November 29, 2010
There has been a flurry of editorials, articles, and letters on the issue of “walk-on” resolutions. Most discussions have been concerned with the problems these resolutions cause board members. But one problem that has not been sufficiently stressed is that the public has a right to know the actions that are being considered by the town board.
Even a citizen who watches all the town board work sessions cannot anticipate what resolutions may come up for a vote. Many town board policies are discussed only in non-public executive session, and these policies are often first seen when presented within a resolution. Some resolutions have only been discussed in the even more private setting of a Republican caucus that includes only two or three members of the board.
Thus, the public’s knowledge is dependent on the agenda that is posted on the town clerk’s Web site. Resolutions that are not on the posted agenda cannot receive a citizen’s informed comments prior to a vote. Some of these resolutions have been controversial.
There were at least two last-minute resolutions on the night of Oct. 21 that I would have commented on. One resolution called for spending up to $15,000 to hire an outside professional to audit the Human Services Department. There is no legal requirement or any stated accounting need that warrants hiring an outside professional.
If the board suspects that the books of that department are out of order, the obvious person to do the research would be Charlene Kagel, the certified professional auditor that the town has hired on a part-time basis for special projects. She is paid $40 an hour while outside accountants will likely charge around $160 an hour. Using Ms. Kagel and other town employees should bring the cost down below $4,000. Another advantage of using our own personnel is that they can control the scope, and the cost, of the analysis as they go along.
The other resolution to which I would have added my comments was the one that hired the attorney, David Eagan, as an outside professional. Mr. Eagan was hired to assist the town in the lawsuit that claims that the town does not have the legal authority to sell Fort Pond House in Montauk. The main thrust of my objection to hiring Mr. Eagan is that the town may run up a steep legal bill in the tens of thousands of dollars, win the lawsuit, and then never sell the property. The money spent will have been wasted. There are also secondary consequences if the town loses the lawsuit.
For argument’s sake, let us assume the town wins the right to sell Fort Pond House. What has the town really won? The town gets to try to sell the property into a very poor real estate market. And, if the town does find an acceptable buyer, the people who oppose the sale have the right to block it by forcing a permissive referendum. In that case, a few hundred signatures on a petition force the town to ask all the registered voters to decide if the property should be sold or not. By the time the referendum occurs, there may be a new make-up on the town board, one that might oppose selling the property. Also, it is unlikely that the town will find a buyer who will both pay a fair market price and be willing to wait a year or more before he or she even knows if the sale can occur.
Now, let us assume that the town loses the lawsuit. If the judge’s decision is broad it could pertain to many parcels that the town is considering for sale. Thus, the loss of this case could dramatically reduce the town’s ability to sell other real assets.
Had I known that this resolution was coming up for a vote, I would have advised the board to replace lawsuits with dialogue between the board and the individuals and organizations who oppose the sale. That was the actual request of the Group for the East End when it presented its opposition to the sale at a public discussion. The discussions could look at all the properties that the town might sell. That way the town would receive some obviously needed advice on what properties the town’s citizens most and least care about owning, along with a reduction in political opposition to those properties chosen for possible sale.