Southampton Town Trustees Appeal For Support As Town Board Listens

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With all five members of the Southampton Town Board looking on, the Southampton Town Trustees rallied for support for their positions and responsibilities at Hampton Bays High School on Tuesday evening, before a large crowd of largely supportive town residents.

Embroiled in a platoon of lawsuits, facing challenges to their ancient sovereignty, their financial independence and their authority along shorefronts, the Trustees called the public forum to share their stance in a legal marathon against local villages and explore residents’ attitudes toward what the future of the board’s role should be.

Town Trustees President Eric Shultz chronicled the four centuries of the board now called the Board of Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonalty of the Town of Southampton, from the colonial-era robber baron landowners that first claimed oversight of the fledgling Southampton settlement, known as the “Proprietors,” to today’s regulators of maritime development and fishing rights.

“In one name or another, we’ve been serving this community for 374 years,” Mr. Schultz, in his 20th year as a Trustee, said.

The Trustees said that despite the appearance of hostile relations with the Town Board in the last couple of years, and especially so in recent months, the two entities have worked together as much as possible. Board members, in a scant few comments at the meeting, voiced support for the Trustees’ role of authority—though not in full-throated chorus.

The Town Board has not expressed any hint of disagreement with a March court ruling that the Trustees are an adjunct to the Town Board and require the Town Board’s permission for any spending of money, including on legal costs. The Trustees have appealed the decision, but the Town Board has not made itself a party in the appeal, even though it was a defendant subject to the ruling.

Highlighting the caustic atmosphere that has surrounded almost everything involving the Trustees in recent months, a stenographer, whom Mr. Shultz announced to the crowd had been sent to the meeting by attorneys for one of the groups of West Hampton Dunes residents they are battling in court, was recording the proceedings of the meeting.

Since the months leading up to the fall elections, the Town Board’s support of the Trustees continuing as an independent board has been called into question, and it was again on Tuesday evening. The board’s relative silence on the issue drew barbs from some in the large audience.

“Get up and take a stand—do you support the Trustees’ position in these court cases or not?” Hampton Bays resident Bill Stubelek challenged the Town Board members seated in the front row of auditorium seats, facing the stage where the Trustees were arranged beneath glowing spotlights. “If you do, say it publicly. If you don’t, say it publicly, so we can be informed the next time the elections come around.”

Mr. Shultz offered something of a defense of the Town Board members, saying they were in attendance to support the Trustees as an entity and hear more about what residents thought of the issues facing them.

“We have a unique system of government here, that we are divided in jurisdiction by the high water line,” Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said. “I’ve been working on the local waterfront revitalization plan with you … we did an education plan about pesticides and runoff, which was in conjunction with the runoff buffer plan you did. And we understand that you are responsible for the waters but don’t have the kind of input you would like.”

When an audience member shouted a question to Ms. Fleming about whether she supported the Trustees remaining an independent board, she said, simply, “Yes.”

Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst touted the fact that the town has been tapped by leading environmentalists and Governor Andrew Cuomo as being at the fore of the fight to reduce nitrogen loading in tidal waters and the harmful algal blooms it has produced. The town and the Town Trustees will have to stand side by side in that fight, she said. She made no specific mention of any of the legal challenges to the Trustees’ sovereignty.

“We support the Trustees and we support the important work that has to happen,” she said. “We support the fact that one of the most important things we can do is support working together with other levels of government. The best thing we can do is stand as a unified town.”

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