The incoming Democratic majority members of the East Hampton Town Trustees say they will take the ancient Trustees board in a new direction with regard to the board’s relationship with state environmental regulators, which has been standoffish in recent years.
The new political makeup of the board will also likely mean a change in leadership, with longtime Trustees Clerk Diane McNally out of a job after the new year, and possibly a return to a part-time clerk’s post.
After campaigning on a platform that promoted communication and cooperation with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, including applying to the state for permits for some Trustees projects in town waters and beaches, the Democrats say they will quickly seek permits for some projects that have languished, like the clearing of a culvert into the north end of Accabonac Harbor and the more-frequent cutting of the inlet into Georgica Pond.
“The current board didn’t want to recognize New York State but they didn’t want to do the work without permits, so they did nothing,” said Rick Drew, a Trustee-elect who will be part of the new Democratic majority, after the party won six of the nine Trustees seats in the November elections. “It’s a great way to preserve your autonomy, but if your natural resources are degraded so much you can’t use them, what are you preserving it for. We need a more thoughtful, careful approach.”
The incumbent Republican leadership of the Trustees worries that being too eager to rub shoulders with the state could have worrisome long-term implications for the Trustees’ control of town maritime resources. Ms. McNally, the Trustees longest serving member and clerk, said recognizing the authority of the DEC has been anathema for her nearly three-decades tenure on the board.
“My worst fear is that they are going to decide we have to recognize the DEC,” Ms. McNally, a Republican and the longest serving member of the board, said. “I have been opposed to that my entire time on the Trustees. If I had to be the one to sign that away, I’d get an ulcer.”
Ms. McNally said that from her early days on the Trustees, the priorities of the Trustees and the DEC have clashed. In the 1980s the state, she said, would permit the replacement or construction of bulkheads and docks along the shores of town waterways, where the Trustees do not want to see the natural shorelines disturbed or further encroached upon. The veteran Trustees did acknowledge that the state’s approaches to environmental protection have slowly crept closer to that of the Trustees, but she remains distrustful and wary of state involvement in town affairs.
Mr. Drew and other Democrats point to the declaration earlier this year of 20 acres of Accabonac Harbor as unfit for harvesting shellfish and the emergence of toxic algae blooms in Georgica Pond as the evidence that the Trustees refusal to work with the state is having deleterious effects on town waters.
In both water bodies, the Trustees have halted dredging work they had done for several years for fear of attracting legal action by the DEC.
Late this summer, when the toxic algae blooms in Georgica Pond spurred health warnings for a second straight summer, Ms. McNally said that the Trustees did not want to stray from their traditional biannual opening of the cut between the pond and the ocean, despite advice from marine biologists that the influx of saltwater could snuff out the blooms, because, in part, of the threat of fines from the state.
Ms. McNally said at the time that the DEC has not challenged the Trustees traditional practice of a spring and fall opening but has insisted that the Trustees get permits if they want to dig the cut at other times.
For years the board sidestepped confrontation by having the town’s Natural Resources Department act as a go-between and secure permits for the work they wanted to do, and issue the permit to the Trustees. A similar arrangement was used for the annual clearing of the culvert into Accabonac Harbor, which was created in 2006 as a way to help improve water quality in the harbor.
But after the retirement of the town’s longtime Natural Resources director Larry Penny in 2012, the proxy arrangement between the town and the Trustees has faded.
Without the permits the Trustees have not cleared the Accabonac culvert and have halted their wintertime removal of sand from the flood plain at the southern end of Georgica, after the DEC threatened to issue fines of up to $20,000 for digging the cut without permits. Those winter openings of Georgica, Ms. McNally said, kept the algae blooms at bay by raising the salinity of the pond.
Democrats have said that such paralysis is pointless since the Southampton Town Trustees typically apply for, and are issued, similar permits from the DEC without any threat to their sovereign control of town waters. Incoming board members and sitting Democratic members believe that forging a cooperative relationship so that state environmental managers are assured that the Trustees are not promoting policies or projects that would not meet state standards does not have to impinge on the local ability to impose more stringent standards under the home-rule authority it has maintained for more than 300 years, dating back to the colonial edicts.
“We’re in no way going to give away any powers,” Trustee Bill Taylor, an incumbent Democrat, said. “I’ve looked at the law, I’ve seen all the [court] decisions. The Trustees are different than the Town Board, but New York State has sort of replaced King James. We’re not going to be subservient to them, but to work on things like algae and nitrogen remediation we can’t do it just as the Trustees, we need cooperation with a lot of other people and we need to show them that cooperation goes both ways.”
Mr. Taylor said that under the new majority, he hopes to have permits in place to open the Accabonac culvert by this coming April.
The differences of opinion about some of the Trustees’ most fundamental approaches to its role will likely not help Ms. McNally’s argument for keeping her post as the board’s appointed leader, which is currently a full-time position with a $40,000 annual salary.
Ms. McNally said this week that, as the board’s longest serving member, she remains the most qualified to be the board’s clerk, but she acknowledged that she would be “shocked” if the new majority did not depose her at the organizational meeting in January. The last time the Democrats held a majority on the board, from 2005-2007, they made the clerk’s position full time and appointed Francis Bock to the post. Mr. Bock was stripped of that post when the Republicans took back the majority in 2007 and appointed Ms. McNally to replace him.
Mr. Taylor said it’s possible that the Democrats will simply undue that move in January. In 2005 Mr. Bock quit his job to take on the full-time role as Trustees clerk, as did Ms. McNally in 2007. Mr. Bock now works for the town’s Housing Department. Mr. Taylor said that the board may consider making the clerk’s position a part-time post again and splitting some of the logistical responsibilities with the assistant clerk’s position. Ms. McNally warned that the day-to-day business of the Trustees office is far more demanding now than it was even a few years ago and that the new majority would be well served to study the needs of the board before making any decisions about its internal structure or its overtures outside the town.
“I would hope this new group will allow me to educate them as to why the board has taken a certain direction with policies and procedures,” Ms. McNally said. “That would be my hope, that they won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”