January 15, 2014

Open Government

We applaud the new policy instituted by new East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell that will severely curtail walk-on resolutions. During the last administration walk-ons became the norm instead of the exception, and were often called for a vote even before some town board members had a chance to read them.

But one recent development confirms there is no such thing as too much public input. Buried in the town's organizational packet was an interesting item: Ed Michels, the senior harbormaster, is being given the title of Director of Public Safety.

There was no discussion or notice and granted, on the surface this seems to be a mundane matter, but the repercussions could be significant.

Michels has been involved in several controversies during his career and is considered by town hall insiders as a sometimes inept bureaucrat who has managed to finagle a check for decades despite a less than sterling resume.

When he had sole charge of the marine patrol, that unit was a joke. During a months-long investigation by The Independent we uncovered many of the fulltime marine patrol officers in his unit spent their days doing virtually nothing. We followed some of the culprits for hours as they drove to Sag Harbor for coffee – never even driving past a beach or waterway. A four-wheel drive town-owned vehicles was parked, covered with snow, unused for weeks at a time. The men didn't even pretend to be working in many cases. Michels came and went from his office sporadically.

Michels was harshly criticized for not responding when Charley Niggles' boat didn't return to port one evening. While scores of local boaters went out in the dead of night to look for the local bayman, Michels kept the entire fleet of town-owned boats at the dock. It was one of the few times the harbormasters were needed for a legitimate emergency, yet, as Charley Niggles clung for dear life to the side of his boat, Michels was home in bed.

Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson finally put a stop to the slacking off by putting the unit -- and Michels – under the supervision of the Town Police. Michels' unit was to focus on beach patrols — and complaints of fires, unauthorized parties, public drunkenness, litter, and noise have reached an all time high under his watch.

The new town board apparently wasn't aware of any of this. But a public discussion of the proposed appointment would have outed Michels in a hurry.

Michels likely lobbied for a new position wherein he would call the shots — and set his own schedule. He is, apparently, going to keep his old job as well – his current salary is close to $91,000. If he has time to take on added responsibilities, what exactly are taxpayers getting now for such a princely sum?

Meanwhile Pat Gunn, who did a great job overseeing code enforcement, given a skeleton staff, is leaving. The big losers here are the people of Springs, who voted resoundingly for the incoming Democrats. They clamored for better code enforcement, and Gunn delivered, bringing order to chaos, following up on tips and complaints and making sure his staff investigated each one. That seems highly unlikely to occur under Michels, considering he has a long history of not adequately managing underlings in just one department.

This town needs aggressive code enforcement - the people have repeatedly demanded as much. Cantwell's idea of better coordination among all departments with the power to issue code violations is a great one. It's who's been picked to helm that broader effort that's troubling.

We suggest the town board come up with a Plan B in a hurry, before the ship Gunn began to right starts to sink.

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