Planning Department Overhaul Deadlocked

Opponents cite lack of public review for reorganization of town's environmental review

    A proposed reorganization that would place four branches of town government under the supervision of one new Environmental Protection Department led by Kim Shaw, the recently appointed director of natural resources, failed to pass muster at a meeting of the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday night, when Supervisor Bill Wilkinson brought it up for a vote.
    The measure, which appeared on the agenda just hours before the meeting  without the board’s having discussed it in public, was supported by Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, a Republican who is Mr. Wilkinson’s deputy supervisor, but was voted down by the Democratic board members, Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc.
    Councilman Dominick Stanzione, elected with Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley on the Republican slate, was not present for the vote, but said on Tuesday that “it’s an important reform” which he would support, though not before further review of the details.
    The four agencies involved are the Aquaculture Department, the community preservation fund office, and a to-be-created “environmental protection unit” and “natural resource reviews group.” The proposal, which would shift responsibility for “natural resource reviews” from the Planning Department and transfer several planning staffers into the new units, made waves, particularly among Democrats who feared it was a move by its two Republican supporters to weaken environmental protections. Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley have often characterized the process of obtaining approvals for development as onerous.
    Pressed for details of the proposal last Thursday night, the supervisor said the Planning Department would be asked to focus on long-range planning issues, and that its staff would continue to include Marguerite Wolffsohn, the director, JoAnn Pahwul, the assistant director, Brian Frank, the chief environmental analyst, Eric Schantz, a planner, one aide, two clerk-typists, and a secretary.
    The proposed resolution states that placing “the activities of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources, Aquaculture, and Community Preservation” under Ms. Shaw’s leadership would allow “environmental issues, one of the town’s top priorities, to be addressed in a focused, cohesive and comprehensive manner.”
    Three Planning Department staffers, Joel Halsey, Lisa D’Andrea, and Tyler Borsack, would be reassigned to the “natural resource reviews group,” under Ms. Shaw. “As a result of this reorganization,” the resolution says, “the Planning Department will no longer be responsible for natural resource reviews.”
    The “environmental protection unit” would include Mark Abramson, a senior environmental analyst, and a senior clerk typist.  
    The Aquaculture and Land Acquisition and Management Departments, with staff intact, would also go under Ms. Shaw’s umbrella, according to the proposal. Bill Taylor, whose title is waterways management specialist, would be transferred to the Harbors and Docks Department, reporting to Ed Michels, the senior harbormaster.
    “Other than that, nothing’s changing,” Councilwoman Quigley said on Tuesday. “There’s no proposal that anybody’s job duties change. There’s nobody terminated. The proposition is moving three people who do natural resources, into Natural Resources.”
    The lack of prior public discussion has raised fears, particularly among Democrats, that the reorganization was less about increasing efficiency and more about weakening environmental protections.
    At last Thursday’s meeting Betty Mazur, a member of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, stood up “to express my dismay,” she said, that “this resolution to consider major environmental reorganization and restructuring of the town’s environmental agencies, including the Planning Department, was not discussed in public.”
    “This is such an important issue for this town,” she said. “It harkens back to other attempts to do major restructuring of this vital area of the town’s planning and protection, that it makes me a little nervous that the board is presenting such a resolution tonight with the expectation, I assume, to vote on it without the proper public discussion and information.”
    “I cannot stress enough that . . . the restructuring of our planning and zoning departments, and environmental protection, should be discussed in public,” Deb Foster, a former town board member, said. “This might be a great idea, but our history here has been fraught with disaster.” She recalled when, in 1983, a Republican-controlled  town board abolished the Planning Department. “Frankly, there has been a history of some members of this board, of conflict with the Planning Department. We want to hear discussion as to why this is going on, and how it will go on,” Ms. Foster said.
    “There have been discussions,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Publicly?” Ms. Foster asked. “No, not publicly,” said Mr. Wilkinson, citing his “35 years of organization expertise.”
    “You’re not in a corporation anymore,” Ms. Foster responded. “You’re a public servant.”
    “Don’t tell me what I am,” the supervisor replied. “This thing has been discussed internally since January,” he continued. “I am not going to recommend that every organizational change be exposed to a public hearing; I’m not going to do that.”
    Councilman Van Scoyoc acknowledged that the board had discussed the changes to personnel assignments in executive sessions, but Ms. Foster asserted that, according to the state Sunshine Law, “executive session is not for reorganization; it is for individual performance.”
    “It is if there are names involved, and they are yet to be released,” said Mr. Wilkinson.
    Job Potter, another former Democratic board member, also weighed in on the issue. “Clearly . . . individual people, when their names are being used and their job performance is being discussed, that deserves to be in executive session.”
    But, the former councilman said, “I think that any discussion of creating new departments or merging departments is clearly not executive session material, and that if new departments are being created or bundled together, it really does deserve an open discussion.”
    “Could you just explain what’s going on?” he asked.
    In comments that evening, and at the board’s work session on Tuesday, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley cast the measure as primarily a reorganization of the Natural Resources Department under its new leader, after the retirement of its longtime director Larry Penny. All the board members have expressed great confidence in Ms. Shaw.
    “We wanted to ensure that two things be accomplished,” Mr. Wilkinson said last Thursday. “That we retain the viability and vitality of our aquifers. We always push natural resources.”
    “We wanted to do, at the same time, ‘one-stop shopping’ for natural resources. . . . So we started trying to figure out what was under that umbrella. At the same time, I wanted to have the Planning Department take a different focus. I wanted the Planning Department to start planning. I wanted the Planning Department to look 5 and 10 years out for this town. We’ve done a wonderful job in planning for land acquisition and land management, but I wanted us to start looking at short-term . . . and on to 15 years of strategic planning.”
    Planning efforts should focus, the supervisor said, on infrastructure, septic-waste management, cell towers, and solar energy, as well as “things like highway — how many miles of highway can we bring into the system [and] whether it has to do with recreational fields or whatever.”
    “We haven’t done that,” he said.  “The [comprehensive] plan is one thing, but we really have to look at legitimate tight plans, long-range plans.”
    “There are a number of aspects to this reorganization that I support,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said last Thursday, but also a “couple of problems. But by and large I think that the move is a positive one.”
    One issue, he said, is the “inherent conflict” of having an agency whose decisions could affect a property’s value under the same arm as an agency that might seek to purchase such properties using the community preservation fund.
    “I think we should do everything we can to not have the appearance of impropriety,” Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said when Mr. Van Scoyoc raised the same issue on Tuesday. But Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson said they saw no problem. “I don’t see the conflict,” Ms. Quigley told Mr. Van Scoyoc. “Why don’t we keep every single person separate from everyone else? Then we’ll never have an appearance of conflict.”
    Ms. Overby also said Tuesday that, while she might not disagree with some of the shifts proposed, certain responsibilities  are ascribed to the Planning Department by the town code, and that revising those assignments would require a public hearing before changing the code.
    The duties of the new proposed “environmental protection unit,” and the “environmental resources review group,” should be defined, Ms. Overby added.
    As they had last Thursday, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley cited less far-reaching changes made by the prior, Democratic administration, that assigned some of the Natural Resources Department’s duties to the Planning Department, and shifted staffers from one department to the other.