to the land use board structure that had done more to curtail political influence than either of the current two proposals. The terms were recently shortened from seven years to four and each board member can now only serve two terms.
“That was a legitimate, non-political action,” he said.
Before the vote on the second bill, Ms. Fleming briefly attempted to force an amendment that would insert the substantive language of her bill into the new bill, but no one else on the board seconded her motion.
“That represents a substantive change to the resolution before us. From an administerial perspective we simply can’t do that,” said Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, adding that Ms. Fleming’s proposed addition was the same language the majority on the board had just voted down.
Ms. Fleming didn’t give up without a fight.
“If the discomfort [with her proposal] is restricting folks’ political participation, isn’t this more of a restriction?” she said of the bill proposed by the majority.
Ms. Throne-Holst disagreed. She said that, because the land use boards have staggered terms, each town board would likely be appointing only two or three members to each board each year. She added that she believes Ms. Fleming’s resolution raises constitutional issues of restricting citizens’ freedom of association.
“I have my very own personal and very legitimate reasons for this,” she said. “I’m not comfortable curtailing anybody’s right of association and involvement in anything civic…. We have an uncomfortable history in this country of restricting the ability of certain individuals under the guise of providing greater freedom for others.”
Councilwoman Christine Scalera, who has said from the beginning that she didn’t like Ms. Fleming’s bill, said so again Tuesday evening.
“The initiation of this was politically motivated. The constitutional issues are still there,” she said. “The initial proposal was baseless. Let’s be clear. It’s saying there is corruption going on because of a person’s political committee position.”
Ms. Scalera added that, while she has heard people say Ms. Fleming’s stand was courageous, “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak and courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Councilman Brad Bender said he spent hours in January looking over the minutes of land use board meetings to assess the performance of individual members of the boards, and the press has applauded the town board for its consensus approach to governing and selecting qualified candidates.
Councilman Stan Glinka said “I’ve never experienced anything involving corruption, and I was born and raised here.”
“I do take a lot of pride in working together,” he added. “This evening we’re all showing the great faith of working together.”
“A lot of people I respect do not respect the decision I’m making tonight,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “I’m making this decision from my heart and my moral code. My responsibility lies to the population as a whole.”
After several minutes of debate with her fellow board members, Ms. Fleming realized she wasn’t going to get them to give an inch on her proposal.
I understand that it has been derailed and I’ll put it to bed,” she said of her proposal.