The Star suggested last week that an ombudsman (or woman) — independent, forthright, and tough — might well be worth considering for an East Hampton Town government that has suffered from inappropriate or incompetent leadership for nearly a decade. That observation was made before county officials delivered a stunning repudiation last week of a Town Hall plan to create a new high-density housing zone for wealthy, over-50 residents and to apply it to a site in Amagansett.
A vote against the plan by the Suffolk Planning Commission was not even close. Despite an inexplicable recommendation in favor of the rezoning from county staff, commission members voted against it, 11 to 2. They cited four key problems: the lack of affordable housing, the loss of agricultural soils, nonexistant environmental review, and the contradiction of the town’s own comprehensive plan. A hearing next Thursday in Town Hall on the matter should not have been scheduled in the first place, as the commission’s observations were not unique. Whether a town ombudsman could have headed off this mess is hard to say, but at least the plan’s consistency with local law would have been addressed.
Dating back to Supervisor Bill McGintee’s financial crisis, there has been a sense that an amateur town board has been operating without a net, so to speak, and in the absence of confident and thorough review. Advice from the town attorney’s office is affected by the fact that the staff serves in appointed positions, which are hardly independent. Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s tenure has been no better than his predecessor’s, and, in terms of zoning law, illegal commercial expansion, and neighborhood degradation, the damage may well prove far more persistent.
Complacency may be a risk as Larry Cantwell takes over as town supervisor with a well-qualified board of equals, including the soon-to-be-former town clerk, Fred Overton. One has the sense, based on Mr. Cantwell’s long and unblemished public service in East Hampton Village, that a new professionalism will rule the day on Pantigo Road. The danger will be in the years to come, after Mr. Cantwell moves on. Having seen the last two deeply troubled town administrations, voters would do well to press for structural changes in town government that would help prevent future debacles. This should be a first-year priority for the new administration.