Categorized | Express Editorials

Watered Down

Posted on 20 February 2014

Southampton Town Democratic Councilwoman Bridget Fleming probably thought the third time would be the charm when last month she again introduced legislation that would ban political party committee members from serving on the town’s planning, zoning and conservation boards.

Last year, Ms. Fleming tried twice to get the measure passed, but it was blocked both times by the board’s Republican-Conservative majority. With a new, “progressive” majority, which includes Ms. Fleming, the sole Democrat on the board, and Supervisor Anna-Throne Holst and Councilman Brad Bender, who are both members of Independence Party, taking over this year, Ms. Fleming probably thought her measure stood a pretty good chance of being enacted.

That was until Ms. Throne-Holst and Republican Councilwoman Christine Scalera forged an 11th hour alliance to co-sponsor a watered down alternative to Ms. Fleming’s initiative that would drop the prohibition against committee members and instead try to balance the number of members of a given political party who could serve on one of the boards at any one time.

From day one, Ms. Scalera has been opposed to the ban on committee members serving, arguing that it violates one’s Constitutional right to associate with whomever one chooses. She has also dismissed Ms. Fleming’s proposal as politically motivated, presumably because the Democrats had no such representation until this year when John Bouvier, a Democratic committee member, was appointed to the conservation board. The objections of Ms. Throne-Holst, who first supported Ms. Fleming’s resolution before changing course,  are harder to pin down, other than her stated desire to help the board embark on a new era of consensus building that looks beyond the usual divisions along party lines.

Ms. Fleming said she first proposed her measure when she was stunned to learn that 10 of the 21 members of the planning, zoning and conservation boards were either Republican or Conservative committee members. If nothing else, she said, that kind of representation, leads to the public perception that land-use decisions will also be colored by politics.

Ms. Scalera and Ms. Throne-Holst agree that yes, there is a public perception that needs to be addressed. But their solution is little more than window dressing.  Under their proposal, if, for instance, there were three registered Republicans on the planning board, the next appointment would have to be a member of another political party.

That misses the point. The public doesn’t really care if a member of the planning or zoning board is a registered Democrat, Republican, Conservative, or Independence Party member. But the public does care if those board members appear to be insiders whose politics are not just limited to the voting booth but extend to the adoption of the party’s platform and its choice of candidates for public office.

In fact, the board seemed to have that in mind when last month it did not reappoint two Republican committee members to the zoning board and replaced a Republican committee member who had retired from the planning board, with a non-political appointee.

Why board members have suddenly grown hesitant is a mystery, but last week, Mr. Bender and Republican Councilman Stan Glinka agreed to co-sponsor the Scalera-Throne-Holst  resolution, apparently leaving Ms. Fleming out in the cold.

When a public hearing is held on that diluted resolution this Tuesday at 6 p.m., the public would be well justified in telling the board it does not go far enough and that Southampton residents deserve the same protections that are already in place in both East Hampton and Southold, where committee members are not allowed to serve on land-use boards.

 

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