I don’t know Lisa Worthington, newly appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but I have no problem with her accepting what she reportedly sees as an “interesting job opportunity.”
However, I take extreme issue with the Town Board members who thumbed their noses at the people of Riverhead in filling this critical post. Stunningly, board members don’t even pretend Ms. Worthington has suitable training or experience. In fact, they don’t suggest she has any qualifications whatsoever, other than a “fresh face.”
It’s not just qualifications that are lacking; Ms. Worthington appears never to have given zoning matters any thought. Yet what intrigues her (as told to this paper) is the idea of “deciding what should be granted and what shouldn’t be.”
Most of us would jump at the chance to play Solomon, getting paid $6,000 to sit at a handful of meetings and see our opinions become law, but we realize such opportunities must be earned. In a fair world, they come with lots of study, hard work and salient accomplishments in relevant fields. Sometimes, of course, such jobs are simply plums awarded to loyal party workers.
Yet, neither condition is in evidence here, and we’re left to wonder: Why Ms. Worthington?
Absent any other explanation — and none are forthcoming — Town Board members chose Ms. Worthington because they’re confident she’ll do what they expect, ask or even tell her to do.
Take the time to read town code and you’ll see that ZBA members wield more power over what gets built in Riverhead than do the Town Board members that appoint them. For example, the Town Board will eventually decide on zoning changes in the Wading River corridor, but the ZBA will have, in a practical sense, nearly unfettered ability to nullify the new rules by granting variances, project by project.
Riverhead has worked this way for a long time, but what’s particularly striking is the lack of balance. Looking at years of zoning decisions, in many categories nearly all variance applications are granted, and the ZBA’s reputation as a rubber stamp appears well-earned.
Riverhead voters deserve decision-making boards where contrary ideas and opinions are expressed and considered. Lively debate — not bloc voting — should be the norm.
CHANGE THE PROCESS
The candidate “search process” that brought us Ms. Worthington took four months, though Town Board members were thinking about this opening far longer. (Charles Sclafani resigned his ZBA seat in early May, but his Ethics Board situation was in review for a year prior.)
Yet all Mr. Walter tells us, based on last week’s News-Review report, is that she “was suggested by a couple of people.”
A few years ago, Southampton Town implemented a new law requiring that positions at the ZBA and other boards be filled by public interview. (Read the law below.) Anyone interested can submit a letter or resume and anyone interested can observe the Town Board’s vetting of candidates. The purpose “is to encourage transparency within town government.”
Riverhead taxpayers deserve no less.
Two ZBA appointments ago, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio expressed interest in opening up this process, and Councilman George Gabrielsen expressed support. They had the right idea; too bad it was squelched.
Our town is blessed with people possessing a wealth of directly relevant knowledge, who work tirelessly for the betterment of Riverhead. For them to be passed over for a “fresh face” and nothing more is sad, and does the town a disservice.
The fact that this particular ZBA seat wasn’t a swing vote (appointing an outspoken ZBA opponent would have suggested balance, but changed nothing) makes it even more embarrassing.
Consider Rose Sanders. In her time on the ZBA, Ms. Sanders spoke her mind, voted her conscience and was almost entirely irrelevant in terms of outcomes. Look at decisions during her tenure and you’ll see a long string of 4-to-1 votes.
In the best possible case, Ms. Worthington will similarly speak her mind and vote her conscience. Yet, lacking Ms. Sanders’ extensive experience, how will she garner the knowledge to take an opposing position against an architect, realtor or the former head of the buildings department now on the board? Lacking credentials, how will she find the courage to stand her ground?
The bottom line is that even if Ms. Worthington is a wonderful person and a fast learner, takes her ZBA responsibilities seriously and proves competent, steadfast and incorruptible, it won’t be enough.
For variances to become the exception rather than the rule, we need all future ZBA members to be questioned and qualified in open session.
For Riverhead to be governed by its best minds, rather than those with the best connections, future appointments to every board must be open to all and conducted in the light of day.
Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org, a preservation group.