Though not this election cycle, a promising change to the way the East Hampton Town Trustees will be chosen lies ahead. Shortly before resigning, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill that will eventually increase the terms of individual trustees from two years to four. The election to be settled in 2023 will divide the trustees into two groups by number of votes; the five on top will have four-year terms with the remaining winners getting two-year terms, after which those seats will also be up for four-year terms. This fixes an old system in which all nine seats were up every two years.
Having as many as 18 candidates or more to choose from, East Hampton voters were faced with an impossible task. Even reporters who had covered the trustees for years had a difficult time figuring out who was who. Putting five seats in play, then two years later four, and so on, will make reasoned choices possible. Heretofore, there were plenty of voters who simply marked along the party line or tried to pick out candidates with the most Bonac-sounding names. (We will likely never forget the hopeful who came for an endorsement interview with a handful of clams in his pocket.) Democracy depends on informed choices, and staggered terms will help achieve it.
A strong Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonalty of the Town of East Hampton, as the body is officially named, could not come at a more opportune time. Given the global threat of climate change combined with extraordinary development pressure on the East End, powerful advocates for the town’s waterways and wild spaces are all the more critical. Under authority dating to the British Colonial era, the trustees have been the stewards of the bays, beaches, and harbors — a remarkable thing to have elected officials dedicated to natural habitats and the sustainable harvest of marine life. All waterfront communities should be so lucky to have a government authority with this important a mission.
People here care. The crowd at the trustees’ annual Largest Clam Contest on Sunday was larger than ever, and if it continues to grow, it will soon have to move from its usual Bluff Road, Amagansett, location to a larger site. Healthy, safe waters are one of the reasons residents choose to remain here and newcomers fall in love with the place. The trustees are a large part of keeping it that way, and more attention to how they are selected at campaign time will only increase public understanding of their essential role.
This has been updated. The 2021 trustees election will not create staggered terms; that will follow the 2023 vote.