Southampton Board Members Offer Dueling Proposals to Rein in Political Influence

Posted on 12 February 2014

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Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, left, discusses a proposed ban on political committee members serving on land-use boards as Superivisor Anna Throne-Holst and Councilwoman Christine Scalera listen.

By Stephen J. Kotz

Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming’s effort to ban members of political committees from serving on the town’s advisory boards—an effort that had fallen short twice before but seemed close to finding majority support just last month—was derailed again this week.

The latest setback came when the other members of the town board joined on Tuesday in co-sponsoring an alternate resolution that was put forth by Councilwoman Christine Scalera and Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.

Instead of calling for an outright ban on committee members, their resolution would limit to three the members of any one political party who would be allowed to serve on the planning board, the zoning board of appeals and the conservation board, all of which have seven members.

The board agreed to hold a February 25 hearing on the Scalera-Throne-Holst alternative, while also agreeing to continue its consideration of Ms. Fleming’s proposal.

After several members of the public came forward to offer their support for her original resolution, Ms. Fleming, a Democrat, said, “I see these two resolutions as apples and oranges,” adding that the second resolution, rather than seeking to remove politics from the process, actually caters “specifically to political parties” and not the needs of the people.

On Wednesday, Ms. Fleming said she had been assured by Councilman Brad Bender, an Independence Party member, that he would continue to support her resolution. Although Supervisor Throne-Holst, also an Independence Party member, is now co-sponsoring a competing resolution, Ms. Fleming said the supervisor had voted for her measure in the past and had recently pledged her support for the resolution and that she hoped she could continue to count on her support.

“I have no interest in seeing this turn into a fight,” she said on Wednesday. “I’m interested in working as a team.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said that she had, indeed, supported Ms. Fleming’s proposal earlier but that her position had evolved after listening to testimony at public hearings.

“I supported it in spirit, but like everyone else I have the right to change my mind if I think there is a better way to achieve what we are looking for,” she said on Wednesday, adding that she too was interested in working across the aisle to achieve consensus.

Both Ms. Throne-Holst and Ms. Scalera said they had floated their ideas for ways to achieve a political balance on land-use boards to different town attorneys without knowing what the other was doing.

On Wednesday, Ms. Scalera, a Republican, reiterated her opposition to Ms. Fleming’s resolution, saying that it raised the Constitutional issue of whether the town board had the authority to limit one’s right to associate with a group of their choosing. She also said that nobody had accused committee members of using their positions on advisory boards for political advantage other than Ms. Fleming.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Ms. Scalera said. “I’ve always said it was politically motivated.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said the resolution she and Ms. Scalera are pushing would follow similar limits imposed on members of the town’s ethics board. At the end of the day, she said, the board “is trying to reassure the public that there is a level playing field.”

Ms. Scalera said it would not prohibit people from joining a political party or group, but would “leave it to us to make sure there is balance.”

But Ms. Fleming said Ms. Scalera and Ms. Throne-Holst’s legislation would punish rank-and-file party members. “You’d be disqualified from serving if the quota was already met,” she said.

“In the bill I propose,” she added, “if you are a party official, if you have special responsibilities and authority connected to that specific position in the party, then you’d be required to set aside that authority while serving. You can’t answer to two masters.”

Both East Hampton and Southold Towns currently ban members of political committees from serving on advisory boards.

Ms. Fleming said she was moved to propose a ban on committee members last year after learning that 10 of the 21 members of the planning, zoning, and conservation boards were members of either the Republican or Conservative committees.

When she brought her amendment to the town’s ethics code to the board last spring, the Republican-Conservative majority blocked it, refusing to allow a public hearing.  She introduced it again this fall, and although the board agreed to hold a hearing on the resolution, it was voted down.

This year, the board did not reappoint two Republican Committee members, Ann Nowak and David Reilly, to the ZBA. Larry Toler, a Republican committee member on the planning board, retired. John Bouvier, a Democratic committee member, was appointed to the conservation board.

Meeting with members of the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee last Friday, Ms. Fleming held out hope that her resolution would pass, despite Ms. Throne-Holst’s decision to work with Ms. Scalera. The handful of committee members who met at Pierson High School, agreed to write a letter to the town supporting Ms. Fleming’s legislation.

“It makes sense to us as community minded folk that politics should not cloud in any way our very important land use boards,” the CAC wrote. “We long to join the communities of Southold and East Hampton who have already enacted this common sense legislation and we are grateful for your efforts this same end.”

“A lot of people, not just us, feel that politics has interfered too much in the way of progress for the citizens here,” said Mike Piliero of Southampton at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It seems to me it’s talking about divvying up positions between political parties,” said Anne Hastings of Hampton Bays, referring to Ms. Scalera and Ms. Throne-Holst’s measure. “I think that it is a tacit admission that there is a conflict of interest.”

Joyce Roper of East Quogue said, “I don’t think Ms. Fleming’s resolution needs to be sacrificed in order for the other resolution to pass.”

But Elaine Kahl of Southampton objected to Ms. Fleming’s proposed committee ban.

“This is America,” she said. “You have a right to choose what group you are going to belong to and what group you aren’t going to belong to. It’s very political in nature. The whole thing is political.”

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