In the last several weeks, The Star has begun offering a laundry list of some of the qualifications candidates for East Hampton Town office must have to merit serious consideration in the November election. Our previous calls were for bringing civility back to Town Hall, demonstrating the vision to take on climate change, and, in general, restoring the rule of law.
Here is another: The candidates and the parties that back them must demonstrate willingness to allow town employees to do their jobs free of political interference. To do this, the next town board will have to do some rethinking.
Ideally, local governments in New York State are supposed to be set up with an elected board and a separate staff. The board sets policy by passing laws and appropriating money; the staff carries out its work as described in local laws. In the Town of East Hampton in recent years, however, the line has become blurred. One top town department official said recently that she had “five bosses,” meaning the five-person town board rather than the 20,000-something town residents.
There are stories of board members marching into the Building Department to tell the inspectors how to rule on one application or another. Then there was the time when Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigsley plunked themselves down in the front row at a planning board meeting and then got into a tiff with several of its members over procedure. The message in that instance, and in many others, was clear: Do things our way.
Curing the ills in East Hampton Town Hall will take confident leadership. Key among necessary reforms will be cultivating an independent town attorney’s office whose staff has the clear mission of providing the best legal advice to all town departments. Instead, since the resignation of Laura Molinari, in 2008 during the early days of the McGintee administration financial scandal, the attorney’s office has drifted. It seemed to be scrambling to provide cover for the supervisor and his dwindling supporters’ questionable pet projects.
A strong legal department made up of staff whose careers are not on the line if they cross an elected official is essential. Providing oversight to the Building Department, on whose sometimes seat-of-the-pants rulings millions of dollars can rest, will go a long way toward avoiding many of the legal quagmires that have been in the news.
Also key will be taking on the two-men-in-a-room nature of budget preparation. Town residents saw how bad things could become when Bill McGintee’s budget officer, Ted Hults, improperly moved money around to cover gaps, which led to expensive deficit-financing through bonds and state supervision of the town’s books. Rather than adopt a stronger system of checks and balances, however, the town during the Wilkinson administration moved to hand more authority to the budget officer — whose job as a political appointee is at the pleasure of the town board majority at all times. Contrast this with the way school boards are required to hold public work sessions in creating budgets and ultimately to take them to voters for approval.
These town governance problems are not new. One solution suggested has been to create a town manager’s post. We are hesitant to support this, as it could consolidate power and put residents at a greater remove from government. Instead, at least for the foreseeable future, the town’s generally fine department heads should be allowed to do their jobs, hewing to the town code with the community’s best interests as their guide.