People who come out to the Hamptons from Manhattan are often shocked to learn that we are not masters of our own affairs. They think of us as a bunch of classy, well-heeled communities. Surely, towns with such magical names as Southampton, East Hampton, Southold, Shelter Island and Riverhead, known throughout the world, would not allow themselves to be taken over and run by a bunch of outsiders from the west.
But that is exactly what is going on. And though there have been three attempts over the years to regain the control lost years ago, all failed.
The problem is with Suffolk County and how they spend our money. Before 1972, the Suffolk County Legislature consisted of one representative from each of the 10 towns here and we had our say. The East End had three-quarters of the land. The west end had three-quarters of the population. Somebody years earlier had dropped a pin at the center of Suffolk County so people from Montauk had the same long drive to get to the county seat as those living near Nassau County. Thus Riverhead became the County seat. The legislature would haggle things out in the Assembly Hall there.
But then at the beginning of the 1970s, everything got turned upside down with the Supreme Court decision of one man, one vote. And so in the blink of an eye, the East End lost everything. About 600,000 people lived in the West End, 80,000 lived on the East End. In the election of 1972, the western five towns got 23 legislators and the five eastern town got 3. And from that day on, the five western towns got to decide everything.
Of course, the West End went nuts spending the money. They moved almost every county facility into a county “campus” they built in Islip, leaving Riverhead almost a ghost town of empty government buildings. They built the Southwest Sewer District with our money (and some officials went to jail for taking bribes from contractors). They consolidated the five town police departments of the West End into a powerful county police force. But when the East Enders said we wanted not to join in, the county charged the East End for a share of the county police department anyway. They still do.
And now the westerners are tightening their grip even further. The East End county bus routes are being cut back. The drinking water quality studies on the East End may end. And in its latest move, it voted to shut down the county voting site on Shelter Island. People on that island who want to vote next month in the election will have to take a ferry to Greenport or Sag Harbor if this decision is not reversed. And the county has cut back on park maintenance. It’s a mess out here now.
The five western towns of Brookhaven—Islip, Babylon, Huntington and Smithtown—don’t give a damn about our five eastern towns. All they want is to take our money. The East End provides two-thirds of their income. What we get out of it is crumbs.
Here’s a history of the three attempts to end this stranglehold.
The first one came in the 1980s. Dan’s Papers cheered it on. The first thing needed was for the citizenry to vote in favor of breaking away and starting a new county. A referendum was held. Overwhelmingly, it was approved. Now all that was needed was a stamp of approval in Albany. We’d be free.
But opponents, mostly our desperate neighbors in the west, found a document in the state laws that said we needed to have a minimum population of 130,000 to be a separate county. And that year, we were 10,000 citizens short. We were turned down.
People may recall that at that time I wrote a bittersweet column urging all our residents—well, the adult ones—to copulate as much as possible in order to clear this hurdle. I suggested romantic locations and dark rooms. I didn’t think anybody thought I was serious, but lo and behold, by 1990, we’d cleared the bar.
In the mid-1990s, a second attempt was made. This time Dan’s Papers ran a contest to name the County. God’s County won that competition. Indeed, we are as beautiful and wonderful a place that God ever created. A committee formed at this time, however, ignored us. They decided the name of the new county should be Peconic County, because every one of our towns has a shorefront on the Peconic Bay. But as Peconic County it couldn’t get through to Albany and fizzled.
A third attempt around 2003 led by State Assemblyman Fred Thiele did get through. The committee by this time even had selected a county flag. But in the end, even with everything in place, it was kept stuck in committee in Albany by Speaker of the State Assembly Sheldon Silver, who had found another state law that said there needed to be an approval from what would be a neighboring new county, Suffolk County. Fat Chance.
Sheldon Silver today is a convicted felon and out of the picture. So now a new effort to break away, again being talked about by East End officials, may yet succeed.
Monies raised in the wealthy East End should be spent in the East End. We have many needy people here. But as it stands now, everything is going to the “campus” in Islip and spent far away. It has to stop.