Public Business, Private Process

The implications are huge and deserve close scrutiny

   Rushed to a vote without advance notice, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson tried to ram through a massive reorganization of the Planning Department and other land-use departments last week, including management of the community preservation fund and aquaculture, among others. The effort failed, but the implications, both of the means by which the coup was plotted and what effects it would have had, are huge and deserve close scrutiny.
    What came up for a losing vote at a board meeting on Thursday night had not surfaced in any public form until the day before, when a resolution appeared on the town Web site calling for the reorganization of the Natural Resources Department. In reality, the proposal went much further: It would have reduced the Planning Department to a few senior staffers and shifted permits for building and land development to a new Environmental Protection Department, headed by a recent political appointee.
    On the surface, the move came out of Mr. Wilkinson’s and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley’s often-stated goal to see greater efficiency in the way approvals under the town code are granted. They voted “yes” on the measure Thursday. In concept, such a goal may have merit, but, in practice, there would be much more than efficiency involved.
    Setting aside for a moment whether the proposal has merit, the way in which it was considered prior to being submitted for a town board vote stands in violation of the New York Open Meetings Law, which every municipality must follow. Basically, the law says that nearly everything elected or appointed officials and voting members of any board do or deliberate must be accessible to the public.
    There are several, very strictly limited — if optional — exceptions, notably to protect litigation strategy, the privacy of public employees, and contract negotiations. In those cases, so-called executive sessions are allowed, excluding the public and the press, though even these are subject to carefully described procedures. Perhaps the most important, and frequently overlooked, requirement in the law is that executive sessions must be called during an open meeting and the subject of the closed-door session disclosed in advance. Everything else government boards do must occur at meetings that one and all can attend.
    There can be no winning argument that a massive restructuring of town departments and how applications for various permits are handled are legally a matter for executive session. Such considerations are to be conducted in full view of voters for reasons of common sense as well as the law. Mr. Wilkinson has overreached on both by claiming that the realignment was properly planned in executive session because it involved individual town employees. This is a ploy. Information about the personal qualifications of those who might lead a new agency could be discussed in private, for example, but how the departments would be aligned could not.
    It is deeply concerning that the town’s top attorney, John Jilnicki, who wrote the failed resolution, could go along with this apparent violation of the law. Unfortunately, the state Open Meetings Law is a toothless tiger; no penalties are ascribed for those who knowingly thwart it. Short of getting an injunction after the fact, there really are no effective means to get officials to comply when executive sessions are abused.
    Though remarkably light on details, the proposal, which Mr. Wilkinson introduced for a vote, would have been a dramatic setback for environmental protection in the Town of East Hampton. By cordoning off key members of the Planning Department on these matters, the reorganization would have been likely to speed approvals of questionable building projects by emasculating their review.
    Moreover, by vesting new powers in some of the town’s less-senior staffers, those most at risk of punitive action from elected officials, the plan would have created a system in which political influence could run rampant. There already have been allegations of arm-twisting coming from the top on certain projects; the restructuring would have set that in stone. Mr. Wilkinson, who has boasted, Yoda-like, that he is the most transparent of elected officials, is transparent indeed. But the transparency shines a light on his motives, not on how he chooses to go about them. This measure appears to have come from an intention to help his political sympathizers, never mind that by doing so he would allow East Hampton to be turned into a place most of its residents would detest.
    If the town’s planning and environmental review is to be redesigned, the discussion must take place in public. Many people have expressed frustration with the way in which all but routine applications are handled. Their views — those of builders, architects, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, and the community at large — must all be invited and carefully considered. Solving the problems that arise would take far more than a handful of people in a room operating under an inappropriate and illegal cloak of privacy.