By Claire Walla
From crime and ballet to affirmative action, last Thursday, February 16, Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming came to the Bridgehampton Childcare Center to talk about “the politics of it all.”
The monthy event, The Politics of it All, takes place and is co-sponsored by the Bridgehampton Childcare Center and the East End chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And the purpose is to bring East End politicians to an informal setting with members of the local community to talk candidly about issues.
The Childcare Center’s Executive Director Bonnie Cannon said the aim is to create an atmosphere that’s “cozy” and “informal.”
The central talking point last week revolved around the town’s affirmative action efforts, particularly regarding the proportionately low number of African Americans serving in leadership positions at town hall.
Fleming pointed out that the town has appointed a new affirmative action officer, Thelma Harris, whose job is to make sure that the staff in town hall reflects the make up of the people who live in Southampton Town.
“Bonnie [Cannon] and I worked really hard to keep that position in the budget,” Fleming added, because, “those jobs [at town hall] shouldn’t belong to just an inside group of people.”
When asked whether or not the town currently has any attorneys of color, Fleming announced it does not.
This prompted Lucius Ware, president of the East End chapter of the NAACP, to reflect for a moment on the town’s hiring practices.
“Ten years ago, 3 percent of the town’s employees were people of color,” he said. That year, he added, “that number went up to 17 percent.” He said he hopes the town doesn’t lose sight of progress that was made then.
“It seems we’re trying to go through ground that was turned a decade ago, as if it never happened,” he said.
Fleming recognized Ware’s point, and took the issue a step further.
“We have to look at the reality of the situation. The bottom line is we have a situation that is unacceptable,” she stated, explaining that the number of African Americans in town hall is disproportionate to the number of African Americans currently living in Southampton Town. “Right now things need to be changed.”
Fleming said she helped put together an affirmative action task force, which includes several people at last week’s meeting: Thelma Harris, Gerald Martin and Bonnie Cannon.
Cannon went on to explain that there are three high-level management positions currently open at the town, including positions in the comptroller’s office, the assessor’s office and the land management office. Although Fleming pointed out that the town is in the midst of a town-wide hiring freeze. More immediately, however, Fleming said the affirmative action task force will work to bring more diversity to seasonal roles with the Parks and Youth Services Department, because these departments will be hiring in the immediate future.
Part of the goal of the task force, she continued, is to work to educate more people on how the civil service process — which is required for any town government job — works.
“The status quo is perpetuated if only a certain group of people knows how to navigate the civil service process,” she continued. “Education is the goal.”
Fleming added that the affirmative action task force will also “work on ways to support folks once they are in a career path.”
Mitchell recommended that the town create a public forum to educate people on the civil service process, which Fleming seemed to support.
Bridget Fleming moved to the East End 10 years ago with her husband and young son after having worked professionally as a ballerina and then a fraud prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Since joining the town board nearly two years ago in a special mid-term election, Fleming said she has focused on economic opportunity, environmental health and government accountability.
“We have to partner in order to get things accomplished,” she said. “Government doesn’t have any money, the community doesn’t have any money, but we have each other.”