Five years ago East Hampton Town was barreling toward financial disaster. Against that backdrop, a small group began holding informal meetings with the goal of improving the way the town was run, while reintroducing what they saw as sorely lacking civility to the political process.
Jeffrey Fisher, the chairman of Fisher Industries, and Steven Schwartz and Arthur Malman, both attorneys, were all part-time residents of East Hampton. Dominick Stanzione, a bond trader and investment advisor, was a relatively new year-round resident of Amagansett.
Out of their gatherings came the East Hampton Group for Good Government.
“The number-one motivation was the McGintee mess,” said Mr. Schwartz of the administration of former Supervisor Bill McGintee, which drove the town deep into debt, “but also the level of discourse, the way people were treated at Town Hall.”
Today, after three town elections, the G.G.G. has become a well-established civic organization with hundreds of members. Its mission is to vet candidates for public office, encourage voter turnout, and, perhaps most important, ensure that those voters are informed about the tough issues facing the town through well-publicized forums.
Those forums have focused on topics ranging from waste management to whether a town manager form of government would be more efficient, an event that was co-sponsored with the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons.
Early on, the group’s founders planned to create a political action committee that would throw its support behind candidates for local office, “but it soon became apparent,” said Mr. Fisher, “that we’d have more credibility if we were nonpartisan.”
“We started with the premise, which we realized wasn’t necessarily true, that we had to be financial supporters to have any say,” added Mr. Malman. “We’ve really stayed away from backing individual candidates or parties,” instead focusing on studying issues and suggesting solutions.
G.G.G. members came to the conclusion that a nonpartisan approach would be best after meeting with East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and the village administrator at the time, Lar ry Cantwell, who was elected town supervisor in November. Both urged the fledgling organization to stay above the political fray and not concentrate on the problems of past governments but on making future improvements.
The nonpartisan stance soon forced Mr. Stanzione, whom Mr. Fisher had met after reading his letters to The Star on town finances and on an effort to limit the size of houses on small lots, to step down from the group’s board when he was asked by Supervisor Bill Wilkinson to run for town board in 2009.
Mr. Stanzione, an early member of the town’s budget advisory committee, had personally paid for those committee’s meetings to be broadcast on LTV in what he said was an effort to encourage transparency.
“I believe that the G.G.G. has developed into a respected grassroots organization with a commitment to a nonpartisan review of issues,” said Mr. Stanzione, who was defeated in his reelection bid earlier this month. He remains a supporter of the G.G.G.’s mission. “We have to advance to a new paradigm of government here, and the G.G.G. has helped establish that vision.”
Not that it was easy to convince everyone of the group’s good intentions. Mr. Fisher said that early on the group met with both Trace Duryea, then the chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee, and Jeanne Frankl, the chairwoman of the Democratic Committee, to explain their organization.
“At first, Trace thought we were all closet Democrats and Jeanne was certain we were all Republicans,” he said.
“I was very skeptical at the beginning and I’m still a little skeptical,” said Ms. Duryea this week. Although she thinks the group “has the best interest of the community in mind,” she said, “I don’t know that they have been that effective.”
“I think the important thing is they have gotten people who might not otherwise focus on how town government is run to take an interest,” said Ms. Frankl. “But they have shied away from some of the most controversial issues,” she continued, listing the environment, “historic preservation, development, and overdevelopment.”
“Their focus, which has been on management and keeping taxes down, has been to the exclusion of the needs of the citizenry that sometimes causes taxes to go up,” Ms. Frankl said.
While Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Fisher said they would like to see the day when most, if not all, local candidates are cross-endorsed by both major parties, Ms. Frankl is dead set against that idea.
“They are religiously apolitical and I really believe in politics,” she said. “I don’t think it’s politics that’s bad. It’s bad politics that’s bad.”
She said that the rough and tumble political process, while messy, was effective in allowing citizens to gravitate toward candidates who respond to their particular concerns and for politicians to hammer out compromises.
Although most of the G.G.G.’s founders are part-time residents who make their principal homes in New York, “we didn’t want to be confused for being second homeowners trying to tell the locals how to run their town,” said Mr. Fisher.
To that end, he said the organization has sought out people such as the local businessmen Charlie Whitmore and Steve Talmage, the educators Laura Anker Grossman and Connie Rudolph, and East Hampton Village Police Captain Mike Tracey to serve on their board over the years.
Despite that effort, Ms. Duryea said the group was not inclusive enough. “To my knowledge, their kids aren’t in the schools and they aren’t volunteering at the local fire stations or on the ambulance corps,” she said. “It exemplifies what East Hampton is becoming and it’s not something I like very much.”
“There’s no question that we started out with a couple of people who were second homeowners who were not destitute, but our whole effort has been to become broader in appeal over time,” countered Mr. Malman. “We’re not going to get rid of the fact that when we have a meet-the-candidates party at my house, which is south of the highway, we’re going to hear that.”
In the meantime, he said, the group is intent on continuing its efforts. Next on the horizon, sometime in 2014, will be a public forum, sponsored with the League of Women Voters, to discuss improving school district efficiencies by encouraging more shared services.
That discussion, whenever it is held, will be in keeping with the G.G.G.’s focus on gentility. “At all our forums, the questions from the floor are presented civilly,” said Mr. Schwartz.