With the local election just concluded, it is a good chance to consider how East End population growth has put ever-greater demands on the people who make up our local governments. It is also a time to ask whether the daily responsibilities of town board members may serve to maintain the status quo and prevent adequate forward thinking. In East Hampton, the town board is left talking about goats and whether a new senior citizens center would look like a set of windmill blades when seen from overhead.
A more serious manifestation of this is that too many town board hours are spent on the administrative side and too few legislating. Nowhere in the town board job description is there any reference to serving as department overseers, as has been the practice. This hands-on approach may look like good government, but it comes with its own problems. Overwhelmed by tasks that would be better handled by staff, the result has been that elected officials hand off many of the issues they were elected to deal with to study committees. Sometimes the handoff may be almost too late, as in a current, way overdue zoning revision in East Hampton Town.
New York State provides a handbook for local officials, and there are some surprises. For example, under state law, a town supervisor’s defined duties are more limited than one might think, mostly having to do with the “care and custody” of town money, paying town employees’ salaries, and making reports as needed, and so on. For this work he or she is relatively well paid in East Hampton, where the supervisor receives about $135,000 annually. The salary of each councilperson is about $84,000. Some of that money might better go to full-time managerial staff. The catch is that only certain large towns in New York State can appoint a lead administrator. Incorporated villages, by contrast, are allowed to hire someone to manage their day-to-day functions. East Hampton Village has this kind of administrative person, who is supposed to maintain continuity and smooth operations. In theory, this person can free the part-time village board of trustees from the more mundane tasks so as to focus on the big picture. It is odd, then, that most towns in the state are not allowed the same opportunity.
In a limited way, the administrative function in East Hampton Town is filled by a chief of staff who answers to the supervisor alone. It might be a better use of the money for that post to be under the jurisdiction of the town board as a whole. Given the complexity of local government, it is not clear why the state would not allow for professional managers for most of New York’s towns. This is something that should be revisited in Albany’s coming legislative season.