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Appointments to Southampton board criticized

A Southampton Democrat's proposal to bar political committee members from serving on land use boards has sparked a fiery debate about insider politics and Republican hegemony at town hall.

Republican Party officials have had remarkable success getting appointed to Southampton's land use boards.

On the Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals, for example, five of the seven members are Republican Committee members, according to publicly available documents.

Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said this week that 11 of 21 land use board members are also Conservative or Republican Committee members. And the "two hats" presents the potential for a conflict of interest.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Fleming of grandstanding before an election.

Fleming had proposed barring party officials from sitting on land use boards in Southampton last month. But the vote to schedule a public hearing on the resolution, usually a formality, was rejected by the two Republicans and Conservative Party member, without discussion.

Mike Anthony, of Westhampton, said voter turnout in local elections is so low "because they see government as part of an insider game." He said residents should feel "like they can be part of government, part of the community, without having to be part of a political party."

Party committee members pick who is nominated for office. Once elected, Fleming said, the town board members turn around and nominate committeemen and women for the appointed boards, which can approve developments, allow zoning changes, or, in the case of the conservation board, decide building permits on sensitive wetland areas.

"There is an inherent conflict of interest when you have that circle," Fleming said at Tuesday's meeting. "It creates a circle of influence that's just not healthy."

Republicans questioned the timing, just weeks before an election that will decide the political makeup of the town board. Southampton has historically been controlled by Republicans, but the party's voter registration gains have dwindled in recent years to Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

Republican Councilman Chris Nuzzi challenged Fleming to cite specific instances of conflicts, which she declined to do.

"She keeps insinuating problems exist with particular appointments -- most of whom she voted for," Nuzzi said after the meeting. "I don't appreciate across-the-board accusations by Councilwoman Fleming unfairly levied against people."

Fleming said her problem is not with any individual or decision, but what she called a "systemic ethical flaw in the system." She said it rose out of proposing -- and passing -- a similar resolution in May that barred members of the police department from being political committee members. Southold and East Hampton prohibit political officials from serving on land use boards, she said.

Fleming said she had concerns about some past appointments but still voted to appoint most of the people anyway.

Councilwoman Christine Scalera, a Republican, Wednesday criticized her for making those votes despite having concerns. "That to me is alarming," Scalera said.

Fleming said she had not known the extent of the ties between committee members and land use boards until recently.

Southampton Republican Party chairman William Wright did not return calls for comment Wednesday. Neither did the party vice chairman David Gilmartin, a local attorney who frequently appears before town boards representing developers.

Herbert Phillips, chairman of the Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals and a GOP committeeman, Wednesday defended the committeemen who also serve on town boards and said that holding both positions is not a conflict, even with attorneys who are also committeemen.

"I treat them all like [garbage], so it comes out even," he said. "There's no special consideration for anyone.""Each and every one of them is qualified to be a board member," Phillips said. He said there might be more committeemen on the boards because "maybe they take more interest in the community than other people do."

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