Since just about their inception, East Hampton Town’s citizens advisory committees have been a thorn in the side of elected officials. The current sitting town board, at least on the Republican side, is the latest to be vexed by the committees, shuffling liaison assignments and grumbling about a letter sent by the Montauk group. East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson reprimanded the committees collectively in a recent letter, reminding them that they were supposed to be the “eyes and ears” of the town board, not advocacy agencies unto themselves. Mr. Wilkinson is right, of course; town board members are expected to attend their meetings and report back on community concerns.
What has happened to differing degrees is that the groups do what groups will do, that is, become interested in various aspects of life around town and seek to influence outcomes as best they can to suit their views. Often, this comes in the form of their weighing in on land-development debates — as in a recent situation in which the Montauk committee on its own asked State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. for help in regulating chain or “formula” retail stores. It would be difficult to imagine an elected official who did not pitch a snit if an advisory group went above his or her head in this way.
And yet, the frequent occasions when the advisory committees have gone beyond the role of advisers points to an overarching problem, that the present town board — as well as the planning, zoning, and architectural review boards — and those in the past have failed to be sufficiently responsive to or aware of neighborhood concerns. In fact, unlike some parts of Town Hall, which are more or less beholden to their financial and ideological supporters, the citizens committees have been profoundly democratic and egalitarian, settings where ordinary people, not business voices and political party hacks, can lead the conversation. The rise of the citizens committees can also be seen as a failing of the town boards historically to pay attention to ordinary people and what they care about. The Montauk group, for example, would not have had to send a copy of its letter about formula stores to Mr. Thiele had its members thought the town board would take up the issue without some prodding from above.
For some time it has seemed to us that the citizens committees might better strike out as independent entities. This may be the moment when it would be better for the town as a whole if each hamlet had its own, unfettered advocate. Failing that, the town board should pay them a lot more respect.