To the editor:
There is no doubt that the largest portion of any local property tax bill is the amount funding the public school district. It’s a bill that causes taxpayers agita each and every year.
The 2 percent state cap on year-to-year tax levy increases is a temporary control tactic, not a sustainable strategy. And as we tighten our belts as a result of the cap, there are significant negative outcomes: pre- and after-school program cutbacks minimize opportunities for youth; increasing class sizes to maximum allowable levels results in instruction that cannot possibly address the needs and diversity of any given classroom population; lobbying for “our fair share” produces great photo-ops but makes us look like pigs at the trough; and staff layoffs are temporary fixes and only hand more responsibilities to someone already working at capacity, creating resentment and loss of pride in work.
So, what is the answer? (more…)
The recent revelation that Joe Ogeka, an assistant superintendent of the Riverhead Central School District has been identified as the highest salaried public school official in the state for 2013-14 outside New York City caused many in our community to ask: How could this happen? How could this happen in a district with 51 percent free and reduced lunch enrollees, where the annual median family incomes trails the rest of Suffolk by $20,000 and where state aid for the annual operating budget is less than 25 percent? (more…)
Last year, as candidates for the Riverhead Town Board, we sounded the warning bell about public officials also serving as high political party officials.
Often, in the rough-and-tumble and prism of a political campaign, issues like this are seen as personal. But as the movie line goes, “It’s not personal … It’s strictly business.” (more…)
In June 2012, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio filed a harassment complaint against Supervisor Sean Walter.
Months later, Mr. Walter put out a political hit on Ms. Giglio, which came in the form of a primary challenge from the supervisor’s friend and longtime political adviser, Anthony Coates.
During that contentious primary, Councilman John Dunleavy — perhaps sensing momentum building behind Mr. Coates — was continually found to be out campaigning without his committee-designated team, joining Mr. Coates in door-knocking efforts.
But blood is thicker than water, the saying goes, and as the outcome of the Riverhead Town elections began to crystallize before the family of Riverhead Republicans Tuesday night, judging by the hugs, kisses and high-fives — bygones were bygones. Despite their differences, the three incumbents on the Town Board had all won re-election.
“I’ve been involved in Riverhead politics for 14 years and I have never seen the Republican committee come together the way it has this summer and this fall,” Mr. Walter told a jubilant crowd of supporters at Cody’s BBQ & Grill.
Mr. Walter later said he believed the issue of in-fighting on the board was more media driven than anything.
“I think the residents didn’t focus on the fights or they wouldn’t have re-elected us,” he said. “They focused on the results, and if everybody got along all the time, I don’t think we’d have had the results that we had. We all add something to this mixture.”
But it wasn’t just the media. The Riverhead Democrats had been smelling Republican blood in the water for some time because of the in-fighting. Democratic challenger Angela DeVito’s campaign slogan, “Respect Riverhead,” was built on the promise she would bring courtesy and respect back to Riverhead Town Hall after four years of Mr. Walter and an all-Republican Town Board.
The voters favored staying the course.
Mr. Walter defeated Ms. DeVito with 56 percent of the vote, or 3,917 to 3,090, according to Suffolk County Board of Elections figures.
Ms. Giglio, who earned a second term, and two-term Republican Councilman John Dunleavy tallied 3,634 and 3,495 votes respectively, over Democrats Bill Bianchi, with 3,141 votes, and Millie Thomas, with 3,045, in the at-large election for two seats.
As it began to look like the election results weren’t going to break her way, Ms. DeVito — who led a team that came much closer than their Democratic counterparts in the 2009 and 2011 races for Town Board seats — told her supporters “we are still winners.”
She also said there’s still work to be done for the Democratic Party to make the sure the towns government, ruled by Republicans, is heading in the right direction and working for the people of Riverhead.
“Just because we aren’t in the driver’s seat, that doesn’t mean we can’t be passengers in the bus,” Ms. DeVito said from Democratic headquarters in a storefront behind the Riverhead Diner & Grill — and a short walk from Cody’s on East Main Street.
She then took that short walk, entering Cody’s back door and making her way through the crowd to congratulate Mr. Walter. The two candidates hugged and exchanged words as music pumped through the speakers. Ms. DeVito was also joined by campaign advisor Keisha Washington Dean.
Mr. Walter and party leaders attributed the Republican victories to a largely positive campaign.
“This town is moving in the right direction, no matter what Angela DeVito and Bill Bianchi say,” Mr. Walter said.
“I believe we’ve gotten our message across,” said Republican Committee Chairman Mason Haas, “which is that the town is moving in the right direction.”
In other town races, incumbent Republican assessor Laverne Tennenberg beat Democratic challenger Greg Fischer, 4,343 to 2,396, and Democratic highway superintendent George (Gio) Woodson beat Conservative challenger Michael Panchak by vote of 4,936 to 1,269.
Mr. Woodson and Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm are the only Democrats to hold an elected office in Riverhead Town.
A moral victory, so to speak, for Democrats in the town races came with the respectable showing of the council candidates.
The votes were much more evenly split than in the past two local elections, with Ms. Thomas, a Wading River realtor, earning 24 percent of the vote and Mr. Bianchi, a former state Assemblyman from the Bellport area, capturing 23 percent of the vote.
Ms. Giglio led the pack with 27 percent followed by Mr. Dunleavy with 26.
By comparison, in 2009, Democratic council candidate Kathy Berezny tallied 20 percent of the final vote for two seats, with 19 percent for Shirley Coverdale.
The Democratic council candidates fared even worse in 2011, when Marlando Williams got 16 percent of the vote and Matt Van Glad received 15 percent in an at-large race against incumbent Republicans James Wooten and George Gabrielsen for two open seats.
This election season, the Democrats also tried to capitalize on residents’ displeasure with the clearing of several properties along Route 58 to make way for commercial shopping centers. They had joined residents in a rally at the Costco Wholesale site, which was clear-cut right up to neighboring properties, and held their own press conference there, faulting the Town Board for granting an excavation permit for the project.
Mr. Dunleavy, who lives in Foxwood Village, one of the affected communities, also took heat from his neighbors during the campaign — not only for the clearing itself but for deflecting blame onto neighbors he said weren’t paying attention and attending town meetings.
He later apologized at a Town Board debate, saying no one was to blame.
On Election Day, even the election district that includes Foxwood Village voted for Republicans, including Mr. Dunleavy, according to numbers posted at Republican headquarters — though not yet available through the county — Mr. Dunleavy received 215 votes, with Ms. Giglio leading with 222 in Election District 11. Ms. Thomas earned 200 in ED11 and Mr. Bianchi, who came out on the attack against Mr. Dunleavy at the Oct. 24 debate, finished last in that district, with 196 votes.
“The few people that thought I was the sole person [responsible for the clear-cutting] for the Costco project, they were wrong, and the people that believed in me, voted for me,” Mr. Dunleavy said after the results came in and he was awarded a third four-year term.
For her part, Ms. Giglio told WRIV radio show host Bruce Tria that the election outcome could offer a renewed opportunity for the Republicans, who will now have to work together for at least another two years, the length of supervisor terms in Riverhead Town.
“We have to put things behind us and move forward,” she said, adding that she would reach out to Mr. Walter to perhaps talk over lunch.
Mr. Walter later told the News-Review he would be willing to sit with Ms. Giglio over lunch.
A breakdown of the election district totals that were posted at Republican headquarters at Cody’s BBQ Tuesday night shows that home field advantage only went so far on Tuesday.
• Democratic Supervisor candidate Angela DeVito did win her home district. She took Election District 8 in South Jamesport by a vote of 194 to 155. And Republican Supervisor Sean Walter took his home district, ED 17 in Wading River, by a vote of 209 to 148.
• Democrats Bill Bianchi and Millie Thomas both lost their home districts, with Mr. Bianchi coming in third of the four council candidates in ED 22 in Riverhead, where he lives, and Ms. Thomas coming in third in her ED 14 in Calverton.
• Incumbent Republican Councilman John Dunleavy came in second to fellow Republican incumbent Jodi Giglio in Mr. Dunleavy’s ED 11 in Calverton. Results were not immediately available for the breakdown in Ms. Giglio’s home district, ED 19 in Baiting Hollow.
• The districts in which Ms. DeVito bested Mr. Walter were mostly along the southern part of Aquebogue, Jamesport and South Jamesport, winning ED 6, 21 and 8, which together cover the bayfront from Hubbard Avenue to Laurel.
Ms. DeVito also won in ED 2, which covers areas in the heart of Riverhead, such as Industrial Boulevard and Pulaski Street.
• The only districts where two Democratic council candidates came in first or second place were ED 2, 10 and 17, the latter two being in Wading River, near Wildwood State Park.
• In the aforementioned ED 6 in Aquebogue, Ms. Giglio was the top vote getter, and Mr. Dunleavy and Ms. Thomas were tied for second.
• While Ms. DeVito won in her home district, her running mates did not. The GOP council candidates both won the top two spots in that district.
• The four council candidates also had varying second lines, which may (or may not) have played a factor in the final results.
Ms. Giglio gathered 3,219 votes on the Republican line and 415 on the Independence line. She did not receive Conservative party backing.
Mr. Dunleavy did get the Conservative nod, and received 813 votes on the Conservative line. He also got 2,682 votes on the Republican line, just less than the 2,685 votes Ms. Thomas received on the Democratic line. Ms. Thomas also received 456 votes on the Working Families line. Neither Ms. Thomas or Mr. Dunleavy appeared on the Independence Party Line.
Mr. Bianchi was the only council candidate with three lines.
He received 2,435 votes on the Democratic line, 348 on the Independence line and 262 on the Working Families line.
Two-year term, full time
2014 salary: $115,15
About him: Mr. Walter, 50, grew up in Suffolk County and has lived in Wading River since 1992. He is seeking a third two-year term as Riverhead Town supervisor. Mr. Walter had previously served as a deputy town attorney for Riverhead Town. He is an attorney in private practice, which he runs out of Wading River. He is also a former chairman of the town Conservative Party.
His pitch: Mr. Walter says that while in office, he’s made great strides in three critical areas of concern: downtown, the Enterprise Park at Calverton and town finances. He points to the new restaurants, shops and apartments downtown, as well family-friendly events and an increased police presence on Main Street. At EPCAL, he’s proud that Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed fast-track development legislation into law. And on town finances, he says that as supervisor, he’s reduced the size of government, maintained a high credit rating and stayed under the tax cap.
In his words: “Each day I try to make Riverhead a better place to live, work and raise a family. Though we have come far, there is much more to be done and I ask for the chance to continue to move forward.”
About her: Ms. DeVito, 65, is a longtime workplace safety advocate with related degrees from Columbia University and the University of Utah. She retired in 2000 from a NYS health department occupational medicine program at SUNY/Stony Brook and then served as director of workforce development for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk counties. She is an active civic leader who has served on the town Industrial Development Agency and the Riverhead school board.
Her pitch: Ms. DeVito says her work experience, community activism and education make her a uniquely qualified for the supervisor position. She has more than 30 years’ experience in the public sector, with experience and skills that include public policy development and implementation; staff supervision and training; finance and budget; public testimony and lobbying; community-based coalition building; zoning and planning; finance audits; and application of public sector laws, rules and regulations.
In her words: “Everybody knows that Riverhead just isn’t working. If there is any doubt, watch Channel 22 for 15 minutes. We have a common goal: end dysfunctional government. When you are not happy with those elected to serve you, replace them.”
Democratic supervisor nominee Angela DeVito is without a doubt a formidable challenger to two-term incumbent Republican Supervisor Sean Walter. She’s intelligent, hard-working and has given much back to the town by way of public service and civic involvement. She’s built a long and impressive résumé that reflects a life of advocacy for worker health and safety and, as a former Riverhead school board president, oversaw a budget larger than the town’s.
Ms. DeVito has run a spirited campaign. But unseating a sitting supervisor is equal parts quality of the challenger and a referendum on the incumbent’s performance. (It can be argued that elections for executive offices skew toward the latter.) It was paramount that Ms. DeVito convince voters that Riverhead Town has been on the wrong track and would continue in the same wrong direction under Mr. Walter. We’re not sure she even believes this.
Ms. DeVito may take issue with Mr. Walter’s tone of voice, behavior and his overall treatment of people who oppose him but at last week’s debate she agreed that his administration seems headed in the right direction on his signature push to subdivide and fast-track development projects for EPCAL. She also offered no clear competing vision for downtown and failed to outline any realistic approach to solving the town’s financial troubles.
On the all-important issue of finances, Ms. DeVito is critical of the supervisor and his Plan B of potentially borrowing against town land at EPCAL to stave off a massive tax hike in 2015. But her only idea involves the unrealistic notion that a cash-strapped Suffolk County would fork over to Riverhead Town a portion of sales tax revenues collected within the town. While this might have been a handy sound bite when out knocking on doors, many in government recognize it would be next to impossible to achieve.
More than anything else, it’s Mr. Walter’s behavior, which at times can be smug and condescending, that makes him susceptible in this race.
While he admits to these faults — and even seems to embrace them, often speaking of “breaking eggs to make omelettes” — he’ll continue to be plagued by political onslaughts from all sides if he doesn’t learn how to speak to people with courtesy and respect.
Still, it’s hard to argue with his results. Since taking office in 2010, Mr. Walter has worked tirelessly to push legislation in Albany to help develop EPCAL, called on the state comptroller’s office to audit the town’s finances to improve its long-term financial health and has himself tried to attract new investors to a Main Street that’s on the upswing in no small part because of his efforts. With Gov. Cuomo’s signing of the EPCAL fast-track bill into law last week, it would seem Mr. Walter is just starting to hit his stride.
The jury is out, however. Main Street is still struggling. (And Ms. DeVito is right in saying the town needs to also focus on quality-of-life issues in surrounding areas, such as trouble-plagued Second and Third streets, and in neighboring Riverside.) EPCAL still sits undeveloped and the town faces a budget crisis and needs to find alternative sources of revenue, quickly. Even though it’s never seemed to be an outward priority of his administration, Mr. Walter should take his fighting spirit to the developers — whose main goals are always profit, often at taxpayer expense — to better protect the “small town” so many cherish here.
It’s not time to have someone else finish the job Mr. Walter started. He deserves another two years to advance his plans for the town.