Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming was stymied last year by fellow board members in her attempt to keep members of political committees from holding office on the town’s three top land use boards, but this year, with two new faces board, she’s trying her hand again.
On Tuesday night, after hearing more testimony, the town board closed a public hearing on the ethics change that had been held open for several months, and they could vote on Ms. Fleming’s amendment as soon as their Feb. 11 meeting. Members of the public will be able to submit written comment on the changes through Feb. 7.
Comment was mixed at Tuesday’s hearing, with some speakers concerned that the amendment raises First Amendment issues and others believing the change is long overdue. The amendment would prohibit land use board members from serving as officers on political committees, but not from carrying candidate petitions or other political work.
Retired Republican County Court Justice Gary Weber, of Southampton, said the “ordinance raises significant legal issues about the constitutionally protected right of association.”
“Leave these and other such legal questions for the town attorney’s office,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Patrick O’Connor of Shinnecock Hills suggested that Ms. Fleming’s name would likely be invoked as a verb in the future when people describe their rights being taken away in Southampton.
“If this proposal passes, why stop at political associations?” he asked. “Why not include businesses that have fallen out of favor and different races or ethnicities?”
Former Councilwoman Martha Rogers, a Republican, said that candidates she voted to appoint during her tenure on the board all shared “an abiding and deep love of country,” regardless of whether they served on political committees.
“When those committee people take an oath of office, they take that oath of office very seriously,” she said. “If you really feel you can identify a problem, share it with me. Share it with the public. This law would not affect you or anybody you just appointed. It would affect all of us in the future who want to make a difference.”
Maggie Finnerty of Southampton, who had served as an attorney at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., said that every single public employee in Washington is barred by the Hatch Act from participating in political activity while working as a public servant.
“It’s absolutely constitutional,” she said of Ms. Fleming’s amendment, adding that ethics rules like these could prevent situations like the Bridgegate scandal currently facing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
“Join the rest of the East End and avoid this appearance of impropriety,” she said. “Do the right thing here and pass this bill.”
Former Democratic Councilwoman Sally Pope of Remsenburg said there has been a perception in Southampton for decades that residents need to become Republicans in order to be seen favorably by boards that are in charge of zoning and development.
“Power, influence, control and connections. All those things have been and are at work in Southampton,” she said. “Bring in fresh air. Have the courage and willingness to be open.”
Ms. Fleming compared her amendment to the case of a young child telling a naked emperor he was wearing no clothes.
“There’s a perception that there’s an insider’s game,” she said. “People tell me ‘I feel I must conceal my feelings if I want to advance my economic interests in the town. For myself there’s pressure not to do this…. I could say the emperor is naked. There’s a problem in this town. It’s a cry I’ve heard from the public that I’m responding too.”
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, an Independence Party member endorsed by the Democrats, said she had mixed feelings about the amendment.
“There are many comments made tonight that I’m troubled by, and some I agree with,” she said. “I’ve said in the past that I do believe we have an obligation to deal with any matter that deals with perception as much as it deals with reality.”
“The ZBA is a very good example of where we stand in Southampton today,” she added. “Look at the party affiliations on that board. As far as I know, this is as diverse a board as this board has ever been. I think that speaks to that people today do come forward because they believe that they can and should serve and should separate their responsibilities. There may be one or two bad apples, just like there is in every pie you bake.”