The Southampton Town Board adopted a sweeping overhaul of its regulatory boards’ future makeup on Tuesday night, blocking members of any one political party from holding more than three seats on a board, in hopes of soothing concerns about conflicts of interest and political patronage.
Starting with next year’s appointments, no more than three members of any party may serve on any one of the town’s three land-use regulatory boards: the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Conservation Board. The limit will be enforced only as seats on the boards come up for reappointment, two or three at a time each year, until the mandated political balance is achieved. The law places no restrictions on party coalitions or on board members switching parties once they have been appointed.
The amendment to the town’s ethics code was passed by the Town Board in a bipartisan vote but over the objections and pleas for further limits on political involvement from Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who had also introduced legislation barring political committee members from serving on regulatory boards. The board rejected Ms. Fleming’s bill in its third trip to the table.
The board members who voted in the majority for the new restrictions said the bill imparts a political balance to the boards and should quell concerns of patronage and influence peddling, without restricting those members of the community most prone to public involvement from serving on regulatory boards.
“What I heard people coming up and saying had nothing to do with their political activities or affiliation, it all had to do with the preponderance of one party on a board,” Councilwoman Christine Scalera said in an interview after the vote, referring to the Republican Party’s decades-long dominance of regulatory board seats. “I could wrap my head around that. I see how there could be a misperception of political influence because of that. That’s why I came up with this [legislation]. It is not a watered down version of what Bridget proposed, it’s apples and oranges. I really feel that was politically motivated and unconstitutional.”
Prior to last month, the Zoning Board of Appeals had been comprised of five Republicans, one Conservative and one Democrat. All but the Democrat, Adam Grossman, were members of their party’s committee. In January the Town Board, with bipartisan support, removed two of the long-serving Republicans, Ann Nowak and David Reilly, and replaced them with a registered Democrat and a registered Independent.
Party committee members are elected by registered voters in each voting district and then cast representative votes for the party’s nominees for elected offices in town elections. In the wake of a scandal that spotlighted connections between the Southampton Town Police Department and the Republican Party, the Town Board voted to bar police officers from serving as political committee members. Ms. Fleming sought to extend the ban to appointed board members, citing years of anecdotal evidence and expressions that there was a widespread impression that political registration could get one a leg up before the Republican-dominated boards.
Critics of Ms. Fleming’s law had said it had no real teeth since any board member could simply resign their political committee seat without it really changing their stripes, and served only to inhibit freedoms of association and speech.
Both bills were efforts to address a perception that political influence has been at play in the review of applications before the town’s regulatory boards. On Tuesday night, the board heard a chorus of critics of both proposals.
“I see this law and the prior law regarding committee membership as a subversion of the electoral process, stripping the voice of the people, and I think it is just a bad idea,” said John Bennett, a Southampton attorney and Republican Party committeeman. “Political affiliations have very little, if nothing, to do with land use decisions. It is a canard that is usually brought up by the party that is not in power. And it assumes that Republicans and Democrats have different philosophies on land use, which is just silly.”
Supporters of reform were split in their support for the correct path.
“I like the freedom of association which … guarantees me rights wherever I want to go,” said Dieter von Lehsten. “The resolution talks about the balance on committees so that no party has a majority, which I think is a really good idea.”
But the idea of enforced balance was also seen as toothless and hamstringing board members from appointing a supremely qualified candidate simply because of their party affiliation.
“Our rights to free speech are constricted in all sorts of ways: you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater, judges can’t speak out … you as Town Board members cannot speak on personnel matters … for very good reasons,” said Mackie Finnerty. “As far as balance on the boards … you still could appoint three Republicans and three Conservatives and I don’t see how you’re any further along.”
Ms. Fleming first brought up the issue last spring, introducing her bill to ban members of political committees from serving on the boards. Her proposal failed twice in the face of opposition from the former Republican-Conservative coalition majority, made up of Ms. Scalera and former Councilmen Chris Nuzzi, a Republican, and Jim Malone, a Conservative. Ms. Fleming introduced it again shortly after the new Democratic-Independence coalition took the majority, but quickly found that the support she once had from Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst was gone.
The supervisor said that in the absence of alternatives, she had supported Ms. Fleming’s proposal, albeit with a certain level of discomfort over the restrictions on associations. When an alternative was brought to her, she said, she saw it as a better way to address the concerns at the root of the issue.
“I am not comfortable under any circumstances with curtailing anyone’s right of association and being part of a political committee is just that,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “I also believe that when we appoint people we appoint them with the belief that they will take their oath of office seriously and not let any other affiliation [override] that. If they do … we need to take action.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said she plans to propose further amendments to block the Town Board from leaving seats vacant and to stiffen the penalties for any board member found to be allowing unethical influence seep into his or her official decisions.
Her colleagues twice thwarted Ms. Fleming’s efforts to have the limitation on committee members enacted on Tuesday night. The initial bill failed when the resolution to adopt it was read and none of the other four offered a second to bring it to a vote. Later, with the alternative bill on the table, Ms. Fleming made a motion to make an amendment to that bill providing the additional limitation on committee members. She again received no second.
After the meeting, Ms. Fleming said she felt the exercise had served a good purpose.
“I’m also proud that our efforts met with some success,” she said in a message. “Reform doesn’t happen in a day. The original resolution opened up an important conversation and gave voice to many community members who have felt excluded or disadvantaged. That’s good. And at the end of the day, we did enact ethics reform on the land-use boards, however imperfect it might be.”