The Southampton Town Board this week again hashed out the idea of barring election committee members of local political parties from serving on appointed regulatory boards to avoid the possibility, or appearance, that political affiliations can win favoritism before them.
Despite a new Democratic-Independence majority that stands poised to be able to force through the new regulation, which would most widely affect Republican party members on the boards in coming years, there was not clear support for the proposal on Tuesday night.
Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming has proposed the limitation three times now. In her first attempt last spring the bill was blocked from even having a public hearing and, the second time, it was killed in the fall by the former Republican-Conservative majority on the board following a public debate.
The third time around on Tuesday, Ms. Fleming heard familiar criticism of the bill: That it would stifle free speech and discourage community-minded residents from coming forward to serve on boards.
“Freedom of association is the right to join elite groups of one’s choosing,” said Bill Hughes, a Republican Party committeeman, saying that the proposed restriction would rob voters of the right to choose their representatives. “Being elected a committee person for a political party is a form of free speech. A committee person is the spokesman of the voters in a district.”
Likewise, Ms. Fleming’s responses were familiar: That there has long been a perception that one’s political registration was either a roadblock or a free pass to regulatory approvals from the town’s sub-boards. She again cited the Zoning Board of Appeals, which hands out or withholds the permission slips to escape zoning restrictions necessary for many house expansions. Until this week, six of the seven members of the zoning board served on the election committees of the Republican or Conservative parties.
“We simply cannot ignore the stream of people that we’ve had stand up and say there is a perception that there is an insider’s game,” Ms. Fleming said, echoing impressions shared by members of the audience at Tuesday night’s Town Board meeting. “I know I was criticized for bringing this forward when there was a Republican majority on this board. There is no longer a Republican majority on this board. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Councilwoman Christine Scalera, a Republican who has been Ms. Fleming’s most strident foil on the measure, questioned the consistency of her Democratic counterpart’s application of her beliefs on the issue. Ms. Fleming voted earlier in the evening to appoint a member of the Democratic Party’s committee, John Bouvier, to the Conservation Board while voting against the reappointments of John Zuccarelli, a Republican Party committeeman, to the Planning Board, and Brian Desesa, a Conservative Party committeeman, to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“While I appreciate the consistency of your positions, it’s the inconsistency of your actions I question,” Ms. Scalera said.
“I made my decision based on individual candidates,” Ms. Fleming countered, noting that she had voted in favor of reappointing Tom Rickenbach, a Republican Party committeeman, to the Conservation Board.
Ms. Scalera said that Ms. Fleming seemed to be placing too much weight on the ability of board members to act with bias and said there was a distinct lack of evidence that such a thing takes place.
“The way the land use boards are set up … they do not have the discretionary power to make decisions on whims or this pressure they are supposedly receiving that there has been no evidence of,” she argued.
Ms. Fleming noted that the zoning board, in particular, does have broad discretion and has been the source of the most concerns about favoritism—anecdotal evidence of which seemed to come mostly from those who moved to the area and were told by others that one better be registered as a Republican if they want to secure approval for work on their house.
Whether such collusion was ever present or not, the simple suggestion that it is, when coupled with the nearly complete control of the board by Republican Party operatives, was enough to warrant the board taking action to remove at least one leg of the impression, Ms. Fleming said. She also noted that both East Hampton and Southold towns have adopted similar restrictions on board members.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that removing such impressions of potential improper influences in government has been a priority of her agenda. She also noted that the boards, the zoning board in particular, were evolving with the town political landscape, which is far less lopsided than it once was.
“What may have happened in the [1970s] may have happened,” Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said, nodding to an era when Southampton was ruled almost completely by the Republican Party. “[As public officials] we all have a responsibility to assure ourselves that we are serving regardless of our affiliations. We have a sworn duty.
“I juxtapose that to … the responsibility to deal with perceptions,” she continued. “Therein lies my dilemma with this. It’s a very important issue for us to be deliberating.”