A bill banning those who take an active role in party politics from serving on Southampton Town’s appointed regulatory boards was introduced to the Town Board this week, for a third time, and will be the subject of a new public hearing on January 28.
The reintroduction of the bill, by Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, comes as the new board considers the reappointment of several veteran regulatory board members who hold the sort of political positions the bill would ban. If the bill is adopted, those members would have to abdicate their political party committee posts or remove themselves from consideration for reappointment.
A similar bill barring Town Police officers from sitting on political party committees was adopted by the board last year, and one of the department’s top brass, Lieutenant James Kiernan, was forced to give up his political post.
The Town Board did not make its board appointments and reappointments at its organizational meeting earlier this month, as has been the custom, but Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said that board members have pledged to make appointments by their first meeting in February. Ms. Fleming’s scheduling of the public hearing on the restricting legislation for the board’s very next meeting was clearly intended to spur a vote on the legislation before those appointments are made.
“I’m very happy everyone voted for it and … I’m hopeful we’ll see it passed into law this time,” Ms. Fleming said after Tuesday’s Town Board meeting.
The bill would ban only members of the three quasi-judicial boards—the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Conservation Board—from serving on political committees. The more than three dozen other members of review boards and advisory committees could continue to serve on political party committees.
The board unanimously approved scheduling the public hearing, but there has not been support for its limitations on both sides of the aisle in the past. With more than half of the members of the town’s “big three” regulatory boards also serving as members of the Republican Party and Conservative Party committees, support from the right has been largely absent at previous discussions of the restrictions.
When the bill was first introduced last spring, the two Republican members of the board, Christine Scalera and former Councilman Chris Nuzzi, joined Conservative former Councilman Jim Malone in blocking a public hearing on the measure. After an outpouring of criticism for stifling public discussion, primarily from Democrats, the three allowed a second incarnation of the bill to go to a public hearing, but then voted it down in the midst of last fall’s election campaign, saying it was a political ploy by Ms. Fleming during an election year, and that the town should not be limiting or discouraging public involvement in town government.
This time around, the other side has the majority, in Ms. Fleming, Ms. Throne-Holst and new Councilman Brad Bender, and the bill may have the support to pass. During the recent campaign, Mr. Bender said he supported the exclusion of political committee members from regulatory boards.
Ms. Scalera remains critical of the proposal. “It is apparent and unfortunate that with the many good government priorities most of the Town Board members have been, remain and in some instances have newly committed to working on, [Ms. Fleming] seems incapable of doing that and instead continues to direct her efforts toward divisive and partisan gamesmanship,” she said in a message this week. “I find it absolutely astonishing that a sitting councilperson accusing others of unethical and inherent conflicts fails to articulate any act or circumstance to support that position, other than her own behavior, where she openly admitted that she voted for an appointment she had serious ethical concerns about. Apparently, someone needs to remind … Councilwoman Fleming that the residents of this town expect us, whether political pressure exists or not, to do what we believe is the right thing and in their best interest.”
Ms. Fleming has said in discussions of the bill that she voted to reappoint board members in the past—before introducing her legislation—who sat on political committees, even though she had reservations about the potential for conflicts of interest.
There are 10 seats on the three regulatory boards up for appointment this year. Seven of the 10 were held most recently by individuals who also serve on political party committees. Just five of those individuals are seeking reappointment to their seats, with the retirement of Larry Toler from the Planning Board and Scott Horowitz, a former Conservation Board member, having won election to the Town Trustees. Both men are Republican Party committeemen.
All three members of the Zoning Board of Appeals who are up for appointments sit on political party committees—Ann Nowak and Dave Reilly for the Town Republican Party, and Brian DeSesa on the Town Conservative Party. Conservation Board member Tom Rickenbach is a Republican Party committeeman, as is Planning Board member John Zuccarelli. Planning Board members Jaqui Lofaro and Phil Keith also are up for reappointment but are not members of political committees.
Even if the bill were to pass and those sitting members seeking reappointment were forced to give up their political committee posts, or their board seats, the handful of remaining members of the boards who serve on committees would not have to step down from the political roles. The bill would impose the restriction only upon the expiration of a board member’s current term and his or her consideration for reappointment.
Also on Tuesday, the Town Board unanimously approved allowing suspended public safety dispatcher Kathleen Dineen to return to work after an appointed hearing officer found Ms. Dineen not guilty of disciplinary charges filed against her by department Chief Robert Pearce. The hearing officer, former Town Attorney Eileen Powers, heard six days of testimony in the case before clearing Ms. Dineen of the charges.
Upon return to work Ms. Dineen will be expected to meet regularly with Chief Pearce or another superior officer to review her work performance. She will be paid her salary for the period she was suspended.
Details of the disciplinary charges against Ms. Dineen were kept confidential by the town.