Column: Getting schooled on good government

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Dering Harbor Village Hall.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Dering Harbor Village Hall.

If the newly minted leaders of the Village of Dering Harbor were to author a training session for municipal officials it might have the title: “Everyone’s a Critic: How to Conduct Village Elections and Stay Sane During the Process.”

That’s the actual title of a seminar being offered by the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM) as part of its fall training program in Saratoga Springs. While Dering Harbor’s new mayor and trustees could probably teach that class, the inexperienced team could learn a great deal attending some of the many other sessions on offer.

Mayors and trustees in New York State are not required to receive training, but attending the program, or another like it, may provide practical insights in how to best handle the business of the village after an especially toxic transfer of power.

To recap: As candidates, the incoming trustees were sued by long-serving mayor, Tim Hogue, as part of an effort to keep their names off the ballot; Mr. Hogue then quit when the three, who ran as write-ins, bested his party’s incumbents; and, the defeated board members, at a special eleventh hour meeting, named Kirk Ressler, one of their own, as interim mayor.

After learning that his appointment was flawed, Mr. Ressler resigned. In introducing his replacement, John T. Colby Jr., Mr. Ressler noted that Mr. Colby would’ve been appointed mayor sooner if not for “too many hiccups” that included “opposition” and “conditions” which came up during “intensive discussions.”

That all of those discussions were held out of public view was not raised as a matter of concern in a village where important decisions seem regularly to be made outside sessions of the board — perhaps via emails, phone calls, behind closed doors in “executive sessions” or other means not open to public view.

NYCOM’s mission is “to improve local government by facilitating cooperation, the exchange of information and ideas about best practices and the discussion of new solutions to common municipal problems.”

With just 36 homes and 11 yearround residents, Dering Harbor is New York’s smallest municipality.

But even tiny municipalities have obligations to employees, vendors and others that have to be handled with care. NYCOM is just one of many valuable resources for advice on practical matters of governance.

And the village faces serious issues. It’s in the process of replacing an antiquated storage tank for its communal water system. It needs to work on improving septic and stormwater runoff, especially along the ecologically sensitive waterfront.

The village could make owners of undeveloped properties (who pay taxes but cannot yet vote) feel more welcome by taming the process for getting development plans approved that in recent years has taken on an air of public excoriation.

Politically, the new mayor and board have some high hurdles ahead. If they don’t want a redux of election hijinks next year, they’ll have to work from the outset to demonstrate they can be trusted to tackle the business of the village in an open and forthright manner.

First up, the new mayor needs to appoint a trustee to fill the seat he vacated. It would be best if the position went to someone who will be unanimously welcomed by the board.

Having postponed from mid-July to August 5 the annual re-organizational meeting, the new leadership team might make use of the extra time to persuade some newcomers to join the stalwart volunteers on the many committees responsible for conducting the village business.

The board is advertising for a new village clerk; it should give serious thought to expanding the clerk’s hours to make the village more accessible to residents, contractors and other members of the public.

Now is also a good time for the board to reconsider the long-standing recommendation of the Suffolk County Board of Elections (SCBOE) Commissioner Nicholas LaLota, to transfer the burden of running elections from the village clerk to the county. One result: Village voting would take place during general elections in November instead of June.

Most Dering Harbor homeowners have primary residences elsewhere and prefer the June date because it’s more convenient. But that means voters can register locally to cast ballots here in the summer and then register elsewhere to cast ballots in general elections in the fall. While perfectly legal, the practice heightens distrust of the already hard to fathom voter registration system — expressed this year in numerous legal challenges to voters filed with the SCBOE.

To appease Mr. Hogue’s many supporters, the new board may choose not to rescind his appointment by the lame duck trustees as chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals. But it should follow New York State guidelines and require the new ZBA chair to attend training.

Leaders of zoning boards and planning boards have so much power to impact the future of a community collectively and the fortunes of its residents individually that the state has mandated new appointees receive some form of training to prepare them for the responsibilities that come with their jobs.

Mr. Hogue certainly knows the village better than anyone. But he bailed out at a critical juncture and must make some public effort to win back the trust of all villagers if he is to serve as an effective and fair arbiter of their property disputes.

Lastly, the new board and mayor should explain to residents why the village has been unwilling or unable to settle the lawsuit brought by three residents disputing the village’s claim of ownership strips of land that abut their properties. More than any other dispute, the handling of this matter has caused deep division in the tiny community.

There may be legitimate reasons for the continuation of the legal case; but until they are enumerated, rumors that the dispute sprang from personal animus toward specific residents will continue to taint the village.