Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni got an earful of blowback and angst from the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee Monday over the Town Board’s push for new regulations to guide how the CACs operate.
The draft rules, which would require the CACs to stick to Town Board-related issues only and stop lobbying the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals over land use applications, sparked the Bridgehampton panel to spend nearly two hours at its monthly meeting Monday pondering the purpose of the group’s existence and considering alternatives.
Converting the group into a civic association with no political connection to the Town Board, free to raise funds and advocate on behalf of the community, was mentioned repeatedly.
“It seems as if there have been so many overdevelopment issues,” CAC chair Pamela Harwood told Councilman Schiavoni, the Town Board’s liaison to the Bridgehampton CAC, “and the citizens have been so vocal in weighing in about these issues, many people can only see this as an attempt to stifle our feedback.”
“Everyone agrees the big stuff going on in Southampton Town,” Ms. Hardwood added, “is all about zoning and planning and development. And minus that, people are wondering what we’d give you feedback about.”
She added that CAC members across the town were not asked to participate in the revision process.
“We are creatures of the Town Board,” member Peter Wilson said of the town’s nine other CACs. “We are appointed by the Town Board and we serve at the Town Board’s behest. Does that mean we can only communicate with the Town Board about its concerns?
“We’ve never interpreted it that way and it’s never been used that way by any CACS,” he asserted. “They’ve always felt free as an organization to take a proposed site plan and get a copy of it from the Planning Board and bring it here and discuss it and then write a report or make recommendations to the Planning Board.”
He noted that, according to Mr. Schiavoni, one of the board’s goals in rewriting the rules was to “clarify the language. But I think what we’re afraid of, frankly, is that you want to limit our activities, especially with respect to these boards.”
“I don’t believe that’s the intention,” Mr. Schiavoni said.
Mr. Schiavoni said the push for new regulations started after Councilperson Julie Lofstad and Supervisor Jay Schneiderman had “conversations about some of the concern about how the CACs were operating and the desire here was not to limit what the CACs were doing but to give some kind of unified guidelines for how the CACs work.”
“You all do a fine job,” he said of the Bridgehampton CAC, but “there are some CACs that are just not active; they don’t have enough volunteers. Some CACs have three people on them, five people; with that difference in CACs through the town, the desire was to get some kind of more uniform operating procedures for the CACs.”
Another issue “we wrestle with in democracies,” he added, is “factions” taking over smaller CACs “that can sway or get more of a voice in that community.”
One element of the draft rules would require formal minutes to be submitted to the Town Board after each meeting that must include all viewpoints expressed at CAC meetings, including those of non-members.
The first public word that new rules were in the works came at the Town Board’s November 1 work session, when Senior Assistant Town Attorney Richard Harris and Deputy Supervisor Frank Zappone met with the board to discuss the topic. Mr. Harris said there had been “multiple meetings” by then among Ms. Lofstad, Mr. Harris and Mr. Zappone to “evaluate the purposes and goals of the CACs” and to determine if the current “rules are facilitating their work for the Town Board.”
Supervisor Schneiderman said the goal was to achieve “the most efficient and effective citizen input.” The CACs’ “one single purpose,” he said, was to give advice to the Town Board.
Key changes they agreed on were to “focus the purpose the CAC to serve as a link between the Town Board and the community,” Mr. Harris said, dealing only with “Town Board issues.” Input to the board, he said, would be given through minutes and “not done by resolutions” approved in a vote of the CAC majority “so it would include all opinions … of anyone who comes to the meetings.”
“This is a way to make it more representative,” Ms. Lofstad explained, so “guests from the community can have their opinion shared.”
Supervisor Schneiderman noted two problems he had encountered with CACS in the Town of East Hampton when he was town supervisor there from 2000 to 2003: After a CAC wrote the FAA with concerns about the town airport, the federal agency assumed it was an official communication from the town itself; in another case, Mr. Schneiderman said he had to wait outside a meeting of a CAC because, he was told, its members were interviewing his election opponent. “I don’t think CACs should be having executive sessions,” Mr. Schneiderman commented at the November 1 session.
A resolution to adopt the rules was on the agenda of the November 13 regular Town Board meeting, but Ms. Lofstad tabled a vote after Marlene Haresign, a founding member of the Water Mill CAC, complained during the public comment portion of the meeting that no CAC members had been notified of the revisions. She particularly questioned the language requiring CACs to deal only with issues that are pertinent to the Town Board itself. Her CAC, she said, often deals with land use cases and has made many recommendations to the Town Planning Board over the years.
Supervisor Schneiderman responded that the Town Board legally had no authority to involve itself in Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals decision-making and, as the Town Board’s appointed representative, neither did the CACs. That was appropriate for a private civic association, he argued.
At the Bridgehampton CAC meeting on Monday, Ms. Harwood asked Mr. Schiavoni, “Why wouldn’t the Town Board first reach out to individual CACs and say, ‘Listen, your CAC’s a little too far beyond the rules, we need to rein certain things in?’ Why not deal with the renegade first … Why go whole hog and rewrite the entire laws and not give a heads up to any of the CAC chairs?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Schiavoni replied. “Frankly, I was working on something else” and wasn’t involved in those discussions.
“Let’s stop dancing around the tree here,” said Mr. Wilson. “If in fact Pam can’t stand up at a public hearing and represent the thoughts of this group … and if Jay is right that a civic association may be what we should be doing here, I can’t speak for everybody in this room but I think you can kiss the CACs good bye because, frankly, I think 99 percent of the reason why people get involved in these things is because it’s what is going on in their towns and villages and hamlets in terms of development.”
Ms. Harwood noted that Mr. Schneiderman and Councilwoman Christine Scalera were attending the meeting that night of the Hampton Bays Civic Association, which is marking its 100thanniversary.