With less than a month to go before Election Day, East Hampton voters have some difficult choices to make. The toughest among them, however, might be on the town trustees portion of the ballot. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: It’s high time the venerable elected body with nine members adopted staggered terms.
The Trustees of the Freeholders of the Town of East Hampton have been around almost as long as there has been a Town of East Hampton. English colonists in the 17th century selected men to handle land allotments, deal with the Montaukett Indians, make laws, settle disputes, lay out roads, keep track of who owned which cattle, and hire a town minister. In the 19th century, a separate town board was established, taking on some of these responsibilities, but the trustees hung on and continued to manage the common waters and beaches and some woodland roads. Also among their responsibilities is the oddball tenant residential area at Lazy Point in Amagansett.
With a diminished portfolio, there have been years when the trustees seemed a board without a clear sense of purpose. Now, however, they are adapting to the 21st century, becoming powerful advocates for clean water, alternative energy, and residents’ access to shared places, including and most notably the ocean beaches.
A trustee-led effort led to a ban on the intentional release of helium balloons, even though the majority of the potentially affected marine fish, turtles, and pelagic wildlife are beyond town waters. Recently, the trustees have been among volunteers making late-night surveys of breeding horseshoe crabs in cooperation with Cornell Cooperative Extension scientists. Freed in many ways from the minutiae that the East Hampton Town Board has to deal with on a daily basis, the trustees have seized a bully pulpit to lead on matters of importance locally and globally.
The problem is, who are they? We’d be willing to bet that even the most regular voter at East Hampton’s polls would not be able to name all nine of the current trustees. And what about new faces running for office? With as many as 18 candidates in some cycles, making an informed decision might well require superhuman devotion.
In our view, the solution is that the trustee winners in the next election (or the one after that) be divided into two groups, according to how many votes they received. The top tier would serve for four years and the bottom for two. Thereafter, the seats would be contested every four years instead of the current two. This would make the trustees more like the town board, in which only a portion of the seats is in play during each cycle.
Such a change would be better all around for voters, who would get to know a smaller mix of candidates and incumbents, making choices easier and less arbitrary. The joke for years is that the candidates with the “bubbiest” last names always win, regardless of their qualifications or even if they have bothered to show up for meetings. For the trustees, the payoff would be greater visibility and better opportunities to educate the public about the priorities and issues they care about.
East Hampton is fortunate to have town trustees looking out for our most precious assets. The system by which they are chosen should be adjusted to make sure the best people for the job always get a fair chance at getting elected.