04/21/11 4:45am

Now we know for certain what we have long suspected. The Riverhead Town Board is totally dysfunctional. Four Town Board members have confirmed it, and even some of them acknowledge it’s time for change. Just read the public statements — as reported by local media — made by our incumbent town officials over the last few weeks.

Councilman Jim Wooten

“I just don’t feel the local people of Riverhead are being fairly represented.”

“I can’t take the infighting anymore. It’s not good for Riverhead.”

“People think it’s time for a different kind of leadership in Town Hall.”

“Riverhead can do better. I see this dysfunctional board which I think hinders government.”

“Sean is paranoid about everybody…”

Supervisor Sean Walter

“I have a board where at least three of the four board members think they should be supervisor.”

“Councilman Wooten has been in office four years. Ask him what his accomplishments are.”

“I’d like to get a new town council member.”

“We need people with vision. Jim Wooten does not have vision.”

“I guess in January he [Wooten] will be looking for a job.”

Councilman John Dunleavy

Walter’s management style can be off-putting (paraphrase).

“Last week he got mad at me and came into my office and said some threatening words to me. I think that it’s immaturity.”

Councilman George Gabrielsen

“I really don’t know where he [Wooten] is coming from.”

“I don’t have a clue what he’s thinking.”

“I think personalities is what’s driving this.  It’s almost bizarre.”

The supervisor and Town Board members have told us voters exactly what we need to know. It is time for different leadership in Town Hall. The infighting on this dysfunctional, all-Republican Town Board is not good for Riverhead. There is no vision on this Town Board. The work of this one-party board is too often disrupted by party politics and petty personality differences.  The actions of our supervisor do suggest immaturity and paranoia.

We do need new board members. Riverhead can do better.

What is extraordinary is that the supervisor and three Town Board members have admitted all of this by their public statements. Who can disagree? They work with each other every day (or at least those days they show up).

To borrow a phrase from Councilman Gabrielsen, it really is “almost bizarre.”

Our supervisor and Town Board members cannot find time to attend a board meeting to consider a major polo proposal at EPCAL. They are quick to dismiss before hearing all the facts a proposal to rent downtown dock space for a dinner cruise boat. Yet they can find time to publicly berate each other. John Abbaticchio, a member of the business group which sought to rent downtown dock space is an independent third party observer. He says (referring to Town Hall) “Things are a little cuckoo over there.”  Who can argue with this observation?

Councilman Wooten last week announced “It is time for the [Republican] Party to have a new appearance in Town Hall.”  How about a disappearance on Election Day instead? While the supervisor and his all-Republican Town Board insult each other and fiddle around at the edges of the town’s real problems, Riverhead burns.

Mr. Villella is the chairman of the Riverhead Democratic Committee and a former Riverhead supervisor.

03/08/11 12:33pm

Based on Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter’s State of the Town speech, I’d bet that if someone were to sing “How Great Thou Art,” he would stand up and take a bow. The state of Riverhead is not “great” as Mr. Walter announced. And if he really thinks it is, how does he justify his doom-and-gloom complaining and employee firings over the last year?

The collapse of both contracts at the Enterprise Park at Calverton is not “good” and EPCAL’s “blank canvas” is not “fantastic.” It’s really sad. Mr. Walter expects us to applaud his failure to close these lucrative contracts, which he claims he worked to preserve. That’s just pathetic.

His new plan for EPCAL is foolish. He is spending a half million tax dollars on yet another study, letting the state Department of Conservation and the Suffolk County Health Department decide what is buildable, and then spending millions more to subdivide without regard to use or user. He then proposes to lobby the state to create an unlikely 75-day building permit process — all before any buyer expresses interest in the property. The supervisor wants to do at public expense what developers should do at private expense. As County Executive Levy said Feb. 18th, as reported by the News-Review: “EPCAL is now going backwards; they are going to have to start from scratch. It’s going to be a long time before you see a shovel in the ground over there.”

Riverhead Town spending millions of dollars at EPCAL is not better than Riverhead Town receiving millions of dollars in option payments, as it did during the previous administration of Phil Cardinale. In his speech, Mr. Walter boasted that downtown made great progress last year. He then unfairly credited himself with all the downtown projects started, funded and under way during the Cardinale administration.

When he thanked those investors “who have taken the challenge downtown,” he failed to mention that most did so with a bountiful booty of tax abatements supported by his administration, for which all of us will pay dearly with higher town tax bills. Indeed, we’ve already started to pay with the highest tax increase of any Long Island town in 2011.

At one point he stated, “I could not do this job without Anthony Coates.” That’s puzzling, unless you recall that earlier in the speech he identified Mr. Coates as both his and the town’s press agent. Thus these words of praise were likely written by Mr. Coates about himself. Mr. Walter’s disclosure that Mr. Coates simultaneously serves as press agent for the town, for him, and for the all-Republican Town Board is disturbing, especially since Mr. Coates receives monthly payments from Mr. Walter’s political campaign fund.

The brief discussion of town finances was illogical. While maintaining the town was in dire financial condition when he took office 14 months ago, Mr. Walter announced the town’s sudden miraculous recovery without any detail.

Mr. Walter’s sympathy for the town workers he fired didn’t ring true because his actions have spoken louder than his words. He gained the campaign support of many town workers by opposing the transfer of town dispatchers to the county, disregarding the $800,000 savings to the town and the eventual assurance of county jobs for the workers. Then, less than a year later, Mr. Walter fired numerous town employees, double-crossing town workers while saving far less money than would have been saved by the transfer of the dispatchers.

His comments on farmland preservation again gave credit to himself for the work of others. After acknowledging the town has no money for purchases, he credited himself for all development rights purchased in Riverhead by Suffolk County in 2010. Then, on the basis of the county’s purchases, he declared himself to be a “preserver of our rural way of life.”

Suffice it to say: I’m not nearly as impressed with Mr. Walter as he obviously is with himself. Early in his speech he repeatedly exclaimed “I love this job!” I wanted to ask “Which one, your Town Hall job or your law practice job?” Later Mr. Walter delivered one line I liked when he said, “Maybe I’ll be a one-term supervisor.” Let’s all make certain that there are no maybes about that.

Mr. Villella is a former town supervisor and current chairman of the Riverhead Democratic Committee.

02/15/11 1:19pm

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.

11/30/10 8:35pm

The town supervisor is budget officer and chief financial officer of the town. As a former supervisor, I prepared several budgets that I submitted to the Town Board. Over my lifetime in Riverhead, I’ve watched supervisors before and after me do the same. But never before has the town seen a show like that put on this year by Supervisor Sean Walter and this Town Board.

Act I began Sept. 30 with the presentation of the supervisor’s budget, which called for the dismissal of 13 employees yet included a $70,000 increase to the supervisor’s personnel budget to insure continued employment of the supervisor’s campaign manager. The supervisor’s budget also included $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads, items not disclosed in posted salaries.

Yet, Mr. Walter somehow failed to include in his budget $150,000 in mandated expenses for step increases required by contract for civil service employees and also failed to include over $200,000 for dispatcher salaries and benefits mandated by last years’ referendum. Despite his omission of these required expenses, the supervisor’s budget featured, in the midst of a painful recession, the highest tax increase of any town on Long Island.

Act II opened with the budget tragedy descending into farce. Between Sept. 30 and Nov. 20, many contentious budget meetings were held by the Town Board. Most noteworthy was the incivility of Town Board members to each other and to town employees pleading for their jobs. The highlight came when Mr. Walter refused to permit the president of the employee union, Bill Walsh, to speak at a public meeting. Here is where tragedy became farce when Mr. Walsh declared that Mr. Walter was a “Chickensh– for not allowing me to speak,” as reported by the News-Review.

Act III commenced as the all-Republican Town Board voted 4-1 against the supervisor’s budget but then failed to muster the necessary three votes to make any change to it. Months of budget meetings came to no purpose.

After the failed budget vote, the supervisor’s original budget became by default the town’s 2011 final budget. This budget is now law and features: (1) a missing $350,000 in mandated expenses ($150,000 for step increases; $200,000 for dispatchers); (2) $240,000 in unnecessary discretionary spending ($70,000 for the supervisor’s campaign manager and $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads); (3) termination of employment for 13 town employees; (4) uncut salaries for elected officials, political appointees and department heads; (5) Long Island’s highest tax increase. Grievances and lawsuits are already under way.

Lingering tension among Town Board members continues, as reflected in Mr. Walter’s parting comment at the budget vote. “This was just a media circus,” he said. “This was a show put on by some council members just for the media.”

If this budget folly was indeed a show, as Mr. Walter suggests, it was one sorry performance for which our residents and 13 fired employees will pay dearly.

How about this for an alternative, happier ending? A budget without unnecessary spending, with mandated expenses included, 13 of our neighbors’ jobs saved, Long Island’s highest tax increase avoided and voluntary salary givebacks from elected officials, political appointees and department heads. (Recall that former supervisor Phil Cardinale gave $17,000 of his salary back to the town.)

There is a better way.

Mr. Villella is a former Riverhead Town supervisor and chairman of the town Democratic Committee.