Why so quiet on mold cleanup contract?

05/27/2010 12:00 AM |

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter should have known that the company with which the town was contracting to rid Town Hall of festering mold, a $22,000 job, had family connections to his office.

And when he finally figured that out — only after the contract was signed but before the Town Board voted on the matter last Tuesday night, he says — he should have been aware that it wouldn’t look right to the average taxpayer.

The News-Review questioned Mr. Walter last week after two Town Board members abstained from voting to declare an emergency and approve a cleaning contract with Servpro of Northeast Queens without a traditional open bid process.

The supervisor’s answers seemed reasonable enough. He argued the emergency action was necessary, what with warming weather and the potential for accelerating mold growth in Town Hall. He said that by declaring an emergency and forgoing the formal bid process, the town would be rectifying a problem before it got worse, while protecting the health of town workers and visitors.

He also said the Servpro of Northeast Queens estimate came in $20,000 lower than the next lowest estimate among the companies his aide, Dave Cullen, had contacted, saving taxpayers even more money.

The thing is, Mr. Walter, out of respect for the public and all members of the Town Board, should have explained all those things before the vote. Instead, he let it sail through without acknowledging there were some legitimate questions that needed addressing.

And if those two members of the all-Republican Town Board who abstained from the vote are to be believed, Mr. Walter even pressured council member Jodi Giglio — who has emerged as a political rival to Mr. Walter — not to make any waves at the public meeting, which she did not. Talk about heavy-handed.

The public deserved an explanation. Mr. Walter should have taken the time to admit the arrangement might look bad while explaining why he believed it was necessary and beneficial to taxpayers. And Ms. Giglio and Councilman George Gabrielsen should have spoken up if they felt that strongly about the move.

Mr. Walter responded defensively when reporter Tim Gannon later asked if he regretted not having publicly acknowledged that the Servpro franchise — one of 14 in Suffolk, Nassau and Queens counties — was owned by his secretary’s brother-in-law, Joseph Sclafani, who is also the brother of town ZBA member Charles Sclafani,

Neither he, nor his secretary, nor Charles Sclafani stood to make money off the deal, he said, so why would a disclosure have been needed? “Are we saying that anybody who’s even related to any other town employee can never do business with the Town of Riverhead?” Mr. Walter asked in response. “That’s kind of insane.”

Maybe so, but it’s politically shortsighted and ethically clumsy not to acknowledge beforehand that such relationships are legitimate causes for concern. In this particular case, his keeping quiet is what really made the whole deal start to smell like Town Hall’s moldy basement.