And A Futile Attempt to Work with the Town of Southampton
On the Coordinated Rail and Bus Network Feasibility Study
By Hank de Cillia
Â I recently resigned as Executive Director of Five Town Rural Transit (5TRT) Inc., the public transit advocacy group I co-founded that created the East End Shuttle concept and originated the Feasibility Study that has been underway since December of last year. (In case you are not familiar with 5TRT’s East End Shuttle concept, it proposes to use new small-scale rail cars to provide much more frequent rail service on the existing LIRR tracks, coupled with new small-scale connecting buses that would meet the rail cars at most stations and take riders to a final destination.)
I am compelled to respond to two recent allegations emanating from Southampton Town that I believe have been used to exclude me from working on this Feasibility Study project as a paid consultant to handle local government and public communications about the work, which is being done by the U.S. DOT Volpe National Transportation Systems Center under contract to the Town of Southampton on behalf of the five East End Towns.
The first allegation is that I “colluded” with former Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney on a “sweetheart deal” to get a contract to work on the project. It is true that 5TRT brought what was then called the East End Shuttle Feasibility Study project to the Town of Southampton via Supervisor Heaney when we learned that only municipalities could apply for the New York State grant, not a non-profit group like 5TRT. The 5TRT Board made several requests in that meeting with Supervisor Heaney: Southampton should become the lead applicant for the NYS grant on behalf of all five towns, the towns should contribute the 10% matching funds required in proportion to their population size, the towns should hire the Volpe Center to be the principal contractor for the study and the towns should hire me as a non-voting member of the 5TRT Board to handle government, public and press communications on the project.
To his credit, Supervisor Heaney immediately embraced the 5TRT proposal. Regarding the last request that I personally be involved on a paid basis, he suggested I work out a subcontract with the Volpe Center once their contract was in place, and I agreed. I went to the Volpe Center people and advised them of Mr. Heaney’s request and they agreed. Over the next 18 months, while the NYS grant was applied for and awarded, and the contract with Volpe was then negotiated, my only contact with the town was through Deputy Supervisor Robert Ross to keep him advised of the progress on my subcontract.
Late last year, as Volpe was finalizing their own contract, they told me they could not do a subcontract after all. The intriguing reason given was that since I was one of the people who formally recommended Volpe for the job, if they gave me a subcontract it would have a “quid pro quo” appearance. I never did get an answer as to why it took them so long to reach this conclusion, nor were they willing to put their opinion in writing after two requests. Nevertheless, by the time I tried to get back to Heaney and Ross, the election had already taken place and they were not returning my calls. There you have a summary of my alleged “collusion” with Skip Heaney.
From that point on 5TRT dealt with new Supervisor Linda Kabot and our first meeting didn’t occur until mid January of this year. She told us the town would have to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for me to work on the study project and I would have to compete for the job. In late February, the town issued the RFP and in mid March I submitted my proposal. But in late June I withdrew it after having had no reply from the town as to its status, including when a decision might be made, for over 90 days. I have since learned my proposal was the only one they received, but that didn’t prevent them from continuing to exclude me.
Which brings me to the second allegation—-that I have a “conflict of interest” in working on this project. The convoluted town logic is that since I am a public transit advocate on the East End, I would have a conflict of interest in communicating information about the Volpe work to the public. By this reasoning I guess, only people who are against public transit or uninformed about the topic could ever be hired to do this work. I’m told the town has even sought an opinion from the NYS Attorney General about my suitability to work in this capacity!
But since the Town of Southampton has raised this allegation, let me identify what I think is a much more significant conflict of interest with its own Town Transportation Director Tom Neely. Although I’m not suggesting “collusion”, Mr. Neely got his job from Supervisor Heaney a few years ago. Prior to that, he had been working for a bus company, the Hampton Jitney. It is clear from his recent public comments that Mr. Neely favors bus solutions for public transit on the East End over rail. So, is it not a conflict of interest that an acknowledged bus advocate with ties to local bus transit providers is managing a “Coordinated Rail and Bus Network Feasibility Study,” as the Volpe work is described now? Further, his own job description on the Southampton Town website says one of his responsibilities is to “advocate for improved public transit.” Doesn’t that mean he has the same “conflict of interest” that I supposedly have? Has the town also sought an opinion from the NYS Attorney General about Mr. Neely’s apparent conflict of interest in this instance?Â If not, why not?
In summary, the allegation that I colluded with Skip Heaney to get a contract is simply false and the allegation that I have a conflict of interest makes little sense. Both allegations have been used to prevent me from working on the project, as far as I can see.
This commentary is only provided to defend my reputation because I am no longer willing to work for the current Southampton Town management on this critically important project. I do believe, however, that the five East End Town Councils, together with the 5TRT Board, need to look more carefully into how this study is being managed to insure, amongst other things, that the original project goals and process are still in place.