EDITORIALS: Making the Old New

October 19, 2006

We liked the idea when we first heard of it: East Hampton will use historic buildings to form the core of a new Town Hall. Adelaide de Menil and Ted Carpenter have offered to give the town three houses and an equal number of barns that had been moved to their Further Lane, East Hampton, estate during the 1970s. The property is about to be sold, and Ms. de Menil and Mr. Carpenter have been concerned about the buildings' ultimate disposition.

Town Supervisor Bill McGintee has been working diligently behind the scenes for some time to make the donation work. Staff members at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the group responsible for the tasteful addition at the East Hampton Library, prepared a plan for how the buildings would be used. The proposal was first reported earlier this month as contracts were being finalized.

Arranged around a lobby and central passage, four of the buildings are to replace the existing Town Hall. An 85-seat meeting room will occupy the first floor to the west with a second, 24-seat room to the east, making possible simultaneous meetings that are impossible now. Offices for the town supervisor and two town board members would also be on the first floor, with two more board offices upstairs. Viewed from Pantigo Road, the complex would look like an idealized Northeast farm. The other two structures would be elsewhere on the site. Parking would be in the rear, not visible from the road. The cost remains unknown for the time being. Estimates for moving the houses and barns, and for the heating, lighting, and building of the new town offices that would be built roughly on the site of the existing Town Hall will be forthcoming.

For those employees who have suffered for years in the cramped and slap-dash Town Hall, this is good news. It is also something about which everyone in town will be proud, a fitting reflection of where we live and our history and traditions. We have much to thank Ms. de Menil and Mr. Carpenter for, not the least of which is that they preserved these buildings to begin with. East Hampton may have been a town of distinction before. This will make it only more so.

Full-Time Confusion

The East Hampton Town Trustees have asked the East Hampton Town Board to pay for a new full-time clerk, making the position somewhat parallel to the town supervisor, although at a fraction of the salary, or $36,000. Just what the role of the official would be is cloudy, as is much about the trustees' purview and relationship with other aspects of local government. The notion of a full-time paid clerk may make sense, but there are a lot of questions about it.
Obviously a job description tops the list. However, by whom and how that job is filled are of almost equal importance. As it stands, all of the nine-member trustee board is up for re-election every four years. In the past, this has led to boards that were dominated by a single political party, as choosing among 18 or more candidates at the bottom of the ballot is extremely inefficient. The board that is in place now is balanced, well-constituted, and effective. But such well-composed groups are the exception. We could easily see a scenario in which the paid clerk's appointment could be abused, as it is ripe for political patronage.

Instead, voters should be given the right to decide who will take the helm of the trustees. Residents already select supervisors and mayors in a time-tested system that could be applied here. Frankly, it would be weird for the town board to even take seriously a request to pay for a political appointee that they - and the voters - would essentially have no control over.

Race to the Bottom

Politics is a cynical game, but never more cynical - or more destructive - than when politicians resort to issues of race, gender, or sexuality to gain votes. This election year has been one in which candidates have been increasingly unafraid to play a 21st-century race card, blaming ills, real and imagined, on Latino immigrants. This is divisive and dangerous.
Hate politics has been a constant in recent elections. In many districts across the country in 2004, Congressional Republicans rode a wave of support for anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives in 11 states. Now that gay-baiting is thankfully running out of steam, immigration is the new distraction from the problems that beset this country.

But it would be unfair to assume that Republicans alone are resorting to anti-Latino sentiment. Yes, candidates like Italo Zanzi, a youthful political rookie with little chance of unseating Representative Tim Bishop, the Democratic incumbent in New York's First Congressional District, has made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his effort. But Democrats, too, like County Executive Steve Levy, have unabashedly taken up this demagogic banner.

Mr. Zanzi, whose parents moved to the United States from Chile legally in the early 1970s, has said that he would make illegal immigration his top priority in Congress. He has derided Mr. Bishop's point of view. Perhaps desperate in the face of Mr. Bishop's apparent advantage, or simply taking advice from the Republican National Committee, he also has authorized sharply negative radio advertising that runs the risk of inflaming some listeners' worst instincts. In the ads, a scary-sounding narrator blames high taxes, housing problems, and a deteriorating quality of life, even the safety of citizens, on immigrants.

For his part, Mr. Levy was wrong in successfully pushing this year for a law that will require companies doing business with the county to prove that their employees are in the country legally. Mr. Levy defends the measure as one of fairness for employers who follow federal law, but he ignores its other consequences. In a county that has been the scene of several hideous acts of violence against Latinos - two in East Hampton alone - Mr. Levy should have been more reflective before promoting a bill that could help increase negative attitudes toward Latinos.

There are ways to solve the county's problems - and the nation's - without dividing Americans and giving unintentional encouragement to some citizens who are on the dangerous fringe. We deserve better from our leaders.