Petitions calling for East Hampton Town to put a proposed sale of a Montauk alleyway to a townwide vote were declared invalid last week by Fred Overton, the town clerk, prompting a lawsuit by a group that helped collect the 644 voters’ signatures.
The $35,000 sale of a portion of a public alley that bisects the old Ronjo motel property downtown was approved by the town board’s Republican majority last month, over the objections of the Democratic minority members, who said the land should first be appraised, and that consideration should be given to whether public access to the area should be retained.
In a presentation to the town board last Thursday, Mr. Overton cited flaws in the petitions, such as the omission of required wording, which invalidated all of the signatures. He said there were other failings, such as 170 signatures not accompanied by a complete address and 40 signatures by people not registered to vote.
An Article 78 lawsuit that was filed in State Supreme Court on Tuesday not only contests the requirement that a certain phrase appear on the petition — which says in part “that my present place of residence is truly stated opposite my signature hereto” — but asserts that, under applicable state law, there is no provision calling for the town clerk to render an opinion.
What is proscribed, the lawsuit petitioners say, is that any challenges to the petition must be filed with the town clerk within five days after submission of the petition, which occurred on April 4. That time period has elapsed, and no challenges were filed. All challenges would have been reviewed by the court.
Jeanne Frankl, the head of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, which spearheaded the petition drive, said Tuesday that those bringing suit represent “a diverse group of people.” Besides Ms. Frankl, they include Betty Mazur, Elaine Jones, chairwoman of the East Hampton Independence Party, Fred Nagel, Mary Miller, and Zachary Cohen, whose bid for supervisor last fall failed by a narrow 15 votes.
“Our view is, we owe it to the public who signed the petition to challenge” the clerk’s invalidation, Ms. Frankl said.
“I think that the law is very clear,” Mr. Overton said Tuesday.
“Hours and hours of work was spent on this,” he told the town board last Thursday. “It’s been a long, arduous task.” He said he had consulted with John Jilnicki, the town attorney, who provided examples of case law that supported his decision. “I insisted that I be on firm, solid ground before I made the determination,” Mr. Overton said.
“It was my understanding that the town clerk was responsible for validating the signatures,” he said Tuesday, citing a precedent that occurred in 1999 when another permissive referendum petition was filed at East Hampton Town Hall.
Regardless of the petition’s legal standing, Ms. Frankl told the board last Thursday, “I think that the petitions speak for themselves. . . . So I hope you will, as our leaders, regard what our citizens said as a guide for you.”
And, she said about the town board’s vote on April 17 to obtain its own appraisal of the alley, for a maximum cost of $3,000, “It’s really gratifying that the town board majority has finally acknowledged the appropriateness of appraising town property before a sale.”
However, Ms. Frankl and other speakers criticized the board for not naming the appraiser who would be hired, instead leaving a blank line in the resolution.
In addition, in a letter to the board, Sam Kramer, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Article 78, said that once the referendum petition was filed, the board’s actions were legally limited to either rescinding the resolution of sale or holding the referendum.
“This resolution looks like window dressing after the fact, to cover an error made by the majority of the board,” Ms. Mazur, a Democratic committeewoman, said last Thursday.
“It’s a charade,” Ms. Frankl said. According to the resolution, the appraisal is to be done because “the town board wishes to confirm that the agreed upon consideration for the surplus property set forth in Resolution 2012-259 is fair and reasonable consideration for the property to be conveyed.”
“I think hiring an appraiser to ‘confirm’ a price is a mockery,” she said Tuesday.
“What it sounds like,” Ms. Frankl told the board at last Thursday’s meeting, “is the majority buying an appraisal to sanitize the reckless action after the fact. It insults the citizenry of the town,” she said.
John Whelan, citing public controversy over a number of the sales of public property that have been proposed by the administration, such as the sale of town docks and the Fort Pond House property in Montauk, said that he hoped the board would work “towards a more clear, focused policy . . . a policy that the public can clearly understand when it comes to the sale of town property.” Mr. Whelan ran for a town board seat on the Democratic ticket in 2009.
“You really, really took the cake,” David Buda, a Springs resident, said to the board about its adoption of an incomplete resolution.
When hiring appraisers, the town’s normal practice is to select from a county-approved list. All appraisers on the list are based in Suffolk County. The town usually elicits bids from several appraisers before selecting one to hire.
After approving the resolution, the town board did not publicly discuss or vote on who would be hired.
According to the town clerk’s office, Ronald Paradiso, a vice president at Jerome Haims Realty in New York City, has been retained. By phone yesterday he said that he is a member of the Appraisal Institute and has done numerous appraisals on the East End and in East Hampton Town, and had received a call from Councilwoman Theresa Quigley. He said he would give an “honest opinion” of the property’s value.
Mr. Buda also remarked at last week’s meeting on a decision by the senior building inspector, made after a meeting with the Ronjo property owners and several town officials, rendering the project eligible for a site plan approval.
Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley interrupted him, asking why he would direct comments about a planning board application to the town board. “We’re not going to interfere with the planning board,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
“I’m saying that as a result of the actions of three of your town departments — Planning, Building, and the town attorneys — the planning board is acting in a [certain] way. . . .” Mr. Buda said. “The blinders that were placed on the planning board . . . was the result of directions from your town attorneys.”
Ms. Quigley called his comments “inflammatory.”
“Mr. Buda, you’ve made a very serious allegation against several of our departments,” she said.