Members of the East Hampton Town Board appear pleased with themselves for settling on a general layout of a new $25 million senior citizens center building, selecting from among several sets of plans one the architects said represents East Hampton’s iconic windmills. Setting aside the fact that the three-section design does not really look like them — our windmills here have four blades — this sort of nonsense is a symptom of a frequent government malady that we would propose should be called consultitus, in which outside supposed experts are brought in to help make decisions, but often steer credulous boards in whichever self-serving direction they please.
Consultitus appears a major cause of the Montauk sewage plant imbroglio, in which a massively expensive project — to serve an environmentally low-priority area — would be dropped into Suffolk County parkland. Consultitus might also have been afoot in the board’s avoidable failure to have a plan in place for the airport when the date for return of local control was known for more than a decade. It might, too, have been at fault in convincing the board that the lack of a complete environmental impact review before it imposed restrictions would have left the town exposed to a layup of a court challenge.
At every level of government, consultants can present problems, not limited to conflicts of interest, including steering contracts to firms in which they have a personal stake. There are industry guidelines, of course, but they are no substitute for officials becoming deeply involved at every stage of a project, asking hard questions, and simply paying attention. The public interest should be foremost, not how convincingly a slick professional firm makes its pitch.
Consultitus is no excuse for leaving one’s critical thinking at the Town Hall door.