A story in this week’s Southampton Press caught our eye and is worthy of your attention — and outrage.
After a Hampton Bays resident successfully sued Southampton Town over its environmental review of an overlay district for the hamlet — she argued that the town did not comply with the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act — the town board signed a new six-figure contract with the same consulting firm, Nelson Pope Voorhis, to do it over.
That’s bad enough. But that’s not the outrageous part.
The new contract spells out the consultant’s “scope of work” and the first task in the scope of work is “Community Outreach.” That ought to mean reaching out to the community to hear residents’ questions, concerns and ideas.
But not this contract. The “Community Outreach” task is described like this:
“As we go through the process of meeting with the community and various stakeholders, we will be able to clarify any of the opposition’s hot-button issues. We will seek to neutralize this by having them appear as traditional NIMBYs who consistently present misinformation to promote their own limited agenda and present a positive message through community leaders.”
Not only did these consultants say the quiet part out loud, they put it in writing.
It’s outrageous — and sad. Over the years, we’ve seen too many members of various municipal boards exhibit this kind of disdain for residents who take the time to attend meetings and hearings to voice their opinions. We’ve watched as some Riverhead Town and school district officials scowled at constituents, rolled their eyes, looked conspicuously bored, held sidebar conversations and sometimes even berated residents who dare step to the podium to question or criticize their actions — and occasionally even just tell them to shut up and sit down.
The arrogance on display can take your breath away.
It’s no real surprise, then, that some board members would want to “neutralize” the opposition of people they derisively call NIMBYs, whom they believe “consistently present misinformation to promote their own limited agenda.”
The shocker is seeing that goal in writing as part of the contracted scope of work for a consulting firm tasked with “community outreach.”
Anyone who thinks that way about constituent participation in government does not understand the concept of public service, has an outsized ego, and does not deserve the public trust of holding elective or appointed office or the honor of the title, Public Servant. Period.
We should note that the town officials in question say they didn’t notice this scope of work provision — though it was paragraph one on page one of the document — which has already been signed. When dereliction of duty is public officials’ best defense, you know their constituents are in trouble.
Also, any consulting firm that believes “community outreach” means neutralizing opposition to the pre-ordained outcome of their “review” of a zoning ordinance, doesn’t deserve a six-figure consulting contract — let alone a second contract after their review the first time around didn’t pass muster with a court.
Clearly, the Southampton Town Board wants to do what it wants to do regarding the overlay district and the “review” by its consulting firm is going to reach predetermined conclusions. With the scripted “neutralization” of opposition — at public expense, no less — the review is certainly not going to be the objective “hard look” required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
Together, the town officials and the consultants are making a mockery of the state law.
An important aspect of this scenario is the revolving door through which consulting firms enter and exit Town Hall. One month, a consultant like Nelson Pope Voorhis might be doing an environmental study the for the town on the taxpayers’ dime and, soon after, preparing an environmental impact statement on behalf of a developer who has an application pending before the town. And in between will likely be contributing significant sums to the campaign accounts of local elected officials.
It all works out very nicely, thank you very much.
Except, perhaps, for the taxpayers who foot the bill — the folks who fund government officials’ salaries and benefits, the consulting firms’ fees and the costs resulting from development by the outside interests who benefit from zoning codes the town is paying the consultants to justify — er, review.
The developers leave town. The consultants move on to the next contract. The officials retire and collect their publicly funded pensions. And generations of taxpayers are left paying for the impacts that were never honestly and thoroughly assessed as the law requires: water pollution, traffic jams, overcrowded classrooms, increased public safety costs, and more.
Because that’s what happens when the public’s interest is ignored, citizens are disregarded and opposition is neutralized. And it happens all the time.
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