Overstepping Their Bounds

Two recent bits of news concerning the area’s citizens advisory committees have further added to our sense that the concept needs a little refining. Instances involving the Amagansett and Bridgehampton groups, while unrelated, indicate that they could be stepping beyond their intended role.

Citizens committees were devised some years ago as a means for residents to speak about neighborhood concerns in an informal setting. The goal was to hash out truly grassroots opinion, then relay their ideas to the respective town boards; in many cases, a supervisor or board member would be on hand at their meetings. In some recent cases, however, these committees have become unelected influencers of policy, sometimes improperly communicating with their towns’ planning and zoning boards and meddling in controversies. 

In Amagansett the hamlet’s citizens advisory committee appears poised to have a deciding say on how town-owned property on Montauk Highway will be used. The town bought the parcel, called 555 or Ocean View Farm, using the community preservation fund two years ago. Proposals from private entities for growing crops there or other uses are expected soon. The town board would have to sign off on any deal, but it appears to be shirking its responsibility by offering the committee a decision-making role. 

In Bridgehampton, town planners solicited the citizens committee’s opinion on a commercial expansion, and the committee offered one in a voice vote to be followed with a letter. Then, when the expected letter did not arrive, holding up a ruling on the pending application, it turned out that the citizens committee’s shadowy steering committee had changed the group’s position. That the planners were relying on a definitive view from an essentially ad-hoc group was a mistake. It was made doubly so when the membership’s decision was apparently overruled by an informal leadership subset.

In our view, citizens advisory committees, if they are to persist, should be just that — purely advisory.