A home-rule request in support of state Assembly and Senate bills that clarify the powers of the Southampton Trustees and the adoption of an annual budget for the body were put on hold last week by the Southampton Town Board.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said at a March 12 meeting that after some discrepancy over what powers the law would designate to the trustees, he and the board would like to make sure their understanding of the rights align with those articulated under the Dongan Patent, a 1686 grant that empowered the trustees to act as stewards of publicly owned land and water bodies in the town.
“We need to take a careful look,” Schneiderman said, adding he’s concerned about the trustees’ ability to lease their lands. Schneiderman asked Town Attorney James Burke to investigate the finer details to be discussed at an upcoming work session.
Trustee Bill Pell said it’s very important for the town to reaffirm its backing of the patent.
“It will help us with court cases, help us with the tax bill,” he said. “It makes us stronger. It makes the town stronger; it makes the trustees stronger.”
But he admitted he’s fearful of giving his group its own tax line.
“I think it will destroy the board and hurt the local people,” Pell said. “I’ve been watching how the board works, and I’m afraid. I don’t trust this board. I don’t want to take a chance of hurting the freeholders. I may be one out of five, but I feel very strongly about it.”
Pell used as an example a recent purchase to make his point. Pell said trustees introduced the idea of purchasing a used truck, to which he was opposed. He said his fellow trustees seemed to be against the idea also, after their discussion. But two or three months later, he said, a resolution to purchase a new truck surfaced, which Pell also voted against. It passed without further discussion, he said.
“It was discussed in the back room,” Pell said, adding that after funds were transferred between accounts to acquire the vehicle, an additional resolution was needed because the truck ended up costing $2000 more than originally expected. “Stuff being discussed in the back room can’t be done anymore. This isn’t the old men’s club,” he added.
“I’m afraid of piercing the cap and raising fees to raise funds — we’ve been trying to raise fees the last three cycles,” Pell added. “I’m afraid the fees are going to continue to go up. . . I think there needs to be a complete study, and I think this should go through a few cycles of trustee boards.”
Pell suggested instead that an internal structure like an intermunicipal agreement be made, so that neither the trustees nor the town board feel threatened by the other. It’s a thought Schneiderman said he hadn’t considered. The supervisor suggested a potential local law that would not allow the town to budget the trustees at more than a 10-percent reduction from the prior year without a supermajority vote.
“The core of the debate over the tax line has to do with the independence of the body,” Schneiderman said. “If the town board decides to not fund the trustees, they have very little power, so they have to keep the board happy, which means they’re not truly independent.”
Andrew Brosnan, chairman of Surfrider Foundation’s Eastern Long Island Chapter, a grassroots environmental group that works to protect and preserve the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches, said beach access is important, pledging his non-profit’s support of backing the Dongan Patent. But as a Hampton Bays resident, Brosnan has concerns about the budget, given what he’d heard from Pell during the meeting. Councilman John Bouvier agreed.
“It makes sense to phase it in. I don’t think it’s an overnight process,” Bouvier said. “I don’t think anybody could tolerate that and I don’t think that makes any sense. I also think it’s smart to find a way to protect against future contentious boards.”
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni pointed to a recent change regarding the tax line issue, saying state legislation reads like municipal town laws that govern fire districts, which deliver their budgets to the town for approval.