11/08/12 10:24pm
11/08/2012 10:24 PM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Former Riverhead Town Board coordinator Linda Hulse, who was fired Wednesday.

Riverhead Town Board members argued for almost an hour Tuesday over a resolution to immediately fire the Town Board coordinator, Linda Hulse, with Supervisor Sean Walter publicly calling three fellow Republicans “cowards” and suggesting that Ms. Hulse was being fired for being a whistleblower.

The resolution, which was eventually approved by a 3-2 vote, was brought “off the floor,” meaning it wasn’t on the board’s printed agenda, and it had the support of council members Jodi Giglio, George Gabrielsen and Jim Wooten.

Supervisor Walter and Councilman John Dunleavy both voted against it, and both said they had no idea the resolution was being voted on Tuesday.

Mr. Walter called it “the most insensitive thing I’ve ever seen” to terminate an employee without discussing it with the board in executive session.

(See our live blog coverage from the meeting.)

While Ms. Giglio attempted to have the issue voted on without being discussed, the board ultimately ended up discussing it in public for close to an hour, with Mr. Walter saying he wanted the vote tabled to another meeting, and that he wanted to discuss the issue in executive session, which is closed to the public.

Ms. Giglio, Mr. Gabrielsen and Mr. Wooten refused, saying they wanted it voted on immediately.

Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio have been at odds before on issues before the Town Board. Ms. Giglio has at least twice accused the supervisor of trying to intimidate her, and one time even filed a police report for harassment.

“She tried to have me arrested,” Mr. Walter said Tuesday of that incident. The board, despite being all Republican, has had public disagreements over many issues in the past three years.

Ms. Hulse was appointed to the post in 2011 after the previous town board coordinator, Donna Zlatniski, resigned. Ms. Zlatniski later filed a lawsuit claiming she was “coerced” into doing campaign work for Mr. Wooten, and that she was fired to give the job to Ms. Hulse, who is the wife of Republican town assessor Paul Leszczynski, and who also was the Republican candidate for town clerk in 2009, when Democrat Diane Wilhelm defeated her in that year’s election.

Ms. Hulse currently is also the president of the Riverhead Rotary Club.

Mr. Walter said publicly of Ms. Hulse, “I personally happen to believe she’s a whistle blower and has raised a complaint against a board member and you’re looking to get rid of a whistleblower. This is retaliation for her actions.”

He didn’t say what the complaint was.

Ms. Giglio said the firing had nothing to do with Ms. Hulse being a whistleblower, something she, Mr. Gabrielsen and Mr. Wooten said they did not know about.

Mr. Gabrielsen said their concerns with Ms. Hulse are not due to any one issue.

“It started six to eight months ago, some of the board members lost that confidential trust [in her],” he said.

“We have had this employee for a year, it’s not working out and the majority of the board would like to move in a different direction,” Ms. Giglio said.

Mr. Walter said every other employee the town has terminated was spoken to beforehand.

“This is an evil act right here,” he said. “How many other employees are you planning to fire this way?”

“I come from a business community and anytime we had to let someone go, we called them in to talk with them,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “This is a coward’s position to let them go without talking to them.”

“The three of you are absolute cowards,” Mr. Walter said. “A real man sits down and talks to the employee.”

Ms. Giglio said Ms. Hulse was hired “at will,” meaning she is not a member of an employees union and not a department head under contract. Because of this, Ms. Giglio said, the board majority can fire her at any time.

Mr. Gabrielsen said the Town Council didn’t interfere in the selection of employees in the supervisor’s office, and the supervisor shouldn’t interfere with the selection of a Town Board coordinator.

At one point in the meeting, after it was clear the board majority planned to fire Ms. Hulse and refused to table the resolution or discuss it in executive session, Mr. Walter insisted on discussing the resolution publicly, something the three board members who backed the firing opposed.

“Can we filibuster?” Mr. Walter asked.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz also suggested that the board discuss the resolution in executive session before voting on it in order to protect the town in litigation.

Mr. Dunleavy said that if he knew the reasons for the firing, he might support it.

“But I don’t know the reasons,” he said.

Ms. Hulse could not be reached for comment and had left before the meeting ended, which was after regular hours at Town Hall.

Mr. Walter said he refused to call a vote on the resolution and is asking Mr. Kozakiewicz to investigate whether the vote is legal without his having called the vote.


08/03/12 8:24am
08/03/2012 8:24 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | People may soon be asked to not feed the ducks in Wading River if new signs are erected at the Duck Ponds.

The Wading River Duck Ponds may soon have signs asking people not to feed the feathered inhabitants for whom the ponds are named.

The Town of Brookhaven, which is completing a dredging project on part of the Duck Ponds, has asked Riverhead Town for permission to erect four signs telling people not to feed “waterfowl” at the Duck Ponds.

Brookhaven says that “waterfowl effluent is a contributing factor in the degradation of water quality,” and wants to put up signs that say that feeding waterfowl can cause poor nutrition, unnatural behavior, overcrowding, spread of disease and delayed migration among the birds, and pollution in the water.

The signs would be paid for by Brookhaven.

“C’mon, everybody likes to feed the duckies,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen, when the signs were discussed at Thursday’s Town Board meeting.

“If we don’t feed them, they are going to go someplace else.”

“Well, that’s what we want them to do,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. “They’re migrating birds that aren’t migrating anymore. They’re just sticking around.”

Mr. Wooten said the ducks are all over the place.

Councilman John Dunleavy said the town code already prohibits feeding geese, but it doesn’t mention ducks or other waterfowl.

That legislation, which the board had a lengthy debate over as well, was passed about a year ago at the request of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We like to see ducks there,” Mr. Gabrielsen said.

“You think the ducks are gonna leave if you don’t throw them a piece of bread?” Mr. Wooten asked.

“Are you ready to write tickets when people feed the ducks? What’s the fine?” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio asked of Police Chief David Hegermiller, who was in the room on another matter.

“It just says not to feed them,” Mr. Dunleavy said, indicating that the signs do not mention a fine.

“It’s just public education, the Town of Brookhaven has to do it” according to the DEC, said Tara McLaughlin, the executive assistant to Supervisor Sean Walter, who was absent Thursday. “We’re on a property line, can we please help them out?”

“We’ve got to be be consistent,” said Mr. Gabrielsen. “On one side of town you can feed ducks, on the other side you can’t.”

Sid Bail of the Wading River Civic Association echoed Ms. McLaughlin’s comments.

“It’s public education,” he said. “You can either accept the information or be like people are with global warming, be non-believers. And if you want to be consistent, it would be nice to see the Town of Riverhead spend money on the Duck Ponds, like Brookhaven has committed $175,000.”

Brookhaven paid to dredge its half of the Duck Ponds, but Riverhead did not, saying a grant they planned to use for the project didn’t materialize.

“Our towns have to work together,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “The signs should go up.”

The board is expected to vote on the resolution at Tuesday’s regular board meeting.


06/06/12 8:02pm
06/06/2012 8:02 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Sean Walter and James Wooten after a meeting in Wading River last April, when Wooten was considering a run for Walter's supervisor post.

Town Councilman James Wooten said he is seeking an appointment to a soon-to-be vacant town tax receiver post, but Supervisor Sean Walter said he would not support his fellow Town Board member in his bid to resign and take the full-time job.

“He’s not on my short list,” Mr. Walter said. “To be a tax receiver it’s a full time job, you gotta commit 35-40 hours a week. I don’t know that Councilman Wooten is able to do that.”

“He’s a Town Councilman,” he continued. “We need him as Town Councilman.”

The tax receiver post will be vacant as of July 1 due to the retirement of Maryann Wowak Heilbrunn, who has worked in the position for the past 10 years, which we first reported earlier Wednesday.

Mr. Wooten, in an interview Wednesday afternoon, said he was being considered for the position and said the position “totally fits my personality.”

He also said the job would give him more time to spend with his family and with his volunteer work. He was unable to be reached Wednesday evening for a response to Mr. Walter’s comments.

Mr. Walter said he was told about the retirement on Monday and that the Town Board hasn’t considered any candidates for the position yet.

“This is a very detail-oriented position, not a policy position,” he said. Mr. Walter said that if he were to choose a Town Councilperson, it would be Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, though he said he is sure she would not be interested in the position.

Whoever is appointed to fill Ms. Wowak Heilbrunn’s position will have to run in a special election this fall. If Mr. Wooten, or any other Councilperson, was appointed to the position, their seat would also be up for election in November.

Mr. Walter and Mr. Wooten have been on-again off-again political rivals since Mr. Wooten briefly attempted to run against Mr. Walter in last year’s Town Supervisor primary election. Mr. Wooten eventually dropped his bid for Supervisor; he is currently serving the first year of his second four-year term as Town Council.

Councilman George Gabrielsen said it was too early in the process for him to say who he would potentially support for the open job.

“I think it’s premature right now to say that anyone’s got a leg up on it,” he said, adding that he would also have to consider who would take Mr. Wooten’s place on the Town Board.

“If I make a decision, I want to make sure we’re getting the right people for the right positions,” he said. Mr. Gabrielsen said the Town Board will likely discuss the issue over the next couple of days and he hopes a decision will be reached by the end of next week.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman John Dunleavy were unable to be reached for comment Wednesday evening.


06/06/12 11:04am
Riverhead Town Supervisor

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter voted against a high way reserves transfer Tuesday.

In a split vote, the Riverhead Town Board approved a budget adjustment Tuesday that saw $740,000 transferred from town highway district reserves.

The move allowed the department to reimburse a state-designated fund set aside for road improvements, as well use $332,000 to purchase two new highway trucks and other equipment.

The vote was 3-2 with Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman George Gabrielsen voting against the measure.

“Once this money’s gone, it’s gone. It’s not going to be put back with the 2 percent [state mandated, year-to-year] tax cap,” Mr. Walter said specifically in reference to the $332,00 amount, which will be used to purchase a sweeper and a front-end loader. “This is, dare I say, reckless.”

Mr. Gabrielsen said, “Times are tough and we have to stave this stuff for a snowy day, so I’m going to vote no.”

Council members Jim Wooten and Jodi Giglio said they believed spending the money now could save the town later.

Mr. Walter said he would rather see the money go toward the “promised” $350,000 project to rehab the Wading River Duck Ponds.


03/28/12 6:00pm
03/28/2012 6:00 PM

The $25 fee businesses must pay for alarm system permits will be a thing of the past under a proposal by Supervisor Sean Walter, but businesses still will be required to register all alarm systems with the police.

Mr. Walter asked town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz to draw up a proposed local law to eliminate the fee at last Thursday’s public Town Board work session.

“I think we made a mistake that we didn’t realize we made when we said we were going to charge $25 for the fee for the alarm system registration,” Mr. Walter told Mr. Kozakiewicz during the meeting.

A number of business owners were not happy about the fee.

“We won’t charge the $25 fee but you still have to register your alarms because people’s lives are at stake when these fire alarms go off,” Mr. Walter said.

Because the fee is included in the town code, a public hearing, which also requires a two-week public hearing notice, must occur first. That hearing had not yet been scheduled. The town required the permit in response to a large number of false alarms.

Councilmembers George Gabrielsen and Jodi Giglio supported elimination of the fee, while Councilman John Dunleavy was concerned about how the town would pay for the registration program. Councilman Jim Wooten was absent for this discussion.
The fee has actually been on the books for many years but wasn’t enforced until a couple of weeks ago, when town police sent a letter to all business owners telling them they needed to register their alarms and pay a $25 fee to do so, along with a $10 annual renewal fee. The letter also spoke of fines for excessive false alarms. Mr. Walter said the fines will remain the same and the police department will be instructed not to deposit any checks it has already received for the $25 fee.

Police Chief David Hegemiller, whose department issued the letter, said this week he had not yet heard of plans to eliminate the fees.


12/08/11 6:30pm
12/08/2011 6:30 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Lia Polites, who lives in Manhattan and summers in Jamesport, is a co-owner of the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport, along with four other people.

A co-owner of the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport donated $4,000 to the campaigns of Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman George Gabrielsen in the days leading up to last month’s elections, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday with the New York State Board of Elections.

The $2,000 donated by Lia Polites to each candidate was the largest either received in the final two weeks before Election Day, campaign finance records show.

Both donations came about one month before the Riverhead Town Planning Board approved a controversial site plan for a breezeway connecting two buildings on the Jedediah Hawkins Inn property to make way for more guest rooms on the property.

Several community members spoke out against the breezeway at the Nov. 15 Riverhead Town Board meeting, at which both Mr. Walter and Mr. Gabrielsen defended the plan.

“This is a family owned business,” said Mr. Walter, who records show received his donation from Ms. Polites on Oct. 25. “There’s been no public outcry except for the people that show up at board meetings.”

Mr. Gabrielsen, a Jamesport resident who records show received his donation from Ms. Polites on Oct. 28, said at the Nov. 15 meeting that the Jamesport community supports the breezeway.

Jamesport Civic Association member Angela Devito responded that wasn’t the case.

Ms. Devito said the civic group met with Mr. Walter and expressed support for the restoration of the Hawkins Inn, but its members were concerned about expanded uses at the site. She said people in Jamesport generally support the inn, but not the breezeway.

Mr. Gabrielsen responded by saying “nobody’s against it.”

State Election Law requires political candidates file campaign finance reports 11 days prior to, and 27 days after, a general election.

Records show the contribution given by Ms. Polites to Mr. Walter was received 14 days prior to Election Day and should have been disclosed in the report published 10 days before the election.

Mr. Walter said his campaign didn’t acknowledge the donation in its previous report since the campaign initially considered immediately refunding it, since it exceeded the legal limit for a political contribution to an individual candidate.

State election law prohibits a political candidate from receiving more than $1,034 from an individual donor per election cycle.

Mr. Walter said that when his campaign staffers had trouble connecting with Ms. Polites after receiving the contribution, which he believes was received via mail, they decided to cash the check.

He says they have since refunded the additional $1,000, and the refund should appear in his next campaign finance report.

On Nov. 2, Mr. Gabrielsen refunded  $1,000 of the contribution he received from Ms. Polites, according to the financial disclosure report filed Thursday.

Mr. Gabrielsen said in a telephone interview Thursday that he made the refund after he learned it exceeded the legal limit.

“I refunded the money when I found out someone can only donate $1,000 [to an individual campaign],” he said.

When asked how he would respond to a cynic questioning the timing of Ms. Polites’ contribution, which came only three weeks before the Planning Board was initially set to vote on the breezeway, Mr. Walter was critical of the Hawkins Inn’s plan.

“The cynic in me says the breezeway is dumb,” Mr. Walter said. Under town code, two buildings connected by a breezeway can be considered one building, thus allowing more space for guest rooms.

“Inns of 15 rooms or smaller should be allowed to have two buildings,” he continued. “There’s a better way to go about it [than the breezeway.]”

Records show Ms. Polites hasn’t made any other donations in her name in the past six years.


10/12/11 9:00am
10/12/2011 9:00 AM

Riverhead Town Board members (from left) Jim Wooten, John Dunleavy, Supervisor Sean Walter, Jodi Giglio and George Gabrielsen.

Should the Riverhead Town Board hold public meetings to discuss potential changes to the supervisor’s proposed 2012 town budget?

Supervisor Sean Walter had suggested board members meet individually or in groups of two with town finance administrator Bill Rothaar to hammer out a final budget, but if council members wanted to have public work sessions to discuss the budget, he said that’s their decision.

And do the council members want to do the work in public?  Yes, at least for part of the process.

“I think we should have a combination of us sitting down with Bill Rothaar oneon one to go through all the details, and then go back into the public later on where you can go over it all together and make changes,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said.

He feels it would be faster this way, since board members would be able to explain proposed changes better to Mr. Rothaar than they would in a public session.

“We should do a lot of it behind-the-scenes and then come out with all the questions in public,” he said.

“I’m proposing a resolution to hold a public hearing on the budget on Nov. 1,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. That would put the hearing a week before election day, Nov. 8. That’s a change from recent years when the budget hearing has been held on the day after Election Day.

But Mr. Wooten said he’s still reviewing the proposed budget and doesn’t favor having any public Town Board discussions on the budget until after the public hearing.

“I think, at this point, it’s up to each council member to look  at it for themselves, then have the  public hearing on Nov. 1, and then have our discussions right after that, and that will all be on public time,” Mr. Wooten said.

“I would rather have it in public so everyone knows what’s happening,” Councilman John Dunleavy said. “I think it’s invaluable for the people to understand how the town operates and how the budget is formed.

“I have no problem with having a public meeting to discuss the budget,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.

Mr. Walter did make a public presentation on his budget during last Thursday’s Town Board work session.

His tentative 2012 budget of $51.6 million calls for a 2.36 percent tax rate increase  and a 3.3 percent spending increase.

The tax levy would increase by 2.86 percent. That percentage is permitted to exceed the new state-imposed 2 percent tax cap on year-to-year tax levy increases because of exemptions in the cap pertaining to pension cost increases and tax levy increases related to new development, Mr. Walter said.

“The biggest problem is landfill debt,” Mr. Walter said. He showed charts on a projector indicating that landfill debt comprised $3.3 million out of a total of $4.9 million in debt repayments in 2011 budget.

“I’m not laying any blame, these are the facts,” Mr. Walter said in reference to the millions spent in a failed attempt at reclaiming the municipal landfill, which was later capped. “We’re not going to see a reduction in landfill debt service until 2021. It’s a significant problem for the town.”

He also showed a chart showing that the amount of budgeted spending has been growing at a larger pace than property taxes under his predecessor — and rival in this year’s election for supervisor, Phil Cardinale — due to the use of “one-shot revenues” such as reserve funds to offset tax increases.

Mr. Walter has used $2.6 million in reserve funds in both the 2011 budget and his proposed 2012 budget to offset tax increases.

“It’s unfortunate, but with the two-percent tax cap, there was no way for me to reduce that,” he said.

He also said that before he took office, the town would cut spending in election years and increase it in non-election years.

Mr. Walter later in an interview blamed his predecessor for the town’s budget problems.

Mr. Walter said the landfill reclamation project that resulted in the big debt payments happened under Mr. Cardinale’s watch, that Mr. Cardinale used surplus funds to offset taxes, thus creating deficits in future budgets, and that Mr. Cardinale failed to sell bonds for capital projects, leaving those costs for future generations to deal with.

Mr. Cardinale later responded in an interview that while both he and Mr. Walter used reserve funds to offset taxes, he also brought in $11 million in new reserve funds, whereas Mr. Walter hasn’t brought in any, and he says the town’s bond rating was upgraded twice during his term in office.

Mr. Cardinale, a Democrat, said the landfill project was started by an all-Republican Town Board before he became supervisor in 2004 and that the previous Town Board bonded for the landfill project. Mr. Cardinale claims he stopped the project when he noticed that the money was spent and the project wasn’t near complete.

“An all-Republican board accepted a grossly inaccurate landfill volume estimate from a political contributor engineering firm, hired on a single bid contract, and they borrowed $40 million and spent most of it. The landfill debt he talks about was borrowed and largely spent, more than half of it, by a Republican board that preceded me.

“When I got into office, I hired a qualified engineering firm who provided an accurate volume estimate, I shut down the reclamation, stopped the spending, sued to recover damages from the engineers and won. I then capped the landfill in 12 months for about $9 million.”