Troubling Allegations

The law, to have any value, must protect the rights of all, including those for whom others may have animosity

   The portrait of East Hampton Town painted in a new lawsuit is sharply unflattering — and may ring familiar among those who have been close observers over the last few years. A 2009 decision by the East Hampton Town Board to shut down an auto repair business in a Montauk residential neighborhood is at the center of the case. The suit alleges that the way in which a plan was approved to seize vehicles and tools belonging to the business owner, Tom Ferreira, deprived him of due process in the courts and demonstrated a willful ignorance of state law.
    All of the town board members who agreed to hire a waste-removal firm to remove Mr. Ferreira’s things — without a warrant — from the Navy Road property are from a prior administration. They are named in the lawsuit, as is John Jilnicki, the top East Hampton Town attorney then and now, as well as an ordinance enforcement officer, and a town police lieutenant, who are also still on the job. If the allegations are correct, they will have a lot to answer for.
    For some of Mr. Ferreira’s neighbors, the repair shop at the edge of Fort Pond Bay was an eyesore and an aggravation. But, as vexing as the operation may have been, especially to some who may have been concerned about the value of their nearby properties, it apparently was legal.
    According to a draft of the suit, which was to be filed today, Mr. Jilnicki was present as the town board conducted an illegal, closed-door meeting that resulted in the June 2009 seizure. As a result of decisions made at the improperly called executive session, the suit alleges, the town board, led by then-Supervisor Bill McGintee, took the role of judge and jury, violating the United States Constitution’s prohibiting of nonjudicial officials acting in lieu of the courts. The suit also alleges that the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, guaranteeing protection from unreasonable search and seizure and assuring due process, were violated. Taking part in the 2009 session, according to the draft, were Pat Mansir, Brad Loewen, Julia Prince, and Pete Hammerle, members of the town board, as well as a now former town lawyer, Madeleine Narvilas.
    Among those harboring resentment against Mr. Ferreira, the draft alleges, were Lisa Grenci, then the vice chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee and head of the Montauk citizens advisory committee and on the town litter committees. Mr. McGintee, along with three of the four other members of the board, had won election as Democrats. Ms. Grenci’s husband, Thomas Grenci, a town police lieutenant, also is named in the suit, as are several people who no longer work for the town.
    According to the allegations, Mr. Jilnicki and Ms. Narvilas failed to tell the town board about what might have been exculpatory evidence and tried to strong-arm a town fire marshal into altering a report in order to build a case against Mr. Ferreira. Further, the suit alleges, Kenneth Glogg, a town enforcement officer who had cited Mr. Ferreira multiple times in 2008 and 2009, did not have proper authorization to do so under state law.
    In a key statement, the draft alleges that Mr. Jilnicki and Ms. Narvilas “used their dual role as criminal prosecutor in the East Hampton Town Justice Courts and as civil attorney for the town to extort affirmative action” by Mr. Ferreira before allowing his case to reach a judicial conclusion. The suit says that when he refused to agree to the terms they sought, they told the board it was appropriate to seize his property — reportedly worth nearly $100,000 in all — wrongly characterizing it as “litter.” The courts will now decide whether the town’s allegedly warrantless and extra-judicial response was justified.
    The law, to have any value, must protect the rights of all, including those for whom others may have animosity. If the suit’s claims hold up, it is deeply disappointing that the town’s top lawyer was embroiled in what appears to be a case of one branch of government overreaching its authority.