During an impromptu appearance in front of the Hampton Bays Civic Association on Monday night, three Southampton Town Trustees voiced their opinions about ongoing lawsuits that they say are threatening their board’s autonomy.
Board President Eric Shultz, along with Trustees Bill Pell and Scott Horowitz, addressed questions about a State Supreme Court ruling handed down by Justice Peter H. Mayer last month that gave the Southampton Town Board control over the Trustees’ nine bank accounts. Members of the Trustees, who are charged with overseeing the town’s waterfront and baybottoms, also pleaded for the public’s support.
“Just let us go to trial,” Mr. Shultz said, expressing his frustration about the West Hampton Dunes dispute that has dragged on for four years. “Let’s stop all the paperwork and the thousands and thousands of dollars that are being spent—it’s misuse. I’d rather put that in clams in the bay than in generating all this paperwork.”
The lawsuits in question are between the Trustees and a group of West Hampton Dunes residents. Those suits are part of a series of long-running disputes between the Trustees and incorporated villages within Southampton Town, some of which believe the board should not have authority over any land within the villages. The West Hampton Dunes residents have also accused the Trustees of inappropriately distributing funds to nonprofit organizations, and argued that it is not appropriate for the Trustees to maintain their own bank accounts independent of the town.
Justice Mayer issued two rulings, the first coming in January stating that the Trustees are not a sovereign governing body and, therefore, should not control their own bank accounts. The second ruling, which was handed down earlier this month, stated that the Trustees, whose existence was established by English settlers of pre-colonial Southampton in the 1640s, have no jurisdiction within the town’s incorporated villages.
The Trustees plan on filing an appeal of the decision regarding their bank accounts with the State Court of Appeals on Thursday. Because the Trustees do not have access to funds, they cannot pay lawyers to represent them in court and attorneys Richard Cahn and Joe Lombardo are now working pro bono.
Mr. Shultz said he has been frustrated by the legal process, citing the ability of the plaintiffs—in this instance, four West Hampton Dunes residents who are accusing the Trustees of inappropriately distributing money to nonprofits—to levy allegations in court without the individual Trustees getting a chance to defend themselves. He added that if the lawsuit could be brought to trial more expediently, it would save both time and money.
“What it really comes down to is anybody can make any accusation they want, then it gets in the headlines of the paper and, unfortunately, we’re in a position where the only way we can get our point across is by coming to meetings like this, because we certainly don’t have it in the courts right now” Mr. Shultz said. “You would think the judge would say, ‘OK, let’s hear both sides of the story.’ No, it doesn’t work like that.”
Hampton Bays resident Helen Burgess criticized Mr. Shultz’s description of the litigation as being one-sided and an inaccurate representation of the facts. Ms. Burgess, a recently appointed member of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, said if the matter actually goes to trial, the Trustees will be able to offer their side.
“I find it repulsive that you portray something totally inaccurately and make yourself a victim,” Ms. Burgess said during the public forum. “Because you are not a victim. Because it isn’t like you had an unfair trial.”
Hampton Bays Civic Association Vice President Bruce King invited the Trustees to speak during the meeting to give citizens the opportunity to learn more about the ongoing litigation. Mr. Pell asked the 20 or so audience members to put their support behind the Trustees during their legal battles. Mr. King even asked civic members to “like” the Trustees on Facebook, “because we need all the support we can get,” he said.
Mr. Pell said the lawsuits and injunctions are undermining the Trustees’ influence in the town, saying they are now “right below” the dog catcher.
“We definitely need all the freeholders, all the common people to get behind us and help us,” he said. “We’re gonna win, if not we’re gonna go down fighting.”
The Trustees also called upon the Southampton Town Board to back them up. Mr. Shultz noted that the board passed a resolution expressing support for the Trustees at a recent meeting, but members still have gone along with the court-issued injunction by taking over the Trustees’ finances.
Mr. Shultz added that he and the other Trustees do not want to have to call a special meeting to seek Town Board approval on every contract and expenditure, as the court order requires.
Town Councilman Brad Bender attended Monday’s meeting, but was reluctant to provide insight into how the Town Board would handle the issue moving forward.
“All I’ll say is that we support the Trustees 100 percent and always have,” Mr. Bender said. “People say we don’t support them and that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”