East Hampton Town’s elected officials have the misfortune of finding themselves in power as a potentially devastating lawsuit over beach access nears a trial date. Defending a cherished right against a group of determined — and well-financed — vacation-property owners would be a challenge for any administration, but the current difficulty is compounded by the fact that the town Republican Committee has accepted sizable donations from one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit.
Kenneth Silverman of Amagansett and Manhattan gave the East Hampton Town Republican Committee $2,050 as recently as October, well after the suit in which he is an important player came to public attention. (Mr. Silverman also made a $1,000 donation to the Wilkinson for Supervisor campaign in 2007, as did a Catharine Regan, who listed the same Park Avenue address as Mr. Silverman’s, according to the New York Board of Elections.)
During a recent meeting, the town board was challenged on how vigorously it was or was not defending our beach-access rights. After Democrats in attendance characterized the plaintiffs as a group of “thieves and robbers” poised to steal away a cherished common ground, Mr. Silverman defended his motivations. Then, to the surprise of many, the supervisor and board members offered Mr. Silverman lavish apologies for his reputation’s having been thus besmirched.
Civility is always welcome, certainly: The board has been repeatedly criticized in the past for a lack of it when addressing anyone it perceives to be an adversary. So this remarkable solicitude toward an actual, legal adversary raised both eyebrows and questions of partiality.
The Town of East Hampton is a co-defendant, along with the East Hampton Town Trustees, in the lawsuit. No one could argue that Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has been outspoken in the town’s defense; and he named a then-inactive town attorney as its counsel in the matter. This rather watery response is in stark contrast to other high-stakes cases, in which the longstanding policy has been to obtain qualified outside lawyers expert in municipal litigation. As of today, the supervisor has also allowed the cash-strapped town trustees to take the lead in defending against a suit that could be both historic and precedent-setting (and that certainly will be remembered passionately at election time).
Meanwhile, as is its wont, the board has insisted that its work on the matter must be conducted behind closed doors, and it has kept mum on what actions it may have taken. All this is doing nothing to dispel the impression that it is not dedicated to the defense. Mr. Wilkinson, who says he is personally devoted to the principle of beach access for all, has made the right noises about being in it to win it, but any demonstration of that commitment has yet to emerge.
The town board is charged with fighting in our name, with all its strength, to preserve our rights, whatever cordial relationships its members might maintain in either their private or public lives.
The Republican committee needs to dispel the impression, right or wrong, that a warm relationship with one of the plaintiffs is coloring the board’s defense. They should immediately return Mr. Silverman’s donations. And the town board should quickly adopt a resolution proposed by a new group, Citizens for Access Rights, committing the town to fully funding the fight.