Speakers at hearing split on proposal to change Southampton Town ethics code

This file image shows Southampton Town Hall on This file image shows Southampton Town Hall on July 14, 2012. Photo Credit: Ian J. Stark

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Southampton Town is considering a change in the ethics code that would keep town political committee members -- the men and women who pick candidates, raise funds for campaigns and turn out the vote on Election Day -- from serving on the town's influential Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board and Conservation Board.

Last week's hearing was the third on the proposal, and its author, Democratic Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, said it drew the biggest crowd so far. The speakers were evenly split on the measure.

Members of the three boards are appointed by the town council, but act independently in granting variances from the town code, approving development projects, recommending rezonings and identifying properties the town should preserve.

While Fleming said she had no examples of improper political influence on any of the boards, she said she was concerned with the appearance of a conflict of interest.

One of the speakers at the hearing, Sally Pope, a former town board member, said the change would rid the town of the appearance that politically connected people get better treatment.

The proposal, which will be considered again later this month, drew pointed criticism from a number of speakers who said it was unfair and possibly illegal. Former Suffolk County Court Judge Gary Weber, along with former town Councilwoman Martha Rogers and former county Legis. Bill Jones, (R-Sag Harbor) all said keeping anyone from serving on those boards just because that person may hold office in a town political party was wrong.

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Weber said the proposed change, if enacted, could violate a person's constitutional right to free speech and the right to associate with others. "This raises significant legal issues," he said.

Fleming said the town can legally put restrictions on its board appointments. And, she added, Southold and East Hampton have similar restrictions.

She said she made the proposal to keep political committeemen off those boards a year ago when more than half the 21 appointees on these boards were committeemen and Republicans dominated the town board, a situation that changed this year. She said that while Democrats and Independence Party candidates now have more power in the town, it was only fair to introduce the proposal again.

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"What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," she said.

In Southampton, as elsewhere, political committee members pick the candidates on their party tickets, help raise the funds for local elections and work to get out the vote on Election Day. Fleming said that anyone who takes a town appointment can always temporarily step down from a party post, and can still support party candidates, raise funds and carry nominating petitions.

On the night of the hearing last week, Fleming voted to reappoint Thomas Rickenbach, a Republican Party committeeman, to a second term on the town's Conservation Board. She said she saw no contradiction in the action.

In an interview, Rickenbach said he has never been asked by his party to take a position while on the Conservation Board.

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