June 14, 2006

Spending Money On "Consultants"

Spending Money On "Consultants"

It's important that the general public understand when town boards hire "impartial" consultants it is an oxymoron.

In most cases, town boards decide what they want to do and pay someone to rubber-stamp it under the guise of some costly "study."

We've seen it in East Hampton, when the town board hired a consultant to study the airport — a consultant who had been on the payroll of Democratic Party boss David Gruber, an anti-airport fanatic. In essence, the board paid the consultant taxpayer money to say what he had already said in public for free.

Now, the Southold Town Board is playing the consultant shell game.

The town board wants to commission a traffic study. The study is, of course, a tool it will use in its ongoing dispute with Cross Sound Ferry, which not coincidentally commissioned a traffic study of its own.

At first, the board discussed a proposal made by one Patrick Cleary, but the entire board, including Councilman Tom Wickham, balked at his $100,000 price tag.

Wickham then recommended another consultant, Steven Schneider. Actually, Wickham did more than just recommend.

At the June 6 board meeting, Wickham became an impassioned crusader for Schneider, lauding his references and then actually yelling when other board members wanted to postpone Schneider's hiring. "This board never acts!" he said.

This from a man who has been king of the "Let's wait two weeks" rule: Just take a look at how long it's taken to get a proposal for the new town animal shelter approved. And yet, Schneider's proposal was heard in under an hour, and, on the very same day, the board voted to retain his services, with Town Supervisor Scott Russell casting the only negative vote.

Why was Wickham so motivated? He said it was because it was essential to hire Schneider before the upcoming July Fourth weekend, probably the busiest days of the year. But perhaps it was because he knew The Traveler- Watchman, the next day, would break the story that Schneider had once been paid by The Southold Citizens For Safe Roads, the group bent on destroying Cross Sound Ferry. Schneider, for his part, claimed that he was more than capable of conducting an impartial investigation and said "prayers" had guided him to leading an "honest" life. That's nice.

The taxpayers, however, are also praying — that the town will stop wasting money on "impartial" consultants who will tell the board exactly what it wants to hear.

What were Schneider's conclusions when he was on the SCSR payroll? He said he didn't remember — spoken like a true consultant. We can guess — his "study" told SCSR exactly what the group wanted to hear.

Here's the bottom line: Even if he produces a totally objective study, the town government has a responsibility to remain completely impartial and objective. Just the appearance of impropriety is enough to taint the results of the study, at least, in the minds of tax-paying constituents — and the CSF lawyers. Although Schneider says he no longer has ties with the Southold Citizens for Safe Roads, the fact that he once worked for them should have been reason enough to automatically disqualify him from the running.

Schneider, by the way, said the first two stages of his study would cost $80,000, and added that additional costs were possible. In other words, the final figure will approach Cleary's estimate, which Wickham, and the rest of the board, found too high. The bet here is they'll have no problem cutting a check for the same amount to Schneider.

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