A penny for their thoughts

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I truly have to wonder how long and hard members of the East Hampton Town Board thought before the clumsy attempt to fire Larry Penny as the town’s natural resources director last week. And one has to wonder if he was a fall guy for an all-Democrat board desperate to appear as financial belt-tighteners, and a too-convenient target as someone who ran for Town Board on the Republican ticket in 2005.

Any way you look at it, Penny was unceremoniously kicked out. Or they tried to kick him out. Technically, he can’t be fired because he holds a Civil Service position, so instead the board moved to eliminate the entire Natural Resources Department. Penny has vowed to hang on in some capacity, which means this could turn into an ugly mess and, if the town has to keep paying him, how much is it really saving?

During the May 6 Town Board meeting, Councilman Brad Loewen, who is the liaison to the department, raised the subject of Penny and his management abilities. The board went into executive session to continue the discussion. Loewen claimed that department employees have complained about Penny and that he has witnessed problems with the department’s efficiency.

The outcome of the discussion was the decision to jettison the entire department. This would save $175,000 in salaries at a time when East Hampton is almost reduced to returning soda cans to find money to make up for a multimillion-dollar deficit. The Planning Department would assume the responsibilities of the Natural Resources Department, though it would seem that to do this the town would need to add to staff.

Ironically, the rise of the Democrats in East Hampton can be traced back over 25 years ago to an attempt by a Republican administration to eliminate the Planning Department, which that administration saw as a roadblock to development. It wouldn’t seem that the Natural Resources Department is a roadblock to anything other than elimination of those pesky piping plovers, so what is really going on here? If nothing else, deep-sixing this department is a bad idea symbolically as it implies a weakening of the town’s commitment to environmental protection.

Let’s travel back through the mists of time. Not only was the effort to make the Planning Department disappear defeated, but the pro-environment people pushed for and got a Natural Resources Department. When it was established in 1981, East Hampton became the only town in the entire state to have such a department. Over the years, the existence of this department has been a symbol of East Hampton’s forward-thinking commitment to the environment.

Penny has been the director of the department since 1983. Yes, the Town Board could have thought of a more positive way to celebrate his 25th anniversary. He has not shied away from controversial issues … and, well, ones that seemed eccentric at the time but were really good ideas. I recall when the “Turtle Crossing” signs first appeared on town roads, championing the right of the tiger salamander to exist, and the erection of the first osprey nests on 20-foot poles with volunteers practically recreating the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

East Hampton has had particularly good relationships with the Nature Conservancy and Group for the South Fork because, through Larry, the town has been mostly apolitical about the environment and did not hesitate to confront developers, polluters, and the rubber stampers at the county, state, and federal levels.

On a related note, Larry and the press have had a good relationship too. He has been available to reporters and he has given thoughtful explanations to questions. Overall, Penny should be getting a long-overdue plaque, not a pink slip.

Okay, an argument could be made about management style. There has been scuttlebutt around Town Hall about that for years. And Town Board members could point to Larry being 72 and say it is time for fresh blood in the Natural Resources Department. But that doesn’t work when the board is set to axe the entire department.

Is there a political motivation here? The answer could lie in what happens to Bill Taylor. He works for Larry in the Natural Resources Department and, presumably, his job is in jeopardy. But Taylor is also the chairman of the Town Democratic Committee. If the all-Democrat board finds a way to keep him on the town payroll but makes a former Republican office-seeker walk the plank, you can bet that the GOP’s John Behan & Co. will have a field day with this issue next year.

To add to the fun, this situation puts Councilwoman Pat Mansir in a peculiar position. It’s been no secret for years that, if she and Taylor were stranded on a deserted island, only one of them would see the next sunrise. Now she faces the political ramifications of saving or denying the job of the head of the party that is tasked with getting her reelected in 2009. You read it here first: Pat returns to the Republican fold, or calls it quits.

There is also the matter of can the Planning Department take on new responsibilities. Among the chores of the Natural Resources Department are protection of wildlife, groundwater, and wetland habitats in the town as well as wetland restoration, open marsh water management, finfish stocking, and the replanting of disturbed upland habitats with native vegetation. The department also takes care of obtaining various permits and grants from federal and state agencies. And it manages the 3,000 acres in the town’s nature preserves.

Like Abe Lincoln, the Democrats in East Hampton need to be at the short end of another crisis like a hole in the head. Penny could be a lot more graceful than the Town Board has been so far by deciding to ride off into the sunset. But that isn’t going to happen.

Pointing out that the board has to write a local law to dissolve his department and hold a public hearing on it first, Larry told me, “I’m going to try my best to stay at doing what I do best—helping to preserve, safeguard, and improve East Hampton’s natural resources including the physical resources like groundwater and surface waters, and all of the biological and ecological resources.”

For the Town Board, it will be the public hearing from hell.

Comments, questions, and a recipe for tiger salamander soufflé can be sent to “Farther East” at Hondo7@optonline.net.

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