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Town Gag Order Too Tough

Wed, 11/17/2021 - 18:45


A proposed revision to the East Hampton Town ethics law discussed this week goes too far. Changes were outlined Tuesday that would create a two-year ban on former elected and appointed town officials, as well as town employees, from representing or advising any entity or individual who would have anything to do with town government. Violations would be subject to a $10,000 civil penalty. Existing rules already stop ex-officials from involvement with matters they directly participated in while in town service or employment. This new measure would go way beyond that sensible limit.

For younger professionals, many of whom grew up in East Hampton and chose to return, the rule could make public service less of an option. Serving in the town attorney’s office or as a planning or other department staff member has traditionally been a way for people starting out to make a name for themselves with an eye toward eventually joining a local company or going out on their own. Without this incentive and the experience it offers, the town risks losing the services of some of its best and brightest. Even with the 24-month sunset, it is heavy-handed and comes out of nowhere that we can discern. Two years is a lifetime when you are young, with college loans to pay back, and just starting out.

The change would penalize anyone who wanted to “represent or render services to a private person or organization in connection with any matter involving the exercise of discretion before the municipal office, board, department or comparable organizational unit for which he or she served.” The key phrase here is “any matter,” as in anything at all. It could work as a gag order on ex-town elected officials and staff who might want to speak to the news media, join an advocacy group, or engage in neighborhood activism. If passed, it would create a class of private individuals unconstitutionally deprived of their right to free speech and free association during the two-year period. For example, a recently retired councilperson could not speak at a town meeting on behalf of an environmental group seeking clean water funding. That just makes no sense.

The proposed change also sends a harsh message to the dedicated citizens on the town’s appointed boards that they might not be up to sorting truth from flim-flam. If there is evidence that members of the planning or zoning boards, for example, tilt decisions to favor former colleagues, let’s hear it. And if recently former town officials are inclined to sling baloney, they would likely do it as soon as the ban expired, unlikely to have spent the two years in the wilderness to repent and change their ways. It also suggests that present officials have things to hide that they might not wish to get out before they themselves leave office. 

This kind of insider pause makes sense in large government bureaucracies. The so-called revolving door between Washington regulatory jobs and K Street lobbying firms has been a problem for years. The difference is that in a local government like here in East Hampton, the yes or no authority within the departments themselves is limited, with the appointed planning, zoning, and architectural review boards supposed to make the important decisions. It is counterproductive to question their competence in this way and simply not fair to neutralize the most important part of a resume of someone looking to build a career in her or his hometown.

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