Looking at the official Web site of East Hampton Town recently, I was taken aback when I learned that town government has sanctioned 11 appointed boards, 13 advisory boards, and 19 free-standing committees, in other words those not exclusive to town board members. For some reason, the list did not include the village and hamlet citizens advisory committees that have been in a hot spot with Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson lately (although they may have been listed somewhere else on the site that I missed).
So I called Joanne Pilgrim, who has covered town government for The Star for ages, to find out if the committees and boards indicated were active or if any were moribund. Almost every one was bona fide, although a few had broken into two parts and a few had been combined. (Talk about what is called institutional memory: Joanne’s got it for town government.)
Committees often get a bad rap, and I’ve thought myself lucky for being able to avoid them as a writer and editor for this paper. Committee chairs often fill organizational rather than leadership roles, which means issues are batted about endlessly and decisions and calls for action can take eons to reach. People willing to participate for the general good deserve our thanks.
What Supervisor Wilkinson was angry about was the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee’s drawing State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. into an issue rather than doing what, in his opinion, it is supposed to do: gather information and report back to the town board.
Like the Montauk group, several other of the town’s appointed boards (the zoning board of appeals, planning board, and architectural review board, for example) make news on a regular basis. Their decisions weave the fabric of the community or poke holes in it, depending on your point of view. Others, such as the Lake Montauk Watershed Sustainability Committee, are working to solve ongoing environmental problems, while still others, such as the anti-bias task force and board of ethics, function when called upon.
But these quasi-official groups aren’t the half of it. New committees and boards seem to be springing up on a regular basis. If you haven’t been paying attention you may not know about two relatively new citizens organizations that have become active in Springs: Springs Concerned Citizens and Springs Homeowners Alliance. And most of you probably haven’t heard of the newest group in the easternmost hamlet, Montauk Citizens Voice.
There’s no doubt in my mind that citizen participation of this kind is the basis of a healthy civil society. It is burgeoning these days as more residents than in the past — perhaps inspired by political protests around the world, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street movement? — are becoming advocates of change. The clashes here at home have been verbal rather than violent, thank goodness, but I wonder if the range of wildly diverse opinions often made evident will in the end be productive, or if the kind of consensus necessary for communities to come together will be harder and harder to achieve.
In any case, this is civic involvement of which we can all be proud. And I am also proud of The Star’s letters pages, which provide a forum through which opposing factions of involved townspeople can get to know, and perhaps understand, one another a bit better.