Business Not Quite As Usual For Southampton Trustees

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The Southampton Town Trustees were granted a stay last Thursday, February 27, that allows them to continue to conduct business until April 1, according to their attorney, Joe Lombardo.

At a work session on Monday, the Trustees did just that—to the extent that their hands were no longer tied by a January State Supreme Court decision that they are not autonomous and thus may not maintain their own bank accounts. A subsequent injunction in February ordered them to turn their accounts over to the Southampton Town comptroller’s office, but last week’s stay put a stop to the injunction, pending an appeal by the 374-year-old panel.

The first item of business on the first-meeting-back agenda was the annual dock lottery drawing. Each spring, the Trustees make town boat slips available for a fee through a lottery system, putting the proceeds in a fund to repair docks and bulkheads. They are quick to point out that the docks they maintain are in fact owned by the town.

The fund hovers at around $200,000 currently, according to the Trustees, but repairs needed throughout the town will cost about $1.5 million.

“Some people see that as hoarding money, but they can’t seem to get it through their heads that it is designated for the town’s docks,” said an agitated Trustee Bill Pell, staring at the wall that separates the Trustees’ meeting room from the offices of Town Board members.

Meanwhile, Billy Mack of First Coastal Corporation, an engineering firm based in Westhampton Beach, has a stockpile of about 10,000 cubic yards of excavated sand drying out, but cannot pay the Trustees to use it because the sale of sand is at the heart of the financial questions in the courtroom.

“Billy excavated the sand on good faith from us that he would buy it,” said Trustee Chairman Eric Shultz. “Unintended consequences of these lawsuits, Billy—I’m sorry. Unfortunately, you and the rest of the freeholders are caught up in it too.”

The Trustees also discussed restocking ponds with trout. Trustee Ed Warner Jr., who was in charge of seeking bids for the project, was able to get only two, because only two companies within delivery distance sell the right fish in the numbers the Trustees would need. Both have performed the restocking in the past two years.

Again, this led to a discussion about the overall purchasing practices of the Trustees.

“What if I know the only three guys in town that have the equipment we need for a job, and I only get a bid from those three guys?” Mr. Shultz asked Mr. Lombardo.

“You are, of course, allowed to use the expertise you have built up in your position over time,” Mr. Lombardo answered. “It would be ludicrous to notify a contractor that you know doesn’t have the proper equipment.”

The attorney noted that any work under $20,000 by town law is considered an informal bid, free of constraints. He suggested that the Trustees stick to their normal policy of seeking three bids for such work.

“I’m just worried about some inflammatory comments made by people in court documents,” Mr. Shultz replied. He added that some of the allegations against them “look great in court papers, but they have no concept based in reality on how things get done out here.”

Trustee Scott Horowitz suggested drawing up, over the next few meetings, thresholds for necessary bidders and procedures to make the process more transparent. Other suggestions were to compile an email list of all nearby contractors who are interested in bidding on Trustee jobs, and notifying them all of every project, from stocking ponds to building docks.

Representatives of the town’s procurement department will be at the next meeting and start to set up the new protocols.

Also on Monday, the Trustees ruled on an application for repair work to the Oakland’s Marina docks in Hampton Bays.

Mr. Warner, who oversees that area for the Trustees, said he has done business with the Oakland family for many years, and would not vote. Mr. Pell said he, too, has connections to the marina, as his family previously owned the property, and he himself had built the docks needing repairs.

Highlighting the murky waters that the Trustees often have to wade through, Trustee Ray Overton asked rhetorically at the work session, “Who here hasn’t done business then with the people coming before us?” The dock repair application was approved 3-0, but the question lingered.

Bill Stubelek, whose family owns Ponquogue Marina, on a creek in Hampton Bays that is in line to be dredged after a more than 20-year wait, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mr. Warner, publicly supported the board and echoed his sentiments after the meeting.

“As an institution, as the oldest form of democracy in this country, we support the Trustees,” Mr. Stubelek said. “I may or may not agree with your policies and rulings, but I agree full force with what you stand for. Democratically elected people should be defeated at the ballot box, not by what I consider city people with bigger pockets influencing a home-rule scenario, ruining our closest and most real interaction with government. It is an assault on the best form of democracy.”

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