Guest Spot: Riverhead Town’s tangled web of attorneys

In February 2009, the Maggio Carting Company smashed my mailbox while getting my trash. I called the town and was told to come down and file a damage claim, which I did. The Maggio Company did not want to pay me anything and referred me to the town. In the meantime, since it was cold out and the ground hard, I had to get my mail at the Wading River post office. When the weather cleared, I replaced the mailbox and cleaned up the damage. This cost me $165.

In July 2009 I received a letter from attorney Thomas C. Sledjewski, who was handling my case for the Town of Riverhead as a “special counsel.” I wondered why the town would refer my case to a lawyer. Why didn’t they just send someone out from the highway department to verify my claim? After several phone calls to the “special counsel” and the town, I received a check for $125. A check of town records, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that for the period of Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2009, attorney Sledjewski earned $242,605.34 from the Town of Riverhead. In 2010 he earned $23,907.

The town sent me a letter dated Dec. 22, 2010, that outside counsels earned a total of $448,345 for 2009. My question on this phase is, what is the town attorney, with three assistants, a paralegal and two legal secretaries doing? What we have here are layers of lawyers ripping  money off the town. This is also true at the state level, the county and the town. I have not even listed the fourth layer of government: the villages. And you wonder why our taxes are so high?

In February 2010 the Riverhead Town highway department smashed my mailbox. My two neighbors witnessed the incident as the highway truck came racing down the road throwing snow all over the place. I called the town again and was told to come down and file another claim. This time my case was referred to the Vericlaim Company of Homer, New York. I learned from the FOIL that this company earned $59,000 in 2009 and $59,000 in 2010. (By the way, the paperwork I acquired had a lot of names deleted, and it took me eight months to get the papers I requested.) My question is, why give this contract to a company from Upstate New York when there certainly must be collection and disbursement companies in Riverhead Town and certainly in Suffolk County? Why wasn’t my case referred to this upstate outfit when I filed a claim in 2009 instead of going to a high-priced lawyer?

Upon further examination of the documents I acquired through FOIL, I find that Town Justice Richard Ehlers, who is employed by the town, also works as counsel to the sewer department, counsel to the planning board and counsel to the water district. Is this not a conflict of interest?

I was told that Judge Ehlers only charges $125 an hour to the town. How nice. What a cushy deal. What does the state have to say about this, as well as the Suffolk Bar Association? Judge Ehlers earned an extra $29,995 for 2009 and in 2010 he earned $38,475 from his work on the three boards. Again, why do we have a town attorney with all his assistants?  We are in a recession, people are getting laid off, people are losing their homes and the town is taking care of people with extra jobs. However, we have an all-Republican Town Board headed by a supervisor who is also an attorney, and I am sure he will make many excuses. Judge Ehlers, by the way, is also a Republican.

If this administration wants to cut taxes, then cut out the special counsels. In 2010, the Town of Riverhead used 13 outside counsels. If our town supervisor, Sean Walter, wants to cut spending then he should start at home base. Some of the town workers losing their jobs could have them if the fees to the outside attorneys were cut in half, at a minimum, and the town attorney, one Robert Kozakiewicz, did his job. Some of the outside counsels are also connected to the Republican Party.

According to town records, outside counsels cost the town exactly $1,051,630.89 for 2010. Cutting costs begins at home. Riverhead’s taxes went up 4 percent this year over 2010, which accounted for the highest town tax rate hike on Long Island. I thought this was a “conservative” outfit.

Robert Svoboda is a Wading River resident who is running  on the Democratic line for a town assessor seat in 2011. He is also a member of the Riverhead Town Democratic Committee.