The Politics Of Participation At Town Hall

Tension on balance between debate and action

    The way in which the East Hampton Town Board makes decisions, and how much takes place in the public eye, is shaping up to be a bone of contention between the board’s Republican majority, elected as a slate two years ago, and the two newly elected Democratic board members.
    On Tuesday, Republican Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who was re-elected this fall, expressed frustration when Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley’s proposal to have a new committee discuss a proposed outdoor lighting law sparked a request by the minority board members, Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, to allow interested members of the public to observe those discussions.
    “My God, we have so much work to do,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “And everything’s got to be categorized . . . everything’s got to be open to the public. When do you do the work of the town?” he asked.
    “You’re doing the work of the people,” Ms. Overby responded.
    “No, you’re doing the work of the town,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
    He complained that, with discussion of several items on the agenda of that day’s meeting — a specially scheduled addition to the calendar designed to take care of just a couple of particular items — “today’s meeting could have been 15 minutes, and now is almost an hour.”
    “We’re getting bogged down. I can feel it,” he said. “And this is coming from someone with a business background.”
    “Government is opposite of business,” he added.
    How much time should be devoted to board discussions before decisions are made, and what should take place in public, was also a topic at the town board’s meeting last Thursday after Jeanne Frankl, an Amagansett resident who is chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee, suggested the board examine more carefully issues related to the future of the scavenger waste plant. A request for proposals for its possible privatization has been issued.
    “I do not feel it is getting enough of a public airing,” Ms. Frankl told the board.
    Councilman Dominick Stanzione protested, noting that the board-appointed budget and finance advisory committee had researched and then issued a report on the plant at a public work session last spring. Since then, he said, the board had made, and discussed in public, a decision that the town should stop paying for operation of the plant, almost $1 million a year. That, Ms. Frankl said, “is exactly the issue here for the public.”
    When the proposals from potential private operators are examined, Mr. Stanzione said, “I’m sure it’s going to get a full public airing.”
     Ms. Frankl questioned whether all factors were properly considered before deciding to stop town operation of the plant. “I’m not saying that you haven’t discussed it in public,” she said. “But when a problem has all of these ramifications, an elected board, as our representative, to give us government of, by, and for the people, is not really carrying out that mandate by simply making the decision on its own, whoever you consult.”
    Ms. Frankl, an attorney, said that she believes the board is too often choosing to discuss in executive session matters that could be addressed in public. “You don’t have to go into executive session every time you’re uncomfortable,” she said.
    She pointed in particular to a move to have portions of the budget committee’s scavenger waste plant report delivered in private last spring. The board then held an executive session to talk about the possibility of environmental violations at the plant. 
    “I don’t want to be saying stuff that perhaps our attorney will want to wring my neck,” Ms. Quigley said. “There are ongoing violations, and for us to talk openly, when there are claims against the town. . . .”
    Ms. Quigley accused Ms. Frankl of attempting to “politicize the issue.”
    “I was offended by that comment,” Ms. Frankl said. “It was a substantive comment, not a political comment.”
    “I don’t know what the difference is,” Ms. Quigley said.
    Councilwoman Overby noted that Mr. Wilkinson did not put enough money in this year’s budget to keep the plant running for longer than two months. “So there is a feeling that the town board did say, ‘We want to get this done,’ ” she said of leasing to a private company.
    Mr. Wilkinson interrupted her. “Now you and I, we are going to have fun in the next two years,” he said. “Because I’m coming out of the private sector that makes half-billion-dollar decisions in five minutes, and you’re coming out of, I don’t know what sector, that basically wants everything discussed and take[s] time and time and time. And we couldn’t have solved the financial crisis of this town by doing that. No, I’m talking about an application of process, and I’m talking about decision-making, and I’m talking about management of the enterprise. So, we’re going to have these . . . which is fine. I think they’re spirited and I think it’ll be an intellectual challenge for me to have these conversations.”
    He continued, “So, for you to say — yeah, we rushed. I think the pace of play in this town stinks. I think we are so slow to move it’s ridiculous.”
    “It seems to me we need to have a broad discussion about all the different options, and the direction that the town needs to go in,” Councilman Van Scoyoc said, citing various considerations about the waste plant. “There are a number of questions that I think merit having open discussions. It’s an important enough topic that it would merit its own meeting.”
    “It’s an important enough topic that it’s been studied for a year,” responded Mr. Wilkinson.
    A story about the scavenger waste plant appears elsewhere in today’s Star.
    “What I want to be sure,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said at Tuesday’s meeting, “is that when discussing legislation that will affect everyone, that the townspeople who are supposed to be represented . . . have an opportunity to understand.” 
    He said he understood the concern that it could become difficult for a committee to accomplish its work should it have to accommodate participation by numerous other members of the public, but that allowing observers would not interfere.
    “I don’t think that the public being apprised of how the discussions are going is in any way a hindrance,” he said. In fact, he said, the more open the process, the more likely it is that it would result in proposals that gain public support.
    “I think the whole idea of including the public . . . is [to avoid] this sense of, things are happening behind closed doors. It’s really simple to alleviate that,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
    “No,” said Mr. Wilkinson, “it’s really simple to say, ‘It’s nonsense. It’s not happening.’ ”