Four members of the Southampton Town Board co-sponsored legislation this week that would mandate political balance among members of the town’s appointed regulatory boards, with no one party holding a majority of any board’s seats.
The bill, if approved, would require that no more than three registered members of any one party serve on a regulatory panel at one time. The board members sponsoring the legislation touted it as muting concerns about political favoritism and the threat of a single-party majority on the Town Board “stacking” the regulatory boards with its members.
“We really did this because of the good working relationship this board has, and we wanted to ensure that if the next board might not be getting along so well, you would still have to have that balance on these appointed boards,” Councilwoman Christine Scalera, a co-author of the bill, said after Tuesday’s Town Board meeting. “If you can’t have a majority from one party then you have to work it out together. It evens the playing field.”
The bill will be the subject of a public hearing on February 25.
The legislation was authored by Councilwoman Scalera, a Republican, and Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, a member of the Independence Party who has been supported by the Democrats in her four elections, and was co-sponsored by Councilman Stan Glinka, a Republican, and Councilman Brad Bender, also of the Independence Party.
The bill comes as an alternative to pending legislation authored by Democratic Councilwoman Bridget Fleming that would have barred members of the election committees of the various political parties in the town from serving on any of the appointed boards. Ms. Fleming has introduced her legislation three times, two times prior seeing it fail with three “no” votes from members of the Republican and Conservative parties. Ms. Fleming reintroduced the bill early last month, shortly after the new Democrat-Independence caucus took over the majority of the board.
The bill was due to be voted on by the board on Tuesday, but Ms. Fleming asked that it be tabled, at the request of Mr. Bender, until the public hearing on the new proposal can be held.
“I’m glad that there has been so much discussion about ethics and land use in the past couple weeks,” Ms. Fleming said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I see these two resolutions … as apples and oranges. The current resolution was intended to … ensure that the town government is being conducted in a fair way. The first bill is really directed at folks who play two roles of authority in two entities. While I look forward to discussing the two together, I do look for the distinction between the two.”
The discussion that led to Ms. Fleming’s legislation and the bill introduced this week, sprang from objections raised by Ms. Fleming to the three quasi-judicial regulatory boards—the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Conservation Board—being dominated by members of the town Republican Party’s committee. Until late last month, GOP committee members held five of the six seats on the zoning board and one was held by a Conservative Party committeeman.
Ms. Scalera, the only remaining member of the former conservative majority, has been a strident critic of Ms. Fleming’s bill and her motivations and justifications for proposing it. She has said she thought the move was purely political posturing on her counterpart across the ideological aisle. There has been no evidence offered that would point to a political role in any decisions made by one of the appointed boards. Yet, she said on Tuesday, the public discourse and tales of perceived bias did lead her to believe that some change was warranted.
“I’ve had an issue with Bridget’s bill … I always thought it was politically motivated. But putting that aside, and having gone through the public hearing, gave me pause,” Ms. Scalera said. “I may not agree with the underlying premise, but I agree with the potential for a misconception if there is a complete imbalance on those boards.”
In its appointments to the boards last month, the Town Board ousted two veteran members of the zoning board, Ann Nowak and David Reilly, both Republicans, and replaced them with Laura Stephenson, an Independence Party member, and Helen Burgess, a Democrat. They also reappointed Brian Desesa, a Conservative Party committeeman, leaving the board with three Republicans, two Democrats, an Independent and a Conservative.
In public discussions of Ms. Fleming’s proposal to bar committee persons, supporters have said there has long been a perception among residents of the Town of Southampton that one must be a registered Republican to be assured of getting an approval from one of the regulatory boards.
But opponents have said the proposal quashes involvement of the public in local government and tramples on free speech rights.
On Tuesday, Ms. Throne-Holst said the new alternative the public is being asked to consider avoids those snags and goes further toward scrubbing away any perceptions of bias on the boards than simply forcing board members to give up political posts would.
“If you bar a person from serving on a committee, how does that play out? They send in their resignation to the political party and go about their business … as they always would have,” the supervisor said. “It simply doesn’t change the heft of what we’re looking to do here. And it starts to tread on the idea that we have a constitutional right of association.”
She noted that Ms. Fleming’s legislation would still allow a party with majority rule to “stack” the regulatory board’s with its own people, as long as they simply abdicated any official roles they had for the time they served as a regulator.