After finding out that the Water Mill Citizens Advisory Committee hadn’t met to discuss proposed rule changes for how those committees will operate in the future, the Southampton Town Board held off on formally adopting the new rules this week.
“We don’t want to suppress voices,” said Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, the sponsor of the measure, who added others had also asked for more time to review the proposed rule changes. “And maybe we’ll do more digging on the legal end of this.”
Marlene Haresign, a member of the Water Mill CAC, brought the issue to the board’s attention at its work session on November 13.
She also questioned the board about how the number eight was chosen for the minimum number of CAC members, saying small hamlets like Water Mill and East Quogue frequently have fewer than that number on their committees. She also asked about the wording of legislation that says the town “may” refer matters to the committees that relate to the community.
“What problems prompted the town to revise these rules?” she asked the board. “If we have fewer members, are we then being disbanded? Shouldn’t the ‘may’ say ‘will’? Why does the town have the option? We also feel strongly a need to review site plans to make sure they reflect the character of our town. Why weren’t we included in any of these discussions?”
“In reading this whole thing, which I read many times, I get the impression we can only speak about things relating to issues that the town board talks about,” Haresign said. “Most of the issues in every hamlet relate to development — site plans and so forth. For over 20 years we’ve never had anyone challenge that or say we can’t work with the planning board. They send us the plans by mail, we go to hearings, speak our concerns, and I’ve had the planning board tell us our concerns are valid and they’d like them addressed.”
“It’s a complex issue and I understand your concern,” Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “But the town board can’t advise the planning board or the zoning board. We appoint those people, but they make the decisions.” Board members have grown concerned that CACs may be overstepping their authority by commenting on planning and zoning issues.
After Haresign mentioned that the Water Mill CAC has its own website, Schneiderman, who has been critical on how the committees operate, brought up additional concerns. Information on CACs is currently found on the town’s website.
“The CACs were created by the town board to advise the town board. Some of the things you’re talking about sound more appropriate for the civic association than a CAC,” he said. “Most communities have a CAC and a civic association, and the civics can make their own comments at these meetings and have their own website. As a town agency, because of liability concerns, it’s very important that we know what’s being done in the town’s name in an official capacity.”
Southampton Town Civic Coalition president Andrea Spilka came to the defense of CACs.
“The CACs encourage town members to get involved,” she said. “There’s no monetary benefit to them. They work as partners with the town. Their members also sit on several advisory boards. Public participation has always been considered essential to the well-being of this town and any town. With CACs, it’s about the service to their community. Give them a level playing field.”
Lofstad said it seems like the Water Mill CAC has a “handle on its community,” but said others don’t, which is why some of the rule changes are being considered, such as committees being mandated to keep track of minutes and have public comment periods at meetings. The rule changes are meant to generate more community opinion and make results of discussions more inclusive, she said.
“We’re not trying to squash anyone’s voice,” Loftstad said. “I’m going to follow up with and address these concerns.”
Schneiderman called the changes “clarification thoughts.” Councilman John Bouvier echoed the concern is inconsistency across how the committees operate. Lofstad said during comment on the resolution vote, which will now be tabled to December 11, that the board will look at tweaking it. She said the board might reconsider the eight-member mandate and will ensure that CACs receive planning and zoning board information, adding that the town is trying to get to the “crux of the matter” when it comes to which boards the CACs can advise.