In the waning days of the Wilkinson administration in East Hampton Town Hall we have found ourselves wondering if anything could be done to prevent future town leaders from amassing similarly flawed records. The answer may lie in something other local governments have had for years — an ombudsman whose responsibility is vetting residents’ complaints and weighing in on whether proper procedures are being followed.
Criticism and legal setbacks have beset Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and his two Republican allies almost every time they strayed from what voters first put them in office to do — complete the process of righting the town’s financial ship, which actually began under the authority of the state comptroller’s office before they took office.
Mr. Wilkinson’s two terms have been notable for the number of times officials have ignored zoning and environmental regulations and even the town’s comprehensive plan and waterfront program. They have stood by as businesses have expanded illegally and looked on in approval as commercial uses crept into residential areas. The town board majority also managed to anger Suffolk officials by destroying a parcel of preserved farmland, and they actually encouraged property owners to ignore the law on state coastal permits in at least two instances. Media coverage seemed to have little effect, and public outcry at meetings fell on unheeding ears.
Some have said that hiring a town manager would go a long way toward making local government more professional and rational. Such a post, however, was not likely to have helped during the past four years, when department heads were intimidated by the executive suites and worked in fear of repercussion if they spoke up. Someone outside of the range of fire, who could call the members of future town boards — of any political party — on their missteps might have been the solution.
Key to an ombudsman’s office would be impartiality and independence. A national organization that promotes the idea, the United States Ombudsman Association, describes the role as ideally filled by a person of considerable stature appointed in an apolitical way, with protection from changing electorial winds. An ombudsman would be able to initiate investigations and respond to the public directly, as well as to hire and fire his or her own staff. The office would also have guaranteed access to department records and personnel without interference from members of the town board or others.
An ombudsman would, in short, be a potential nightmare for elected officials, but it could well be just what Town Hall has long needed — a people’s advocate.