Among the implications of East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s apparent failure to summarily reorganize the Planning and Natural Resources Departments is that he might now reconsider how to move the business of government forward and avoid looming stalemates.
The ill-starred initiative would have created a new town division to handle most environmental permitting, land purchases, and even to run the town’s shellfish hatchery. It was never discussed in public, though closed-door conversations were apparently held in violation of state open-meetings law. The measure appeared at the 11th hour on the June 7 town board agenda with no prior notice or informed consideration by stakeholders. Efforts to talk about it were huffily dismissed. This is unfortunately one of a fistful of examples of what is increasingly becoming a nonfunctional legislative process that excludes residents as well as other town board members.
Following the January swearing-in of two invigorated Democrats, town board meetings have devolved into grudge matches. Mr. Wilkinson and his key ally, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, both Republicans, repeatedly react in anger to what they perceive as obstructions to anything they propose. The pattern is as pervasive as it is dismaying.
Because of this climate of intransigence, the town board is nearing deadlock on a host of important issues. These include deer management, revisions to expiring outdoor-lighting rules, and wastewater management. A case in point: After being thwarted in their decision to sell off the town’s septic treatment plant, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley simply refused to talk about the plant anymore, taking themselves out of the process and boycotting a public forum on the matter. This brings to mind the classic “Peanuts” situation in which Lucy, irritated for one reason or another by Charlie Brown, grabs her football and stalks off.
On reorganizing the town’s planning and natural resource protections, questions from the board’s three more measured members about what impact the changes would have were deflected. Yet last week, Ms. Quigley brought it up again as if to say, “Are we going to do this, or what?” The answer was still no, at least until the matter could be more fully understood. Thinking back to the Ronjo motel alley debacle earlier this year, had the sale of the town’s right of way there been publicly discussed before it sprang fully formed from the supervisor’s office suite, much of the subsequent ill will — and litigation — might have been avoided.
Then this week, anger roiled Town Hall after a questionnaire was circulated apparently at Mr. Wilkinson’s behest but without board discussion that sought anonymous opinions about the town Information Technology Department. The missive followed a failed effort to outsource the department’s functions to a private bidder. The motive, according to Town Hall insiders, is political payback because the I.T. Department staff happens to be active in the local municipal union. This, like other matters, should have been the subject of involvement of the full board.
What emerges from the smoke from all these smoldering fires is a sense that reasonable, deliberative, and open government is being sacrificed to Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley’s preference for keeping anything that might prove problematic under their sole control. The three other board members, Dominick Stanzione, Peter Van Scoyoc, and Sylvia Overby, must stick to their principles and insist on comprehensive review of proposals and public involvement. For any initiative to be successful, town leaders must work together.