In the wake of Democratic allegations that East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley interfered with the issuance of permits for the renovation of Montauk’s former Ronjo motel on behalf of its new owners, the supervisor has asked the Suffolk County district attorney to determine whether there was any wrongdoing.
In a letter to the editor published by The Independent newspaper last week, Zachary Cohen, a Democrat who lost his bid for supervisor against Mr. Wilkinson by 15 votes in the fall, charged that the two officials “continue to allow town employees to bypass proper review” of projects such as the Ronjo makeover, which he said should have been required to undergo a full site plan review.
Mr. Cohen alleged in his letter that following a meeting between two town attorneys and the new Ronjo property owners with their attorney, the town’s senior building inspector, Tom Preiato, issued a building permit counter to town code.
“The inescapable conclusion,” Mr. Cohen alleged, “is that the town attorneys, along with the owners’ attorney, encouraged an illegal action by the building inspector.”
“One can assume,” he said, “that the orders to find a way to help the new owners came from their friends on the town board.”
At a town board meeting last Thursday night, Ms. Quigley called it a “very strange letter” that “was so wrong in its facts.”
Mr. Cohen appeared at the meeting to confront Ms. Quigley about a phone call to him from her office on May 2, which he called “something of an interrogation” about his letter. The call was from Patrick Gunn, a town attorney and head of the division of public safety, and included Richard Hammer, the Ronjo property owners’ attorney, on speakerphone.
Mr. Cohen said the call was proof of Ms. Quigley’s involvement in decisions about the property. “You have a lot of explaining to do,” he told her.
Ms. Quigley said that Mr. Gunn, upset about the allegations in the letter, had come to her office and that the call did take place there. However, she said, “I wasn’t speaking; I was doing e-mails.”
Rumors have circulated for several weeks that District Attorney Thomas J. Spota may already have been contacted by people questioning the town’s handling of various matters, and that his representatives have begun questioning some persons tied to Town Hall. The district attorney’s office does not comment on whether an investigation may be under way. The office typically responds to citizen complaints by conducting an inquiry as to whether further action is warranted.
The charged exchange between Mr. Cohen and the board members last Thursday ended when he abruptly left the room, prompting disparaging comments. “To compound that with a totally slanderous statement like this — and then to leave a room . . .” said Mr. Wilkinson.
From the audience, Carole Campolo, a member of the town Republican committee, called Mr. Cohen’s statement “a roadside bomb.”
“They’re gutless,” said Don Cirillo, her husband, a Wilkinson appointee to the town zoning board.
John Jilnicki, the town attorney, suggested that Mr. Cohen’s letter be referred to the district attorney. “If there’s an allegation of illegal activity, I’d like to have it investigated,” Mr. Wilkinson agreed.
A proposed sale of a portion of a town-owned alleyway that bisects the property of the old Ronjo, which will be renamed the Montauk Beach House, set off the first sparks of controversy. A price of $35,000 was set without benefit of an appraisal. Mr. Wilkinson, who at first said he had pulled the figure “out of the air” but later branded that statement a joke, said the price was supported by comparable sales from the 1980s.
The two Democrats on the five-member board refused to support the sale. A resolution authorizing it was passed 3-to-2.
Some weeks later, after a petition calling for a townwide referendum on the sale was submitted, Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson agreed to support Councilman Dominick Stanzione’s resolution calling for an independent appraisal. Although the resolution gained unanimous support, its language, calling for an appraisal to “confirm” the $35,000 price, left the board’s two Democrats dissatisfied.
Meanwhile, town Democrats obtained an appraisal that set the alleyway’s value at $184,000, and the potential buyers got another, valuing it at $22,500.
And although a third appraisal was ordered by the town, the board majority refused to rescind the resolution that started it all, approving the alleyway sale for the $35,000 price.
After Town Clerk Fred Overton disqualified all the referendum petitions on a technicality, a group of residents, members of the East Hampton Democratic Party as well as others, brought a lawsuit, challenging Mr. Overton’s standing to make such a determination.
In comments to the board at the start of last Thursday’s meeting, Jeanne Frankl, who heads the town Democratic committee, urged the board “to save the taxpayers an unreasonable expenditure.”
“All you need to do is withdraw the resolution to sell the alleyway without an appraisal,” she said, and begin the process again, based on the forthcoming appraisal. The referendum, and the ensuing lawsuit, would then be moot, she said. “We’ll withdraw the suit if you’ll repeal the resolution,” Ms. Frankl said.
“We get a lawsuit and then we’re not supposed to defend the lawsuit?” said Mr. Wilkinson.
“What is the point of defending the lawsuit, and what is the point of not rescinding the resolution?” Ms. Frankl asked. She questioned why the board would spend public money “for an unimportant, fruitless, ego-focused challenge to our taxpayer challenge.”
“I think your logic is perverse,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I do, too,” said Ms. Quigley. “To me this smacks of royalty,” she said. “Because somehow, if you’ve said it, it must be right.”
More partisan discord erupted later that evening after Mr. Van Scoyoc and Ms. Overby voted against a resolution to hire an attorney, Vincent Messina, for $200 an hour, to fight the lawsuit.
“What’s just happened is that the two Democrats on this town board have voted against defending the town clerk; that’s basically disabled him from doing his function,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “That’s a first in the Town of East Hampton.”
“How is the town clerk disabled?” Mr. Van Scoyoc asked. “It’s important to remember that what happened is, a majority of the board decided to vote to sell property without having an appraisal first.”
“If we had just simply followed procedure that was fair and open and proper, and if we just go back and get on track and follow procedure,” he said, “it will allay the fears of the public that proper process was not followed and allow us to move forward. And we don’t have to defend ourselves against the suit unnecessarily.”
“Let’s not dig in our heels here,” Mr. Van Scoyoc concluded.
“You’re slowing down government,” Mr. Wilkinson replied.
“Then I would like to say that in the name of efficient government, we need to rescind the resolution [of sale],” Ms. Overby said.
“Let’s move on,” Mr. Wilkinson said, addressing the board majority. “You’re not going to educate.”