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Jan 7, 2015 11:02 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Trustees' Leadership Change Expected Friday

Jan 7, 2015 11:02 AM

After smoldering behind the scenes for a year, a leadership dispute among the Southampton Town Trustees roared into a bitter conflagration this week and seems likely to lead to a convulsive political coup rather than the gradual and amicable transition that had been hoped for.

Three members of the Trustees, a board majority, have called for a special organizational meeting on Friday, at which the lone order of business is expected to be a vote on who should be the board’s president. At that meeting, the same majority—Trustees Edward Warner Jr., Ray Overton and Scott Horowitz, all Republicans—are expected to use their controlling votes to install Mr. Warner as the board’s president, displacing the current president, Eric Shultz, a Democrat and the board’s most senior member.

Mr. Shultz, who has served for more than 40 years on various town regulatory boards, has been the board’s president since 2011, when he was a registered Republican.

The leadership change does not appear to be solely a political move, as members of the majority also pointed to a desire to see a change in the relationship between the Trustees and other government entities, and an overhaul of the way the board manages its finances and bookkeeping.

With Mr. Warner at the helm, the Trustees may seek to reach an agreement with Town Comptroller Len Marchese’s office to oversee the Trustees’ many financial accounts and checkbooks.

Mr. Shultz has said he thinks the Trustees’ finances should remain completely independent from the town’s bureaucracy to protect their sovereignty. But with a recent lawsuit threatening the Trustees’ ability to maintain their own financial accounts independent of Town Board control, which many fear would strip the Trustees of a buffer from political meddling, the ancient board’s newest members have said that more oversight is needed.

The change in leadership, the Republican members said this week, was agreed to a year ago, when Mr. Overton and Mr. Horowitz were elected, returning the GOP to the majority, which it had held for most of the board’s political history.

“It made sense, with two new guys coming on the board last year, to transition gradually—let me and Ray settle in, and let Eric transition it over to Eddie,” Mr. Horowitz said after a Trustee meeting on Monday. “It was nothing political. If it was political, we could have walked in the door and said, ‘1, 2, 3—goodbye.’ It was meant to position the board better: Eric could concentrate on the things he’s strong on and bring Eddie up to speed. He’s been in the building for 43 years—everybody was good with that.”

But after Mr. Shultz failed to offer any indication in recent weeks that he would bequeath the board’s chairmanship to Mr. Warner, and was absent from the board’s first official meeting of the year, Mr. Overton and Mr. Horowitz grumbled aloud about the latent leadership change and suggested that the four members present should hold the vote.

Trustee Bill Pell, an independent who in 2009 was the first non-Republican to win election to the board in more than 20 years, objected to the vote being held without Mr. Schultz present. The president had been at Monday morning’s work session but had left before the afternoon’s official meeting began, because his 90-year-old father had been hospitalized.

Mr. Warner temporarily diffused the scrum by saying it would be okay to address the leadership issue at the board’s next meeting, on January 21. But within an hour of adjourning Monday’s meeting, the Republicans called for a special organizational meeting.

“I don’t know if they thought we’d forget about it or what, but it’s what we had agreed to,” Mr. Overton said later in the day. “It was supposed to give Eric a gracious way out. He’s invested a lot, there’s no doubt about it, so we thought he deserved that. But now it’s time for the change.”

The political takeover would be an outlier in the timeline of Trustee business, in a number of ways. It would be a rare showing of political maneuvering by the board, which has prided itself on its independence from the tinkering of political party leadership.

But that tradition of cooperation was facilitated for decades by near political homogeneity. The Republican Party has held the majority, and often an absolute majority, on the Trustees since the major political parties became the standard-bearers in town politics. For decades, leadership of the board was simply handed down from member to member at the sitting president’s chosen time, and it was typically passed to the next most senior member of the board.

Thanks to that familial arrangement, the board has traditionally held official organizational meetings only every two years, following the biennial town election cycle.

Mr. Shultz and Mr. Pell say that the agreement reached at the start of last year did not carry such a rigid timeline and lamented the Republican decision to force the transition through, and the publicly contentious way it was being approached.

“If Eric had been there and said he was going to step down, I would have no problem with it,” said Mr. Pell, who has been on the board since 2009. “But you can’t do it without him being there. The presidency has always gone by seniority, and it’s every two years.”

Mr. Shultz implied that he was getting ready to abdicate the chairmanship but did not see a firm deadline for him doing so. “I would have liked to announce what I was going to do—I don’t see what the rush is,” Mr. Shultz said. “I don’t think it was very gentlemanly. The term for president is two years—it’s been that way back into the 1930s.”

By Mr. Shultz’s recollection, the decision for him to remain as the board’s chairman last year had been related to his knowledge and understanding of the numerous pending lawsuits the Trustees are embroiled in. He said that at the time, the board had expected that most of the suits would be dispensed with by the start of this year. Instead, the Trustees’ legal campaign has become more and more entrenched in the last 12 months, following a court ruling last January that seemed to give the Town Board control of the Trustees’ finances.

Despite acknowledging that a change was in the offing, Mr. Shultz seemed this week to think that it was still not the right time for him to step aside.

“It’s more important now than ever that there be a smooth transition, because there is so much information that Ed has to be brought up to speed on,” he said. “There had never been a firm date. I had said I was going to run out the year, and the next year Ed was going to take over. The Trustees Board operates on tradition, and it has always been the tradition that the president announces when he is going to step down.”

Mr. Shultz is by far the most senior member of the Trustees, entering his 20th year on the board. For most of his political life—he has served in town government since he was 17—he was a Republican. But in 2011, shortly after being reelected on the GOP ticket, Mr. Shultz and former Trustee Fred Havemeyer both switched their political registration to the Democratic Party, having been told by the Republican leadership they would not be endorsed again in future races, retaliation for taking cross-endorsements from the Democrats. Mr. Havemeyer ultimately did not seek reelection, but for most of two years the board had its first non-Republican majority ever.

Mr. Warner’s father served on the Trustees for more than 30 years. When Edward Warner Sr. died in 2006, his son, a commercial fisherman from Hampton Bays, was unanimously appointed to inherit his seat. He is now the board’s second most senior member.

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For all the pious cant about the Trustees being nonpartisan, the GOP now shows its true gangster colors -- Take a hike, Eric, we're running things now, they say.

And why is Eric Shultz out? Because he's a Democrat, that's why. And why is Eric Shultz a Democrat? Because not so long ago, when he was a Republican, he committed the giant mortal sin of accepting support from the evil Democrats, because the evil Dems thought he'd done a decent job over the years and actually believed this fairy ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Jan 8, 15 11:47 AM
2 members liked this comment
Or you could just say elections have consequences. (saves a lot of rhetoric)
By But I'm a blank! (1283), Hampton Bays on Jan 8, 15 3:13 PM
I guess that means that it's time that Anna and Bridget must go also. they are the top, longest in office. But I'm sure that you'll disagree because they ran on the Democratic Party line in every election. Talk about being two faced. That would be you, Turkey Bridge. Actually, you should retire your keyboard and get a life outside of the political arena. If you really want the Town to change, maybe it's time that Eric retired after all these years as a Trustee. Maybe he should try and run ...more
By bobalooey (45), East Quogue on Jan 14, 15 1:13 AM
What a shame. Seems like the trustees are going to let the town take them over.
By Resident tax (186), Hampton bays ny on Jan 8, 15 12:08 PM
1 member liked this comment
Scott Horowitz a.k.a 007 should learn how to be a team player and get over his Napoleon complex.
By sf (5), Southampton on Jan 11, 15 8:15 PM