Reform Town Government… My LIBN Piece from 12/24

The census data that has started to trickle out confirms what we already know: Long Island is growing and its population has changed. While the last 10 years haven’t brought dramatic change, it could be said the last 330 haven’t either.
Our town governments are pretty much the same as when they were created at the Duke’s Law Convention in the 1680s. The Dukes Law Convention established 12 counties (Suffolk was among them, Nassau was part of Queens until 1900). The Dongan Patents, named for Col. Thomas Dongan, who the King appointed his governor of New York in 1683, established town governance as we know it on Long Island. Designed for agrarian communities with limited populations and ultimately accountable to the King of England, the council/supervisor system rarely works well in today’s large towns.
Today, the system allows bureaucrats, rather than elected officials, to control key decisions. Moreover, no elected official is in charge. Supervisors may look like mayors, but only additional administrative powers differentiate them from their fellow council members. This lack of accountability and control is starting to kill our region and is precisely why the supervisor chair has been a revolving door in Suffolk’s largest town.
Long Island has a population of 3 million, more than Chicago. We need to start behaving more like a modern suburban area and less like a 16th century farming community. Our supervisor/council system should be scrapped and replaced with a mayor/council system where a chief executive elected to a four-year term can hire the people who make decisions on land use and other vital government functions. Right now, the buck doesn’t stop anywhere in most town halls; it gets passed around the table indefinitely, and that spells trouble if you need a decision from a town.
In order for towns to progress, someone needs to be in charge. We see how some towns operate better than others. The difference is always leadership. Where there is a strong supervisor who behaves like a mayor, things get done. Where there is a quarrelling council, things don’t.
I don’t blame the people elected to these offices. They are doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt. I have spoken with many frustrated current and former elected town officials, all who go into the position with the best of intentions. They quickly discover the system can’t be fixed, but rather must be scrapped. I am shocked that the state Legislature hasn’t tried to address this. It should be near the top of both the Senate and Assembly’s local government agenda next session.
This broken government structure has had a negative impact on regional planning. Regional planning efforts have been thwarted by the parochialism that exists all over this Island. Our Regional Planning Board should have the authority to overrule town zoning decisions that have a negative impact on regionally significant projects. If we can’t figure out a way to legally make that happen, planning needs to be removed from the towns altogether and vested in the county.
Again, the problem goes back to the Dukes Law Convention. Counties had limited powers at that time, but unlike towns, county government evolved to meet the demands of changing times. The towns were given land use powers then and, unfortunately, still have it now. Regional concerns rarely trump local ones at town board meetings. No one ever lost an election by saying no to a regionally significant project that faced even minimal opposition.
The Dongan Patents have had a good run. It’s time to put them in a museum where they belong. They were written for a time that’s long gone. We need town governments that are capable of dealing with our modern world. I hope that 2011 is the year that the state Legislature addresses this so Long Island can prosper.