Trustee Warfare, Then a Détente

Environmental focus suggested for ‘dormant’ harbor management committee

Whether it is democracy in action, partisan warfare, or both may depend on one’s point of view, but in the last month differences among the East Hampton Town Trustees have erupted into shouting matches and accusations of politicization and grandstanding, all over the Trustee Waters Improvement and Management Task Force, a.k.a. the harbor management committee, a group that until recently had scant recognition even among the nine-member trustee body. 

The three-person committee was created by trustee resolution in 2001. It has helped the trustees draft priority lists for waterways to be dredged, recommended amendments to shellfish regulations, helped to establish kayak racks at beaches, and assisted inspection of launching ramps and removal of derelict moorings and duck blinds. Members often use their personal boats and vehicles in these efforts.

Several trustees, however, describe a committee that has been virtually dormant for the last few years, particularly since the January 2011 death of Norman Edwards, a trustee. The town’s Natural Resources Department is supposed to interface with it, and a member of the town board is to serve as a liaison, neither of which now happens. The group is meant to meet monthly, and members are to be paid a $50 stipend per meeting, though they have not been paid this year.

Since the election last November tipped the balance of the trustees from a 5-4 Republican majority to a 3-6 minority, many of the trustees’ meetings have been punctuated by fierce opposition to policy changes, particularly from Diane McNally, its former longtime clerk, a Republican.

At the trustees’ July 11 meeting, several members questioned the harbor management committees’ purpose. “What is the value proposition of the committee?” asked Rick Drew, a first-term Democrat. “Are we getting expert-level advice on environmental issues, on boating issues, on beach issues?”

When the committee was formed, said Tyler Armstrong, another first-term Demo­crat, “managing the harbors and moorings and docks was one of the major things, but with water quality becoming a major issue . . . it could stand to be broadened to encompass some kind of advice about water quality.”

Brian Byrnes questioned the stipend, likening the committee to a hamlet’s citizens advisory committee, whose members are volunteers. “I don’t even know who’s on the harbor management committee as we speak,” he said, suggesting an annual review and potential changes to its membership.

With Ms. McNally absent on July 11, only Tim Bock, a Republican, offered wholehearted support. “These people live here, they go on the water here,” he said. “They probably are the best experts we’ve got.”

At the next meeting, on July 25, Ms. McNally, whose son, Adam Mamay, is a member of the committee, informed the board that Bill Becker, a committee member since its formation, had resigned the day after the July 11 meeting. She then offered a withering critique of the July 11 discussion, which she had watched on LTV.

After reviewing that meeting, “I’m not surprised by Mr. Becker’s resignation,” she said. “Your lack of knowledge was reflected by mindless criticism, and was offensive to those who are or have been members.” She singled out Mr. Byrnes and Bill Taylor, both second-term Democrats, and Pat Mansir, a former town board member who was elected a trustee on the Democratic ticket last November.

“The bottom line,” she added, “is that some of you didn’t like my son being a member of the committee. You thought his participation was somehow politically motivated, and you’re wrong.”

Several trustees expressed shock at that assertion. “I think the question really was, at the time the members of the board were unaware who the members were,” said Jim Grimes, a Republican serving his first term. “I don’t think anybody on the present harbor management board should have been offended. . . . The whole motivation of your dialogue is malicious, to say the very least.” Had she raised these views with Francis Bock, the trustees’ clerk, prior to the meeting, “instead of grandstanding, which is honestly what you just did, we could have reached out to Bill Becker and done some things to mend fences,” he said.

At the trustees’ meeting on Monday, a sense of cooperation prevailed, although Ms. Mansir suggested the harbor management committee was redundant and perhaps unnecessary at this time. Her colleagues disagreed.

With concerns such as the harmful algal blooms fouling Georgica and Wainscott Ponds occupying more of their time and resources, “there may be an opportunity for the committee to take on an environmental focus that would be really helpful to the board,” Mr. Drew said. “There are some traditional approaches the harbor management committee brings to the table. Maybe we need to look at new opportunities, too.”

The issues have changed, agreed Francis Bock, “but the need, I think, is still there. They’ve done good work in the past, and I believe it can do good work in the future. It kind of lost momentum for a little while.”

But Ms. McNally issued a challenge to the majority. “If it doesn’t satisfy your criteria at this point, change it,” she said of the committee. “I’m going to sit here and watch . . . and I’ll give you my opinions