Column: Bad politics makes for bad planning

There are two sides to every story, they say, and what follows are the two sides of the story of the Southold Town Board’s recent appointment of Jim Rich to the town Planning Board.

I must begin with a disclosure: The man Mr. Rich replaced is former Greenport mayor and town councilman Joe Townsend Jr., who has been a friend of mine since I first moved to town in 1977. (He is the nephew of the people we bought The Suffolk Times from, Barbara and Stuart Dorman.) So what I am about to say is not impartial, I must admit. And it is most decidedly my personal opinion, not the opinion of the editors and reporters who recently named Supervisor Scott Russell this newspaper’s Person of the Year for 2010.

Without so much as advertising the vacancy, seeking resumes, interviewing candidates or, most troubling of all, having the decency to tell Mr. Townsend that his services were no longer required or desired, the Town Board voted, 5-1, on Jan. 4 to replace him with Mr. Rich in a straight party line vote. Councilman Al Krupski Jr., the board’s lone Democrat, cast the lone dissenting vote. (In fact, Mr. Townsend learned he was being sent to the sidelines not from the Town Board, but via a phone call after the vote from Suffolk Times staff reporter Beth Young.)

Both both on the surface and deep below the surface, the appointment of Mr. Rich makes sense on one level and one level only: politics. What else can you conclude when a man with more than 40 years of public service (as a mayor, village trustee, town councilman, town Planning Board member, Peconic Land Trust director, etc.) is replaced by builder whose primary qualification appears to be his membership in the Republican Party? (Supervisor Russell said he would send me a copy of Mr. Rich’s resume, but so far it hasn’t arrived.)

I’m certain Mr. Rich is a very nice man — and, as I understand it, a helluva sailor — but what is it about his experience that makes him better qualified than Mr. Townsend to serve as a town planner? Short answer: nothing.

I have a theory ­— and it is my theory alone, not Mr. Townsend’s — that his support for the Mattituck 7-Eleven application rubbed a powerful neighbor the wrong way. It’s sort of counterintuitive, I know, when a Democratic environmentalist votes in favor of a 7-Eleven, but Joe Townsend is no knee-jerk environmentalist, and he ultimately concluded, along with every other member of the Planning Board, that the application was rock solid and responsive to the planners’ various concerns.

And please remember: His bona fides on this subject are beyond reproach because he was a town councilman and member of the Town Board’s planning and zoning committee more than a decade ago when the town acted to mitigate the impact of fast food restaurants by outlawing drive-thru windows and limiting them to shopping centers, among other restrictions.

When I asked Supervisor Russell if the 7-Eleven vote entered into the equation, he responded as follows in an e-mail message: “ … that was not my reason and you would need to speak to the other board members on their thoughts. However, I was disappointed with the Planning Board on that and many other issues … Bill [Cremers] and Marty [Sidor] were the only ones who seemed to express concern about the growing impacts of franchises in Mattituck. In fairness to Joe, I did not get much support from either side of the political aisle on that one.”

Typically, and in keeping with his even-tempered character, Joe Townsend doesn’t fault the supervisor or the Town Board Republicans for doing what they did, but he does have a problem with how they did it — behind the scenes, with no input from, or participation by, the public. And what’s more, he points out, it’s a repeat of what happened when another experienced Planning Board member who happened to be a Democrat, Jeri Woodhouse, was replaced by another comparatively inexperienced person who happened to be a Republican.

“I don’t like the implication that we were doing something wrong,” Mr. Townsend said in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “I don’t think Scott understands what the Planning Board is supposed to do.”

Earlier, again typically, he said in an e-mail of his own: “In fairness to Scott, he has been frustrated by the number of businesses that operate in violation of the Town Code. That has been a problem for as long as I have been in town government.

Unfortunately, the Planning Board has no power to punish violators other than to withhold permission for new operations or prevent the sale of old [ones], which requires a [certificate of occupancy].”

I don’t know about you, but those sound like the words of a public servant who puts the public’s interests above partisan politics. For a while there, I thought the Town Board was heading in that direction, but the Rich appointment harkens back to the bad old days of one-party rule at Town Hall.

Said GOP Councilman Vincent Orlando on the occasion of Joe Townsend’s forced retirement: “I don’t see it as political. It’s about who’s doing the best job.”

Yeah, right.

Click here for the full text of Supervisor Russell’s e-mails on the Rich appointment.

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