Tuesday’s flare-up among members of the East Hampton Town Board was unusual only in its intensity; sadly, we have gotten used to a certain level of steam when the group gets together. That this has happened often does not make it okay. The outbursts are conduct unbecoming officers of the town and have to end. Now.
There has been a common thread, going back at least to the beginning of Peter Van Scoyoc’s term as supervisor and that is his dislike of Jeff Bragman, a town councilman. Not coincidentally, Mr. Bragman and Mr. Van Scoyoc are in a June 22 Democratic primary for the supervisor nomination. Mr. Bragman already has the backing of the Independence Party and will be on the November ballot whatever the outcome of the primary vote. But the animus goes beyond politics and stems more from a clash of personalities — mostly Mr. Van Scoyoc’s. But, this week, the anger spilled over, with Councilpersons Sylvia Overby and David Lys piling on.
Loud voices aside, there is a real issue underlying this latest fracas. In May the town board members attended a dinner fund-raiser at which the rock ‘n’ roller Jon Bon Jovi and his band performed an hour-and-a-half show. Several days before the event, however, Mr. Bragman mentioned the town’s $75 limit on gifts to officials and expressed doubts about whether the board should accept the plus-guest invitations. A ticket price for the dinner concert was not mentioned at the time, but was likely worth well more than $1,000 per person. So the town attorney’s office and ethics board were put on the case.
Quickly, they produced a cautious two-page letter that allowed for the town board members to see the show as part of their official duties, but spouses or guests, the ethics board said, would not serve any legitimate government purpose by being there and would have to pay their own way. Mr. Bragman was the only board member not to take a guest and left after a glass or two of wine, still uncomfortable about it all, he has said. Mind you, this took place in a venue where it is not clear that concerts are even permissible under the town code, though that will likely be a battle for town officials for another day.
Once news broke about the event, the ethics board discussed the matter again and issued a rare follow-up determination rebuking the members who had taken guests. The ethics board made several points about the irregular affair, saying that it “was not done in a manner that would ensure public confidence in our unit of local government.” It noted that, though the board had received the invitation on April 13, “ample time to consider whether attending the event would be proper,” instead, “the ethics board had less than 48 hours to make a decision without discussion, debate or questions.” The ethics board was also concerned that all of the members of the town board might not have even seen its letter in which it said that the plus-one guests would be a problem.
Never one to say he’s sorry, Mr. Van Scoyoc shot off an email that, actually, his wife had been invited separately in light of her volunteer work during the pandemic. But wait, guests were mentioned in the original invitation, right? Who knows. It all made sense to Mr. Van Scoyoc, anyway. He also instructed the ethics board that two days to review the matter had been plenty of time.
And so, when the subject came up at a town board meeting this week, harsh words followed. Ms. Overby and Mr. Lys were frothing as they had never done before, and Mr. Van Scoyoc repeatedly implied that Mr. Bragman had had too much to drink at the event. Essentially ignored in the dust-up was that the town-appointed ethics board and traditionally cautious town attorney’s office saw a problem.
As usual, the supervisor was the bully in all this, his dislike of the persistent Mr. Bragman trumping all else. This is not the first time this has happened by a long shot, and the acrimony shows no sign of letting up. The bad feelings are a much further-reaching concern than who did or did not attend a Bon Jovi show. This has made the board less effective, particularly since Mr. Bragman, a land-use attorney, was sidelined on key assignments where his expertise would have been of value.
Mr. Van Scoyoc and his buddies on the board seem to have forgotten that they are squabbling on the public’s time, and, as representatives of the people, they are expected to conduct themselves ethically and with dignity. This week’s embarrassment was anything but.