The Town Board had a very public and, to many residents, embarrassing meltdown during last Wednesday’s meeting in Town Hall.
The disagreement pitted supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman John Dunleavy against council members Jodi Giglio, James Wooten and George Gabrielsen. The fight was over whether or not to vote that day to fire the Town Board coordinator — who had fallen out of favor with the three board members — or to discuss the matter in a closed-door executive session before making a rash move.
While it’s hard to ascertain exactly what motivated this firing, it’s easy to determine that calling this vote off the floor without going through a more tempered procedure — most important a consultation with the employee and labor counsel to minimize legal exposure — was a mistake on the part of the three council members.
Contrary to Mr. Walter’s argument, the vote was perfectly legal, but explanations of why this decision couldn’t have waited just a couple weeks have fallen short, or haven’t been offered at all. And that smacks, more than anything else, of trying to settle a score.
Whatever the reasons, the way this firing was pushed through indicates larger problems in Town Hall. Keep in mind that the board’s last coordinator also departed rather unceremoniously — then filed a $1 million notice of claim against the town.
This is a board whose members distrust one another — sometimes for good reason. That distrust is fueled in part by their failure to communicate effectively, as well as their own political ambitions. Hence the constant forming and re-forming of alliances, from which some board members draw power to use against the others. It’s like watching a season of “Survivor,” with the end goal being to win the supervisor seat or some other position in government.
It would be hard for any coordinator to stand a chance in such a toxic atmosphere.
There is a way to reduce the risk that something like this will recur, but it’s unheard of in political circles: Open the coordinator job to applications from the public.
Elected leaders like to lend lip service to how “people are hurting.” They often tout goals of creating jobs and keeping taxes in check and proclaim how much they care about the little guy. There are likely many qualified people in Riverhead, a town of 33,000, who would make excellent coordinators — some of whom may be out of work but aren’t fortunate enough to know someone who’s politically connected and could deliver a resume.
Picking a new coordinator with no ties to any current Town Board member or the GOP establishment would make it easier to find a dutiful employee with no personal or political baggage and thus no allegiance to any council member and no interest in making anyone look bad.
The alliances keep changing and primaries are likely next year. The first time the next Town Board coordinator becomes suspect in the eyes of one of these councilpeople — which might not take long — the problems will start anew.
And hasn’t the board already wasted enough of everybody’s time? List the job on the town’s new website. Get the politics out of the coordinator’s office. And out of our faces.