Getting Serious On Enforcement

The problem has been that the Ordinance Enforcement Department has proven not to be up to the task

A lot has been heard at East Hampton Town Hall meetings lately about adding to local laws to meet a new, more complicated reality, but not enough attention has been given to the lapses among those who are supposed to see that existing rules are enforced. That appears to be changing. In a hearing this evening, the town board will take public opinion on expanding the roster of those who can, in some cases, issue summonses for violations and stop-work orders.

The problem has been that the Ordinance Enforcement Department, whose chief, Betsy Bambrick, doubles as the town’s lead animal control officer, has proven not to be up to the task or perhaps is just unwilling to do the job for some reason. Under her lax leadership, obvious violations, including some that are simple to deal with, have not been corrected. A shared sense is that, dating back some years, she and her subordinates have responded only to complaints from the public; they do not look for potential violations and, what’s worse, they flat-out ignore even those in front of their noses. Some of this may be the result of do-nothing pressure during the Wilkinson-Quigley years, but, to be fair, complaints about enforcement go back at least to the 1990s.

This is not to say that the town code is adequate in all respects. Many of its key quality-of-life provisions are outdated or contradictory or both. Consider one example in the news this week, that of short-term rentals, on which the law is entirely inadequate. On the one hand, East Hampton property owners are forbidden from renting out their houses for fewer than 14 days more than twice in any six-month period. On the other hand, it is perfectly okay with officials for the house right next door to yours to be turned into a de facto bed-and-breakfast, accommodating scores of guests a year so long as it has no more than two guest rooms. None of it makes any sense. And forget about the proliferation of illegal group rentals; the law — and enforcement — has proven nearly hopeless in this regard.

We expect the main outcome of this evening’s hearing will be that the director of public safety, David Betts, is added to those able to issue tickets for alleged violators to appear in court. Mr. Betts came to the post by way of Southampton, where, as the chief investigator in its code enforcement division, he earned a reputation for action. To cite one instance, he aggressively went after a party-house promoter in Southampton while at the same time his East Hampton colleagues failed to prosecute the same person for essentially the same offense in their jurisdiction and instead issued a citation to one of his victims.

Giving Mr. Betts and his eventual successors in East Hampton Town the tools to do the job will go a long way toward signaling that the town means business on local laws. Adding him to the list of enforcers should also send a signal to those who have been letting violators go unpunished that they should step it up or start polishing their résumés.