Larry Penny Charges Dropped, It’s A White Wash

The saga of Larry Penny came to an end last Thursday.  The 16 so-called serious charges against him were dropped without any reason offered. They just did it. They also said that they had found out that Larry had been planning to retire.
Larry told me he never has had plans to retire. As the beloved East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director for the last 28 years, he has a long history of saving wetlands, fighting developers, creating parkland, saving wildlife and cleaning polluted waters. And he didn’t want to retire. At the age of 76, he’s as vigorous as ever and is filled with all this wisdom. There was something else going on here.
“Well,” he told me, “I guess the answer is that I was able to get my way with several Supervisors, but I just couldn’t manage this one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Until now, the environmental department in this town has enforced the laws without regard to who was breaking them.  I saw to that. I fought for the environment.  It may not continue to be the same when they get someone new, we will have to see.”
I said I still didn’t understand.
“In some towns, it’s as much about politics as it is about the environment. People have friends of friends. There’s compromise.  I wouldn’t have anything to do with politics.”
It appears to me that Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson tried a heavy-handed accusation of improper behavior to get Penny out. He issued an order that all the animal carcasses in the storage room of the Natural Resources Department Building be removed. The town claims that Penny ignored him. You can’t refuse a direct order from the Town Supervisor.  The town commissioned their own contractor to remove the stored animals, and Penny was then accused also of having formaldehyde in the basement without a permit. (It was half a quart, according to Penny). He was accused of not keeping the renewal of certain environmental permits up to date in his department. And he was accused of allowing a landscaper, who was removing ornamental trees from a property owned by the town, to keep the trees without paying the town for them.
Wilkinson took these charges to the Town Board, made them appear to be outrageous breaches of town law, and then watched as the Town Board voted 5-0 to suspend Penny without pay for a month while they investigated what to do next with him.
But this is a small town, and the citizens here would not put up with this nonsense.  Wilkinson was criticized from pillar to post for proceeding with these overblown charges.  Here you had, for a quarter of a century, a David vanquishing a whole lot of Goliaths, keeping the town’s waters and dunes and wetlands pure.  Penny missed nothing.  He enforced the law.  He was nice about it, but that’s what he did, and this town owes him for the service he performed here.
And so, what the town had to have Thursday was a meeting behind closed doors with Penny’s lawyer, at which the Town Board backtracked and worked out this “graceful” way for Penny to leave.  Charges dropped. Penny was retiring “anyway.”  We’ll have a party and give him a gold watch.
What a shame.  This newspaper was a big supporter of Bill Wilkinson when he ran for Supervisor two years ago and won in a landslide.  He, for years and years led the human resources department of Disney. The town was deeply in debt, due to the financial irresponsibility of the prior Supervisor. Wilkinson, with his Fortune 500 expertise, bonded the debt, then lowered town taxes—and in his 2011 re-election bid, against a novice Democrat, he won re-election not by another landslide, but by the skin of his teeth—15 votes out of 6,791 cast.
How in the world could he have come so close to losing after doing all he did in his first term?  His handling of Larry Penny in such a rough way is something to think about. Perhaps Mr. Wilkinson makes a habit of it. It’s hard for an outsider to know.
According to Penny, the town is going to continue to operate a Natural Resources Department. Or at least he hopes they will.  We’ll have to see about that too.

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