The incoming East Hampton Town Board has a opportunity to make local government better in the form of filling a vacancy created by Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez moving to the supervisor’s post. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez and the rest of the elected town board are to be sworn in on Jan. 2; that day they could also vote to appoint someone for the open seat politically unlike themselves.
Only the most partisan observer could think that a legislative branch of government entirely composed of members of a single party was the democratic ideal. But no one has been elected as anything other than a Democrat to the East Hampton Town Board for a long time. The last cycle in which a Republican candidate won a board position here was in 2013 when Fred Overton, the very well-liked former East Hampton Town clerk, edged out Job Potter and Dominick Stanzione.
From the beginning, the United States concept of political power was based on checks and balances between an executive president or governor and a legislature made up of members from divergent geographies and worldviews. But town leadership in this state is different, in that there is no executive officer and, consequently, nothing much in the way of checks and balances. It is in the conversation between the public and the town board that any give-and-take might occur — and no opportunity for a veto or override, other than someone taking a matter to court.
As much as Ms. Burke-Gonzalez and the rest of the Democratic town board might dislike inviting a gadfly into their clubby midst, this is precisely what they should do. As elected leaders, they need to be willing to take constructive criticism from within, as well as from the public, who may or may not show up at town meetings. And, while they need not necessarily pick a Republican or unaffiliated person to fill the open seat, they most certainly should have the self-confidence to select a contrarian. For this, they might look to a staunch environmentalist, an anti-development activist, a religious leader, a member of an underrepresented part of the population. With a 4-to-1 ideological majority, the board might never agree with what this person had to say — but at least there would be a chance that a dissenting voice would be heard.