When Southampton Town Trustee Bill Pell applied in November for a permit from the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals to make a modification to his Tuckahoe house, he was required to fill out an “open government disclosure form.”
Among its requirements, the document mandated that Mr. Pell, who was recently reelected to his fourth two-year term, disclose if any of the appointed zoning board members charged with reviewing his application—which seeks raise his house above the flood plain—had any vested interest in him personally.
The form then specifically asks if Mr. Pell, or anyone associated with him, such as his attorney, had made any kind of campaign contribution exceeding $500 to any town official or employee, or “to any political party committee designed to accept donations” on behalf of a town official or employee, in the prior 24 months before the filing of his application. Those who fail to properly disclose such relationships, the form notes, could be charged with a misdemeanor.
The point of the form, Mr. Pell explained this week, is to smoke out those applicants who think they can use campaign contributions, and other political favors, to secure a favorable decision when it comes time to apply for a permit.
A member of the Independence Party who was cross-endorsed by Democrats this year, Mr. Pell suggested last week that his board adopt a similar policy, one that requires applicants to disclose such campaign contributions. The point, he said, is to eliminate any suggestion of impropriety by those who serve with him on the dais.
“Some Trustees, if someone offers them money, they say, ‘Give it to the [political] party,’” Mr. Pell said this week, declining later to identify who has made such comments. “I know this is being done.”
Still, Mr. Pell said he did not expect the amount of opposition he faced at the board’s most recent meeting on December 16.
Immediately after Mr. Pell presented the idea, outgoing Trustee Raymond B. Overton, who lost his first reelection bid last month, questioned the need for the additional paperwork. Mr. Overton, a Republican, also stated that such a requirement would be redundant, pointing to how all candidates for public office in the state are already required to disclose campaign finances.
Trustee Scott Horowitz, a fellow Republican, echoed those sentiments, stating that such a requirement would create unnecessary redundancy. He noted that anyone can check campaign donation information on the New York State Board of Elections website at www.elections.ny.gov/CampaignFinance.html.
But Trustee Eric Shultz, a registered Democrat, said he supports the suggestion, adding that he would welcome any form of additional transparency. “The more disclosure the better,” Mr. Shultz added.
“If you’re against this, you must be hiding something,” Mr. Pell charged.
But Mr. Horowitz said it is politics, and not a desire for transparency, that is fueling Mr. Pell’s effort to require applicants fill out such a disclosure form. Both Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Overton said that, rather than adding another layer of bureaucracy, their colleagues could show that they are not being unduly influenced by outside parties by simply reporting their campaign finances, and listing their donors, with the state—something Mr. Pell and Mr. Shultz have not done, according to state records.
“They haven’t filed—they are breaking the law,” Mr. Horowitz said of Mr. Pell and Mr. Shultz. “But they want to make laws for other people?”
Mr. Horowitz received $13,140 in contributions during the last campaign, while Mr. Overton accepted $7,525, and Trustee President Ed Warner Jr., a Republican, received $1,650, according to state records kept on the New York State Board of Education website. In contrast, Mr. Pell and Mr. Shultz have not disclosed their campaign contributions from the past election, according to the same website.
But Mr. Pell and Mr. Shultz said there’s a good reason why they did not report their campaign contributions for 2015 to the state: neither received campaign donations. Instead, both said they spent money out of their own pockets.
Mr. Pell said he spent only $150 of his own money on his reelection campaign. Likewise, Mr. Shultz said he spent $180 out of pocket on his campaign, explaining that he used old signs to cut down on costs.
But the State Board of Elections requires that all candidates keep track of their campaign finances. The law states that any candidate who raises or spends more than $1,000 must report their finances to the state, while lesser amounts must still be reported to Suffolk County. That includes any out-of-pocket money spent by the candidates, according to state election law.
According to John W. Conklin, the director of public information for the State Board of Elections, only candidates who fail to raise or spend more than $50 are exempt from filing campaign finances. The law also states that “any person who fails to file a statement required to be filed by this article shall be subject to a civil penalty, not in excess of one thousand dollars.”
Mr. Shultz said this week that he’s contacting the State Board of Elections to get clarification on what he should be doing with his campaign finance information.
While it does not offer an itemized list of filings by Mr. Pell, the state website does show that the Southampton Town Independence Party, to which Mr. Pell belongs, accepted a $10,000 contribution on June 9, 2015, from Manhattan resident Jeffrey Lignelli—who also owns an oceanfront house that sits three properties east of the location of the regular Mecox cut in Bridgehampton. No stranger to politics, Mr. Lignelli has made considerable donations to other elected officials, including Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and other elected town officials.
When asked about the donation, Mr. Pell said he is not affiliated with the Southampton Town Independence Party Committee, which accepted the donation from Mr. Lignelli. Mr. Pell also said he did not accept any of that donation for his most recent campaign.
But State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr., who chairs the committee, said this week that while Mr. Pell is not on the committee itself, he was a member of the Independence Party during both the 2013 and 2015 elections. Therefore, Mr. Thiele said, Mr. Pell did benefit from the contributions, though he could not say how much money specifically went to Mr. Pell’s reelection campaign.
Mr. Pell, meanwhile, said he does not recall seeing his name appear on any of the committee’s election signs this year.
In contrast, Mr. Horowitz said he and other candidates always benefit from donations made to a political party, including his Republican Party. “Some ads get paid for by the committee,” he said. “They don’t get paid for only out of campaign funds.”
Regarding Mr. Pell’s latest push regarding the disclosure form requirement, Mr. Horowitz said that such distractions take away from the primary duty of the Trustees, which is to protect the public’s access to the beach. He also suggested that Mr. Pell is more interested in job titles and politics, stating that he is stirring the pot because he wants to serve as secretary/treasurer of the board—a post now held by Mr. Horowitz.
As for Mr. Warner, he said he also does not understand Mr. Pell’s insistence that such a form be filled out by applicants, adding that such a measure will only further complicate the permitting process. Mr. Warner also noted that, when there is a potential conflict of interest, he has always recused himself from voting on a permit.
Mr. Horowitz was more blunt in his opposition, again suggesting that Mr. Pell and Mr. Shultz get their campaign finances in order before making such a request of the public. “The intent is questionable when you have guys who don’t follow election transparency,” Mr. Horowitz said. “This is wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Mr. Pell’s resolution was ultimately tabled and could be discussed at the board’s first meeting of the new year, set for Monday, January 4, 2016.