Codger column: Crime and punishment

JULIE LANE PHOTO | REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Councilman Paul Shepherd, along with his colleagues, was in favor of Gary Baddeley to perform community service for building code violations.
JULIE LANE PHOTO  Councilman Paul Shepherd, along with his colleagues, was in favor of Gary Baddeley perfroming community service for building code violations.

Since late last year, Codger has avidly followed the case of Gary Baddeley, who became a guest star on the long-running series “Law and Disorder: Shelter Island Building Department.”

Mr. Baddeley was accused of ordering construction on his South Ferry second home without filing plans with the town and with building past a buffer into environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Codger wondered if there’s a perplexing pattern here of individual and institutional behavior. Every few months we read about a taxpayer who seemed to believe, with good reason, that forgiveness is easier to receive than permission on Shelter Island, and about a town department that often seems to act inconsistently and rarely with satisfying transparency.

This was not Mr. Baddeley’s first violation. Three years ago, he was fined $500 for building a patio with a roof without filing plans. You might say he was a man with a record who should have known better.

On the other hand, the Building Department has made puzzling decisions of omission and commission over the years. It also has been understaffed and underfunded and has been going through tumult and turnover lately.

Codger wondered about the process by which the board settled on a $5,000 fine and community service. Ed Brown, then a councilman, thought the fine too low, suggesting 10 times that amount to make the matter right, while Peter Reich, also on the board then, thought that Brown’s figure much too high, citing other fines for similar violations. Five thousand dollars is currently the maximum allowed, cheap at the price for a million-plus house.

Councilman Paul Shepherd had originally come up with the idea of community service for repeat building code violators as a way “to take from a rich guy what he does not want to give — time.” It is not entirely clear how skin cancer screenings for the entire town by Mr. Baddeley’s dermatologist wife, Dr. Sumayah Jamal, became the punishment. In any case, Mr. Baddeley quickly embraced it because, he told Codger, his mother’s death from melanoma might have been avoided by a timely checkup.

And so it came to pass that on a Saturday morning almost two weeks ago, in the very first hour of a prescribed 20 hours of community service spread over five weeks, Codger walked into the Senior Center and presented himself to the tall, thin, middle-aged man who was acting as Dr. Jamal’s intake nurse.

He jumped up from his desk chair and thrust out a welcoming hand. In a British accent, he said, “Hi, I’m Gary.”

“The perp himself?” blurted Codger.

Mr. Baddeley laughed. He turned out to be pleasant and chatty, an entertainment lawyer/entrepreneur who has been on the Island for more than 20 years. He was not at all forthcoming about his brush with town law after Codger revealed that he was not only just another old taxpayer with a history of cancer but a cranky scribe. Mr. Baddeley said he would continue to make no public statements on the case. Codger understood. Why should he explain or criticize? He had pleaded out with a sweet deal.

Dr. Jamal’s screening was a thorough full-body exam. She was also pleasant and chatty as she eyeballed Codger’s unruly flesh through what looked like a lighted loupe. She spotted two sites of potential future trouble and suggested he seek treatment in the next four months.

In a later email exchange with Codger, Mr. Baddeley wrote: “Sumayah told me that in a reversal of what she usually finds when she does one of these screenings in the city, the majority of people had lesions that need addressing and the prevalence of sun damage was very high. Ergo, everyone on the Island should have their skin checked by a dermatologist (not necessarily at our screenings, but all are welcome) before it’s too late.”

The last Saturday screening is scheduled for August 6 and Codger recommends that you go. Thank Mr. Baddeley and Dr. Jamal for their service.

And yet.

In this time of endless talk here and off-Island about a mounting water crisis, about environmental vulnerability, about the lack of institutional and individual accountability, Codger wonders not only whether the punishment fit the crime, but what exactly was the crime? If Baddeley indeed did some damage to the wetlands, was there restoration? Did five grand make it right? Was there a deterrence factor?

Community service — particularly for a violation that affects the community — is a fine idea. Mr. Shepherd told Codger he’s not against public shaming. Codger asked Mr. Baddeley how he would have felt if, instead of putting his wife to work, the board had given him an orange jumpsuit and a rake.

He merrily replied he wouldn’t be “too proud for that,” but allowed that he was having fun meeting fellow citizens and later added: “I’m really pleased to be able to do something useful.”