08/16/11 10:33am

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | The Wading River Motel on Route 25.

On May 17, a DSS emergency shelter caseworker (CW) made a routine visit to the Wading River Motel, where several homeless families from Riverhead had been placed.

During the CW’s visit, a Riverhead Town Police car pulled around behind one of the buildings. The CW approached the officer to ask if there was a problem. The officer stated he had not received a call, but was conducting patrols. The officer then stated that “they” were not happy about a homeless motel being placed in Wading River. The CW asked who “they” were, and the officer clarified that he was referring to the police department and the community.

He went on to say that they were going to shut the motel down and that it wouldn’t be there “much longer.” He reminded her, “A lot of police live around here, and they don’t want this.”

This incident faded into a bad memory — until “they” tried to make good on their threat last Friday night. That evening, a convoy of vans (probably intended to be used as paddy wagons), as well as marked and unmarked cars containing about 15 police, code enforcement, fire marshal and town attorney staff arrived unannounced at the motel, sending fearful residents heading to their rooms.

The police and their civilian-suited counterparts showed a town judge’s warrant to the motel operator before going from room to room, taking pictures of the ID of each homeless resident and checking for outstanding warrants, and searching through rooms and closets, obviously seeking any contraband they could find. All in the name of building code violations.
Interestingly, they had obtained their warrant the previous day, and waited until that night to carry it out.  After a tense and, for the residents, traumatic couple of hours, the scowling crew left.  They exited with no contraband, one Vehicle and Traffic Law arrest for unauthorized use (the individual was later released), and their empty vans, with no code violation summons served on anyone.

Riverhead Town Code 86-12 sets forth the requirements and process for the issuance of a search warrant in order to conduct an inspection of any premises in Riverhead. The legal test in 86-12 requires there be reasonable cause to believe a violation has occurred, as well as an owner’s refusal or failure to allow an inspection of their rental premises. In the case of the Wading River Motel, although there may be a question about the rental permit, we know that the motel operator had been working with these same town code enforcement staff for months, and consented to every inspection they requested.

Furthermore, he had underwriters’ certificates for every repair he made.  One code inspector, who had been very familiar with the previous motel owner, said the place “never looked so good.”  The operator also cooperated with Health Department inspections prescribed by the state, which he passed.  Thus the warrant, fueled by the reprehensibly unprincipled behavior of town officials, proves to be illegal.

What really counts is what happened between the unwarranted patrol on May 17 and the raid last Friday.  DSS placed families in this man’s motel because all 52 family shelters operated by the county are full and the department knew him to be a reputable operator.  Motels are a last resort, as they slow down the process of getting homeless families back on their feet (though DSS still moves 30 to 40 families per month out of homelessness). Almost all the residents at the motel are single mothers with children.  None are registered sex offenders.  Many are from Riverhead, as we try to place homeless families in their school district or town of origin.  We monitor the police blotters and keep in touch with the police and the town attorney, just as the operator has. They never once hinted of their terrible plan, and the place has been free of criminal activity.  So why the raid?

The checks and balances system of the judicial branch of government fell flat on its face with this warrant, which authorized searches without identifying anyone who should be searched.  Even one of the senior police at the scene remarked he never saw such a vague, sweeping warrant in all his years. Town Justice Court served, or disserved, these disenfranchised people already suffering from the trauma of homelessness.  The judge acted not as a safeguard, but as an enabler.

To quote the great Edmund Burke, “The best way for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”   We cannot and must not accept this shocking turn of events.

Mr. Blass is the commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. He lives in Jamesport.

05/18/11 4:33pm

The recent Guest Spot about the misadventure of the Long Island Lighting Company with nuclear power in Northville offers but a single chapter. The full history of that saga involved so many others that this writer has to state, at the outset, that I can offer but just another chapter, though one worthy of our reflection. Indeed, my goal here is to recount only one of a number of heroes to the East End who played a vital role in stopping the nuclear plant — the late Riverhead Councilman Antone Regula.

First, a quick background. LILCO’s ambition to rise to the lucrative status of a national broker of nuclear power fell apart due in great measure to a popular uprising among the regular folks of the Town of Riverhead, wherein the Northville — which the state and LILCO referred to as Jamesport — plant was to be built. This uprising came to fruition thanks to Tony Regula, who led the charge in his quiet, mild-mannered way at a critical time by thinking out of the box in the face of intense pressure to back off.
With his tenacity, the whole idea of a Jamesport nuclear plant actually made its way to the voting booth, in the form of a ballot proposition in the 1979 town elections. The ballot question he and I drafted was simply worded, and was as well both proper and lawful. Riverhead Town’s voters resoundingly rejected the plant. In fact, federal agencies were in charge of nuclear plants, so this vote was not technically binding on the feds. But this vote by the people sent a crucial signal far and wide.

You see, up until that ballot vote, the Town Board of Riverhead, in the hope of tax revenues the plant would bring, strongly backed LILCO’s nuke plant plan.  Long before November 1979, board members made clear to all who would listen that which they sincerely believed: The nuke plant idea enjoyed strong local support.  This, in turn, convinced the county Legislature, and the local representatives in Albany and Washington, that a Jamesport nuclear power plant made political sense, simply because it was a popular idea. LILCO itself presumed local popularity for a Jamesport plant in its lobbying efforts in Albany and D.C., and its lobbyists carried this presumption to willing listeners in then County Executive John Klein and Governor Hugh Carey.

That is why Tony Regula met angry reaction, even political threats, when he openly pushed to have the plant project up for a vote. Some of his Town Board colleagues felt he was putting them on the spot. Their private and public discussions on a vote grew harsh. Yet he persisted. Finally the Town Board relented and approved Tony’s ballot proposition for the following November. The referendum and the controversy surrounding it gained much unexpected pre-vote publicity. This resulted in significantly higher voter turnout on Election Day.  When the votes were counted, the Jamesport nuclear project, without the first shovel in the ground, was dealt a resounding defeat. Democracy triumphed with the profound impact of this rejection, even contributing in great measure to the first election of a relatively unknown candidate for the office of Riverhead supervisor, Joe Janoski. Not unlike others, previous guest columnists included, the late supervisor preferred not to mention this referendum, or its real effect. But the repercussions of this vote, thanks to Mr. Regula, reached the heart of the issue.

The false weapon of community backing, shamelessly exploited by LILCO and its Wall Street and nuclear industry buddies, and the lobbyists, banks, insurance companies and the powerful construction trade unions, was dramatically snatched right out of their hands. The truth set Riverhead Town free. The people’s will carried to the Suffolk County Legislature, which reversed its support of LILCO’s Jamesport ambitions for the first time, within only weeks after and largely because of that referendum. Then the public hearings against nuclear power on Long Island showed new spirit as they raised the referendum’s dramatic outcome time and again. No one argues that this vote was the Jamesport plant’s downfall, yet in retrospect, it not only blunted the speed and self-assurance of the greedy special interests, but it also gave added focus to a grass-roots offensive that gained momentum.
We remember Tony Regula as a real gentleman, a truly good, ordinary, big-hearted guy who did what he knew had to be done and stuck with it, not unlike the people of Riverhead Town whom he represented. More important than his legacy of helping to spare us the Jamesport nuclear plant, and likely the others which were sure to dot the eastern Long Island landscape, was his inspiration for all of us, especially young people who seek role models for public service: that when you hold on to what you know is right and work hard, even struggle, to make the world a better place, you’re more than just an idealist, you’re someone who can make a real and lasting difference.

Greg Blass, who resides with his family in Jamesport, is a former U.S. Naval officer who has practiced law in Riverhead and represented the East End in the county Legislature, where he was also presiding officer, and where he chaired public hearings on health, safety and evacuation issues in connection with the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. He also served 10 years as a family court judge and is now commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services.