Election 2013: The Rule of Law

Far too many questionable things

   In recent editions The Star has suggested priorities that should be on the respective political parties’ wish lists as they narrow their choices for candidates in East Hampton Town’s November election. Last week we said town leaders must show the ability to deal with preparing for climate change; the week before we talked about civility — particularly in Town Hall, which has devolved into a hissing pit of vendetta-nursing and vituperation. Today we consider the rule of law.
    Close readers can hardly have missed the recurring theme at East Hampton Town Hall, which has drifted into something like quasi-legality with Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and his closest ally, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, figuring in far too many questionable things. For too long, perhaps, town residents were willing to give their shenanigans a pass since they were, after all, correcting a mess left by prior Town Supervisor Bill McGintee and feckless town board members, who ran up an unconscionable and huge internal debt by improperly shuffling money among town accounts. Now, however, looking to the future, voters must ask more of the parties and the people they put forward for town office, as well as those who will be named to the town’s zoning, planning, and other appointed boards.
     A couple of examples: From the outset, Mr. Wilkinson’s administration appeared to act outside the law in seeking to sell Fort Pond House in Montauk, despite strict state prohibitions on the casual jettisoning of parkland. Later, the town board approved a giant music festival on residential land in Amagansett with only cursory review and the acquiescence of the top town attorney, who counted the property’s owner among his handful of outside clients.
    This week attention was drawn to a lawsuit brought by an Amagansett property who had sought to overturn a town zoning board rejection but who amazingly won by default when the town failed to answer in court. In a November 2010 decision, the judge in the case wrote that East Hampton Town had “no intention to have the controversy on its merits.” No one has explained how or why the town attorney’s office did not respond, though speculation is spreading that it might have been by design.
    More recently, Mr. Wilkinson gave the go-ahead to several shoreline-protection measures that were outside the scope of his authority. He also appointed to an advisory committee a friend and local contractor who was partly responsible for the largest-ever fine by the tidal wetlands division of the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Lately, too, ordinance enforcers have essentially ignored whole sections of the town code, including those on signs, clearing, and outdoor illumination.
    In terms of land-use regulation, the record has been equally disturbing. The East Hampton Town Board has stood by idly as several major projects successfully evaded proper review. Moreover, in two egregious examples, that of the Dunes substance-abuse center in Northwest Woods and the Beach House hotel-cum-nightclub in Montauk, the supervisor was an early backer despite obvious questions about the projects’ compliance with town law. Then there is the issue of the East Hampton Town Comprehensive Plan and the separate Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, both of which have been routinely laughed off in recent years although they were the result of many hundreds of hours of effort and carry the force of law on matters large and small.
    Lest you think this is but history, next Thursday the town board is to consider changing the zoning of Cyril’s Fish House on Napeague from residential to commercial, even though the comprehensive plan flatly calls for restricting development along Montauk Highway there and one of the two parcels is included on the town’s list of properties eligible for open space preservation.
    Changing course in Town Hall must start at the top. The victorious candidates for town board and supervisor will have their work cut out for them. Well before Nov. 5, however, they must tell voters just exactly how they intend to set things right.