Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter receives a salary of more than $115,000; family medical, dental and optical benefits worth about $18,000; annual state pension contribution of about $10,000; deferred compensation of about $7,000; and a town car. Riverhead taxpayers pay for a full-time supervisor.
After his election, Mr. Walter announced he would continue to practice law at his Wading River law office while continuing to accept full-time compensation.
Mr. Walter finds this arrangement acceptable despite the fact that his budget laid off more than a dozen town employees and our town is in 2011 enduring the highest tax increase of any Long Island town. The question of greed I leave to your contemplation, but not before pointing out that Mr. Walter’s predecessor, Phil Cardinale, worked full-time for the town and returned to the town nearly $20,000 of his salary.
While Mr. Walter may be pleased by his post-election announcement that he is continuing law work in Wading River, many Riverhead residents may not be — especially after a review of Mr. Walter’s Annual Financial Disclosure and Conflict Statement for 2010.
Asked to list the names of clients “who have applications currently pending before any of the elected or appointed Boards or Committees within the Town of Riverhead, or who have had applications pending within the last twelve months,” Supervisor Walter answered: “This information for clients is covered by attorney/client privilege.”
Five months later, on June 23, 2010, Mr. Walter acknowledged receipt of a letter from the Town Ethics Board advising that the above answer was “not complete and needs to be amended.” Supervisor Walter then submitted what he termed “information which should satisfy its completion.” He listed 15 appearances he has made before the Town Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Justice Court, Conservation Advisory Committee, Board of Assessors and Town Attorney on behalf of clients during his supervisor term.
These 15 appearances by him were on behalf of clients whose names were redacted, or blacked out, from the 2010 Annual Financial Disclosure and Conflicts Statement document delivered in response to my recent Freedom of Information Law request.
When a town supervisor practices law a dangerous potential for conflict of interest results. To avoid this conflict, lawyers who previously served as supervisor did not simultaneously practice law.
Mr. Walter put his own personal interest over the public interest when he announced after his election that he will continue to practice law. He adds insult to injury by refusing to disclose the identity of his clients. By hiding from the public the identity of the clients he represented before Riverhead town boards and committees, Mr. Walter spits in the face of the law and good public policy.
As Riverhead residents we are left with these questions: Considering the compensation paid, aren’t we entitled to a full-time supervisor? Shouldn’t Mr. Walter have stated prior to his election his intention to continue his law practice? What possible value does Mr. Walter’s Conflict and Financial Disclosure Statement have if critical information is kept secret and hidden from the public?
When Mr. Walter proposes to change the town’s master plan or zoning laws, how can we know if it is for the benefit of his paying clients or for the benefit of town residents? How can Mr. Walter simultaneously serve two masters?
Mr. Villella is a former Riverhead supervisor and chairman of the Riverhead Democratic Committee.