“Threats.” “Collusion.” “Hate speech.”
This is some of the language being used as the Town Board prepares to draft and vote on legislation to regualte homeowners who rent their properties for short-term stays.
It gets worse, with particularly vile, unsubstantiated accusations being aired, but won’t be repeated here because there’s no profit in throwing gasoline on a dumpster fire.
As Supervisor Jim Dougherty said recently, the question over short-term-rentals (STRs) is “one of the most important issues the Island has faced in many, many years.” Unfortunately, the rhetoric around the debate has become fueled by ad hominem attacks and off-the-wall assertions, some of them slandering board members. Alternative facts — welcome to Shelter Island.
Former Councilman Peter Reich, who served 12 years on the board, and other close observers of Town Hall, said they couldn’t remember anything remotely like it.
From the beginning, when the board first took up the issue of STRs, the language was heated, with those who opposed weekend rentals characterizing their neighbors as running “flophouses” and accusing homeowners of operating commercial ventures in residential neighborhoods rather than living there.
But of late, the language used in the debate has become incendiary. Mr. Dougherty has accused a colleague of “collusion.” The supervisor was referring to the colleague encouraging a group of residents to email the board stating their opposition to a limited restriction on STRs.
Merriam-Webster defines collusion as a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”
Mr. Dougherty also said at a board work session and in emails to the Reporter that he and his colleagues had received “threats” over the issue. The threats Mr. Dougherty was speaking about was an email, copied and sent many times, stating that if board members don’t vote for at least a two-week minimum restriction on STRs, the letter writers would not vote for them in the next election.
Citizens telling an elected official they will withhold support depending on positions the official takes sounds suspiciously like democracy, as does a public official building a constituency among residents to influence colleagues toward a point of view.
An advocate for limited restrictions referred to the emails mentioned above as “hate mail,” which illustrates the descending spiral the debate has taken.
Both sides have accused their opponents of being “highly organized,” as if that was an underhanded tactic to use when trying to influence public officials. Next we’ll be hearing that paid protesters are involved.
It’s a cliché that democracy is a messy way for officials to govern and citizens to participate in the issues of the day. But messy doesn’t have to mean mud slinging. Reasonable people can disagree, and it’s time for Islanders to continue to disagree strongly, but to do so with respect.