As if the proceedings of East Hampton Town’s citizens advisory committees weren’t strange enough much of the time, in recent weeks there has been a fuss over who was to be elected head of the Amagansett committee and, a few days later, a member of one committee asked to be appointed to contemporaneously serve on another one.
The citizens committees are made up of residents selected by the town board as sounding boards for their respective hamlets. They meet monthly, ostensibly to hash out matters of varying importance to neighbors. We can’t help but wonder, though, if these groups of nonelected people truly function as conduits for ordinary residents’ concerns or have become actually dominated by people with personal and/or political agendas.
They were created for a good purpose, of course. In concept, informal conversations among neighbors were to lead to better and more-responsive governance. It just doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. Town board members attend committee meetings and report back on what they hear, but they usually are listening to a self-selected, small subset of any given hamlet’s residents, activists who do not necessarily speak for a majority.
East Hampton Town is not alone; the Bridgehampton citizens group made noises this spring that it might actually sue the Town of Southampton over plans for a CVS pharmacy at a busy Route 27 intersection, obviously a departure from its advisory role. Looking backward, there have been tussles about the use of letterhead to communicate with outside government agencies, improperly going around the town board. In general, the committees seem to be bereft of formal procedure or a clear expression of their missions.
While we are not convinced the time has come to disband the citizens committees, doing so is worth considering. An alternative might be for each hamlet’s designated town board liaison to hold open hours in a library or over coffee in a semipublic place, along perhaps with an associated online chat or email hotline to gauge local concerns. As things have evolved, the give and take during the East Hampton Town Board’s twice-weekly meetings has turned out to be much more of a big-tent forum, where anyone can talk directly to those in authority.
Battles and bickering over who is or is not a leader of one of the citizens committees or over what a committee’s role should be suggest that the current model is not entirely successful. Small changes might do the trick, but it may actually be time to try something altogether new.