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Putting a muzzle on residents isn’t the way to fix Oyster Bay

Oyster Bay Town Hall in 2014.

Oyster Bay Town Hall in 2014. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Oyster Bay’s elected officials ought to focus on the vast problems facing their town. Instead, they’re expending a lot of energy trying to silence people who want to talk about those problems.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, a resolution to limit the length of time residents can address the board was added to the agenda with no prior notice. It was quickly voted on, so there was no opportunity for public comment on a resolution to limit public comment. Residents will now get three minutes to speak on one resolution, and up to 10 minutes to speak on three or more. And those addressing the board at public hearings and during the public comment section will be limited to five minutes each. Many municipalities have such time limits. What’s egregious here is the way these changes were handled and the pattern it continues.

Supervisor John Venditto has mused for months that a time limit might be necessary, though the town has always prided itself on letting people talk. But town lawyers were ordered to draft this resolution. The board suspended its rules to add the motion to the agenda, which Venditto voted to allow. Venditto then told the board the time may have come when it is necessary to adopt such a rule, “as it has been done along the length and breadth of so many municipalities across Long Island.” That he then cast the lone vote against the move doesn’t change the fact that he runs the town and calls the tune.

This month, it’s public comment under attack. Last month, it was a Facebook page that suffered a very expensive salvo. A consultant from a company that charges the town $110 to $175 an hour spent a week looking into the Facebook page of Robert Ripp, a town critic and retired NYPD officer. Ripp posts town documents he gets via the Freedom of Information Law, along with his own angry commentary. The town demanded that Ripp take down the posts. He won’t, though, and it appears the town can’t make him.

Also last month, Venditto and a spokesman for the Nassau County district attorney said the DA’s office has received allegations that a town information technology employee was eavesdropping on phone lines used by town employees. And it was revealed that without the knowledge of town board members, decisions they once voted on to extend service contracts had been shifted to appointed commissioners. The board still approves the spending, but not the contract extensions. Work awarded this way includes $3 million worth to Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving, the entity that paid $2 million to then-Planning Commissioner Frederick Ippolito before he was convicted of tax evasion.

Oyster Bay faces skyrocketing debt and a cash crunch. The district attorney and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating $20 million in loan guarantees the town made for the jailed restaurateur and town vendor Harendra Singh, accused of bribing a former town attorney in exchange for those loan guarantees. The town has lost one of its two debt ratings and is within weeks of losing the other, which is already driving up town borrowing costs. And Venditto, who generally won easily in his first nine runs for the office, triumphed by only 99 votes this past fall.

The best way to silence critics is by working to right the town, not fighting to stifle those who highlight its problems. — The editorial board