Editorial: How the town should handle ‘probing’ questions

There’s some trouble in Riverhead Town Hall, with more than one internal investigation into possible employee misconduct.

Though declining to give details when asked about ongoing probes, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter told the paper it’s been a busy year for the ethics committee, and that some notes have already been added to personnel files. Harsher penalties are likely coming, the supervisor added.

The News-Review reported last month that town finance chief Bill Rothaar is at the center of one investigation — being conducted by outside counsel — that’s focusing on whether or not he or others in the accounting office conducted private business on town time. And last Wednesday night, after a Town Board meeting, a News-Review reporter heard town officials discussing an ethics probe and the possible termination of a female employee.

We expect to hear from officials when these or other investigations wrap up because, as Councilman George Gabrielsen said in this week’s page 4 story, “Sooner or later, somebody has to say something.”

Having information, or even misinformation, leak out in dribs and drabs is not the proper course of action, and it does not do suspected or reprimanded employees any favors. When it’s clear the Rothaar investigation — and the bulk of these other issues to which town officials have alluded — have been resolved, our elected leaders should craft a long press release or hold a press conference that offers enough explanation to clarify for taxpayers what is — or isn’t — going on with the workers they pay. It can be done without invading anyone’s privacy. Municipalities and government agencies, such as the NYPD, for one example, seem to accomplish this feat every day.

This newspaper’s goal is not to disgrace or publicly embarrass a town employee through its articles, but we have a duty to report ongoing investigations when we hear of them, and residents have a right to know about waste or abuse of town time — or any other type of behavior that results in harsh penalties — because it happens on the taxpayer’s dime.

Our elected leaders should work with the media on this. To completely shut down the flow of information on anything and everything having to do with personnel will only breed distrust between town employees and the people they serve.