After explaining over the past week how closed-door political caucuses are necessary to prevent Riverhead Town Board members from fighting with each other in public, the members spent much of Thursday’s work session doing just that.
Among the topics they argued about in public were: term limits, banning elected officials from being on political committees, getting discussion items on the public work session agenda and not being allowed to ask town staff to do things requested by council members.
And despite the arguments, the board did agree to set a public hearing on 12-year term limits for Town Board members and two hearings on banning elected officials from holding political party executive committee positions. One hearing will prevent just Town Board members from being political committee leaders, and the other would apply to all elected officials.
Supervisor Sean Walter has recently accused council members of meeting in closed political caucus meetings to discuss town business that he feels should be discussed at public meetings.
These caucus discussions, Mr. Walter feels, have led to the board majority withdrawing its support recently from several initiatives that previously appeared to have board support. Some of those initiatives include the conversion of the Route 58 armory into a police headquarters and justice court, the sale of the Second Street firehouse, the conversion of the Henry Pfeifer community center in Calverton into an animal shelter and a plan to implement term limits.
By law, members of the same political party are permitted to meet in private caucus meetings. The all-Republican Town Board members, along with Republican chairman Mason Haas, acknowledged the meetings take place about twice a month.
They said the private meetings allow the board members to discuss things privately without having to be seen fighting in public.
“This board tore each other apart for the last two years on petty issues,” Mr. Haas told the News-Review. “And the lack of caucuses allowed that to happen.”
Mr. Walter, concerned that issues are getting reversed by board members without his knowledge, said at Thursday’s work session that he now plans to leave discussion items on the work session agenda week after week until they are resolved.
Councilman John Dunleavy said Mr. Walter has not always put items he requested on the work session agenda.
“That’s not true,” Mr. Walter said.
Mr. Dunleavy cited an instance in 2010 where the board wanted to discuss a polo proposal at the Enterprise Park at Calverton and the supervisor wouldn’t allow it.
“We’re going back to 2010 now?” Mr. Walter asked.
“Well, you said never,” Mr. Dunleavy responded.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said Mr. Walter also refused to put a discussion item on the agenda about the FAA possibly building a facility at EPCAL.
Mr. Walter said the FAA specifically asked that it not be a public meeting.
“This is why we have a caucus,” Mr. Dunleavy said.
The supervisor offered to let the council members set the work session on the last Thursday of each month.
Ms. Giglio opposed that, saying there are issues that come up that are time sensitive and must be discussed sooner.
“Then don’t complain,” Mr. Walter said.
“I’ll be back. This is very counter-productive,” Councilman Jim Wooten said as he left the room during the argument.
Mr. Dunleavy and Ms. Giglio also claimed that when they sought to get cost estimates from the town engineer on their proposals for the police department and Second Street firehouse, the supervisor told the engineering department not to do so.
Ms. Giglio proposed making the police headquarters two stories and moving Town Hall into the firehouse, and Mr. Dunleavy proposed moving the police and courts to the firehouse.
“That’s 100 percent accurate,” Mr. Walter said.
The board has already voted to hire an engineering firm to design the Route 58 armory as a police and justice court building, Mr. Walter said.
“The town engineer can’t go in two separate directions and the town board, as a board, made a determination we were going to spend $87,000 to design the armory,” Mr. Walter said.
On the subject of term limits for Town Board members, which board members appeared to support during a work session discussion two week ago, there was now opposition.
Mr. Walter has alleged that Mr. Haas, an elected assessor, has pressured council members to oppose term limits. Mr. Haas had no comment on that.
Now, Councilman John Dunleavy and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said they oppose term limits, saying the voters will handle term limits.
Mr. Dunleavy and Ms. Giglio said they’ve heard that from the public that term limits are not needed.
Mr. Wooten has supported term limits for Town Board members, planning board members and ZBA members, that latter two which are appointed positions. Mr. Walter feels all elected officials should have 12-year term limits. Mr. Gabrielsen supports a public hearing on term limits for Town Board members, but has not indicated if he supports it.
Ms. Giglio did agree to hold a public hearing on a proposed 12-year term limit for Town Board members, meaning there was at least enough support to hold the public hearing on the issue.