Southampton Town Bars Police Officers From Political Committees, Stiffens Penalty For Illegal Rentals

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The Southampton Town Board on Tuesday approved an amendment to the town’s ethics laws that will prohibit Town Police officers from serving as officials or committee members of any political party.

“The effort here is to take politics out of police work,” said Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who authored the bill. “To the extent that we become aware of a potential conflict or any shortcoming, I believe we have the duty to change that.”

Some within the Town Police Department, including the town officers’ union and a former police chief, have alleged that political affiliations have deeply influenced departmental decisions on promotions and officer assignments, and that members of the Town Board attempted to quash and deflect disciplinary charges against a department officer, Lieutenant James Kiernan, who is a Republican Party committeeman.

Republican Councilwoman Christine Scalera nodded to the turmoil of the last 18 months and said that she would support the amendment if it would remove suspicions about actions within the department, or with regard to disciplining an officer.

“It is important to make clear that my remarks are meant in no way to legitimize any of the frivolous assertions made over the last year and a half regarding any perceived conflict over decisions made, or not made, as having anything to do with any political affiliation—because it is patently untrue,” she said.

“I feel, in our society governed by laws, it is intrinsic and fundamental that residents have faith and trust in our law enforcement agencies and those who manage them,” she continued. “If this amendment serves to reinforce the idea that our decisions are being made properly … then this is a good thing.”

Last year, former Police Chief William Wilson Jr. filed an ethics complaint against Ms. Scalera and fellow Republican Councilman Chris Nuzzi, claiming that they should have recused themselves from the discussion of disciplining Lt. Kiernan because the committeeman had played a role in selecting them as candidates for office. The complaint was determined to be unfounded by the town’s Ethics Committee.

After a seven-month suspension Lt. Kiernan returned to duty last fall, and attorneys for the town and the lieutenant settled on a still-undisclosed punishment for the charges against him. His attorney, Ray Perini, has since requested that Lt. Kiernan’s record be expunged of any accusations of wrongdoing.

The lone vote against the ethics code amendment on Tuesday came from Councilman Jim Malone, a Conservative Party member, who has said that he felt barring officers from serving on political committees restricted their First Amendment right to free speech and association. Mr. Malone tried, in vain, to get other board members to agree to a last-minute change to the amendment to make it apply only to officers who joined the town force after its passage and not force current officers to cut or curtail their political involvement.

“I don’t believe that any employee of this town should make a choice between … paying their mortgage and being involved in the political process,” Mr. Malone said. “If I can’t trust [a police officer’s] judgment to not cloud their politics and their job then they shouldn’t be wearing the gun in the first place.”

Once it takes effect, the new law will immediately impact two current officers: Lt. Kiernan, and part-time police officer Michael Tessitore, who is also a member of the Town Republican Party Committee.
Steeper Fines
Also on Tuesday night, the Town Board resolved to greatly stiffen the fines facing property owners who repeatedly violate the requirements of the town’s rental law.

After hearing concerns from a small group of residents and landlords, the board adopted the new fine structure and some other amendments to the rental law, but pledged to immediately revisit some of the guidelines those seeking to comply with the rental law are held to.

The latest round of amendments increase the potential fines for property owners who are found to be violating the rental law—which restricts the length of time a house may be rented and imposes a variety of occupancy limits and safety requirements—to as much as $30,000 for a second offense.

“The intent and the thrust here is that there is a cost-of-doing business approach that is unacceptable,” Mr. Malone said of repeat offenders who pay fines that are minuscule compared to the profits they reap from illegal rentals. “To those who make this part of their business practice, it ain’t going to work for you anymore.”

About a dozen homeowners, however, took the opportunity to complain to the board that the standard of safety code compliance that they are being forced to meet in order receive a rental permit and renew it every two years is unfairly onerous. The homeowners said that as fire and safety codes have evolved they have been forced to repeatedly make upgrades to their homes in ways that typical homeowners would never be aware of if they didn’t seek a new certificate of occupancy. Some said they had been repeatedly forced to pay to replace fencing and upgrade decks and safety detectors because codes had changed.

“The Building Department inspects for every single code in existence today, not the code when I built the house 12 years ago,” said Quogue landlord Joseph Gazza, who said at one point he owned as many as 50 rental properties throughout the town.

Board members acknowledged that it might be a good idea to enforce the health and safety codes that were in effect at the time the most recent valid certificate of occupancy was issued.

Another homeowner, Kris Harden, said the burden on a large number of renters whose rental practices have never caused problems seems to outweigh a relatively limited problem.

“If I understand this correctly it’s because too many people come to a house?” Ms. Harden said. “I’ve never seen that. I’m sure it exists, but not that it is so endemic, so much that every single one of us has to suffer.”

Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst acknowledged that the law technically requires even those who have never had problems to comply with laws meant to head off the illegal practices of a few.

“The intent of this is not to hurt good people like you,” the supervisor said to one of the homeowners. “We have property owners who abuse this. If you are not violating rental permit law and are a good landlord in that way, that’s part of why we never had to knock on your door.”

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