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Town Power Grab Bears Watching

Wed, 05/06/2020 - 18:25

In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, the structure of East Hampton Town government changed with almost no fanfare. The shift consolidated power in Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s office and demoted the rest of the town board to bystander status. This took place with little explanation, and it is something East Hampton residents should be aware of.

After declaring a state of emergency in mid-March, Mr. Van Scoyoc reorganized town government under a provision of state law designed to protect life and property. The new structure was laid out in a flow chart with him at the top, along with Chief of Police Michael Sarlo and Bruce Bates, the town’s longtime emergency services coordinator.

Councilman David Lys was deputized to manage the Highway, Sanitation, and Parks and Recreation Departments. Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez took over the Human Services Department, which provides for some in-home needs and senior-citizen transportation. Sylvia Overby and Jeff Bragman were shunted off to departments that are important to be sure, but not directly on the virus front line.

Even in this, the roles of the other board members were sharply curtailed, with planning, action, and even responses to the public to be run solely out of the supervisor’s office. Mr. Bates, in a March 26 email message, stressed that he wanted to “present a cohesive image as we navigate through this challenge.”

The regulations regarding chain of command in emergency situations were quite clearly written to provide for continuity in the event of a hurricane, terrorist attack, or other unique catastrophe. Even the terms by which East Hampton Town reorganized itself into a “unified command structure” seemed military. That might make sense in a fast-moving disaster, but now, more than a month into the Covid-19 response with months more to go, the question has to be: Why?

So far, the town board has seemed to go along with it. Of the three people now controlling town government, only one, Chief Sarlo, has relevant expertise. And though Mr. Bates’s emergency coordinator title sounds impressive, the most recent training he was authorized by the town board to undertake was in 2006 and involved the use of a device for the detection of hazardous gases. Before being appointed to the zoning board about 20 years ago and working his way up through town government, Mr. Van Scoyoc was a house builder.

In an interview, Mr. Van Scoyoc put things in strikingly personal terms about how and when Town Hall would return to normal: “Whether or not I would actually have to make any decisions or take actions under that emergency declaration remains to be seen, but the power would be in place to do so if I deemed it necessary.” To which, we would respond, why not see what the community has to say about it?

Voters select town board members as their representatives, placing trust not in a single leader but in a group. Given that the supervisor and others see the Covid-19 crisis as a “new normal,” we hope this prolonged power grab receives the careful scrutiny it deserves.


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