When the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees adopted a new policy earlier this year limiting public comment to the end of its monthly meeting — after board members have already decided on and voted on every single resolution — it was clear it was not a well thought-out decision and one clearly meant to stifle public comment. That was proven to be true on both fronts during Tuesday’s Village Board meeting when trustees voted, 4-1, to award a contract and approve funding to pave over a small portion of village-owned land surrounded by the Long Pond Greenbelt — one of New York State’s most environmentally significant areas — so it can serve as a police impound yard.
Despite a protest that included 60 or so people outside Village Hall on Monday afternoon, and considering the fact that the trustees knew opponents of the resolution were sitting in the audience, nobody was given an opportunity to discuss the issue before a vote was taken on Tuesday. Until late in the meeting, long after the votes, board members offered no explanation for why they were moving forward. This flawed way of conducting business — the public’s business — makes it clear to residents that on this issue, or any issue that does not require a public hearing, their opinions and ideas are unnecessary and unwanted.
There is not a single other elected body we cover at The Sag Harbor Express that operates in this fashion. In fact, most boards — many of which meet more than once a month — offer at least two opportunities, one at the beginning and one at the end of a meeting, for the public to discuss virtually anything they want, including critiques of elected officials.
In North Haven Village, that board goes out of its way to ensure the residents who attend its meetings are afforded every opportunity to interact with the mayor and trustees. Most boards also hold work sessions where they deliberate the issues being considered in public, which is precisely where the law dictates local government decisions should be discussed. When elected officials and members of the public debate, especially on things they disagree about, it allows those in the room, including newspaper reporters, to understand differing views and learn more about the particular issues. And even when it is not a matter of education, elected officials should make it a priority to hear from their constituency before they make formal decisions, even when that constituency is being critical.
That should be true for both small and big issues, although the issue of the impound yard is certainly the most contentious this board has faced since it began considering its gross floor area law for residential properties, which was a good move and a long overdue addition to the village zoning code.
The idea of placing an impound yard in this area — despite its previous use as a dumping ground — has been opposed by more than just the usual band of do-gooders. The Southampton Town Planning Board appeared very concerned about the concept, even as it moved forward with the knowledge that the village could argue it did not need its approval. It has been opposed by a number of local environmental groups and New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. The local school board even took on the topic, with most members standing in opposition to the plan, despite it falling far outside their purview.
Why are people reacting so strongly to this plan? Mostly because the Long Pond Greenbelt is so special, and despite the property’s previous uses, municipalities today are often reclaiming areas like this, remediating them if necessary, and preserving them, not returning them to an historic use that could negatively impact one of our most precious resources.
At least one member of the village board, Trustee Aidan Corish, who voted ‘no’ on Tuesday night, understands this. But as one speaker noted, the rest of the board has dug in their heels and arrogantly or at least defensively written off all opposition as uninformed, superficial or just plain flaky.
The Village Police handled only 27 impounded vehicles last year. At any one time, there are usually no more than two or three cars that need to be securely stored. Is it really impossible to find a place for such a modest need other than the Long Pond Greenbelt?