The escalating battle of wills between Southampton Town and its trustees is alarming, but the legal maneuvering masks an even bigger problem.
As it stands now, a State Supreme Court judge has ruled the Town Trustees cannot continue to operate financially as that body has done for decades – independently of the town, with its own ledgers and bank accounts. The town has ordered the trustees to freeze all accounts, though that hasn't happened as of this writing.
The trustees, meanwhile, are going to court to overturn the judge's decision and calling on the state to clarify just how much authority is held by the trustees, and what the limitations – if any – are.
It's important to look at how we got here.
The trustees have come under increased legal pressure over the years, resulting in significant legal costs to the town. Basically, wealthy owners of waterfront property are testing the trustees, using their wealth to file a myriad of lawsuits in what appears to be an attempt to wear the trustees down and force the town, which carries the legal burden of defending the trustees, to acquiesce.
This tactic is damning for the people of Southampton, who have unalienable rights to use trustee-governed beaches and waterways. In fact, the people literally own these properties.
As the power of the trustees weakens through court decisions, the might of a few wealthy landowners strengthens at the expense of the rest of us.
The town and the trustees have quibbled in the past, but in recent years a chasm has grown that widens daily. Compounding the problem, as always, is money. At some point defending the trustees in court becomes so burdensome that the prudent thing to do financially is to settle the cases. This plays right into the hands of the few who will build bulkheads and docks and seize trustee land with impunity unless a line is drawn in the sand.
There is too much saber rattling going on in Southampton right now. When The Independent interviewed the newest town board members, Brad Bender and Stan Glinka, both proclaimed their support of the trustees and their belief that the trustees, through the powers granted by the Dongan patent, carry the authority to protect our beaches and waterways. It's time for cooler heads to prevail, and we hope we can count on the new town board members to inject some civility into this conflict.
A united town – trustees and town board – is the best way to assure the privileged class doesn't try to buy exclusivity at the expense of the citizenship.