Councilman: Town should apologize to motel residents

VERA CHINESE FILE PHOTO | The county has been using the Wading River Motel for emergency housing since soon after it was purchased by a new owner in January.

Riverhead Councilman George Gabrielsen is saying town officials should apologize to those who live at the Wading River Motel for executing an Aug. 12 search warrant there and forcing guests to vacate their rooms and show ID.

“The town made a mistake and it owes those people an apology for the way it was done,” he fumed in an interview Tuesday. “This stuff happened in the Soviet Union; it shouldn’t happen in my town.”

Mr. Gabrielsen said the town could have found another way to crack down on any code violations at the motel, rather then sending over a dozen police officers and other officials on a raid Friday night.

Supervisor Sean Walter said last week that scheduling something ahead of time would have allowed the motel owner to hide violations.

“Well, so what?” Mr. Gabrielsen said of Mr. Walter’s reasoning for the raid, which was initiated by town code enforcers. “There is no excuse for taking people’s rights away. You go in there guns drawn, so to speak. What kind of message does that send to those people? None of them want to be there.”

The county has been housing homeless people at the motel since the winter.

“The [town] is completely clouding the issue, saying these are code violations,” Mr. Gabrielsen continued. “I understand code violations. But to drag them out of there is a violation of what America’s all about.”

The other three town councilmembers were asked to weigh in on the matter as well Tuesday.

Councilman Jim Wooten said the town erred in not keeping the county’s Department of Social Services, which has overseen the placement of homeless people at the motel, in the loop. He also called the raid “heavy-handed.”

“We’re not talking about a slumlord,” said Mr. Wooten, a retired Riverhead police officer. “We’re talking about a county agency that uses a motel to house homeless people. There has to be some level of communication and coordination when it comes to the execution of a search warrant. Search warrants are a very strong thing.”

Mr. Wooten said he was glad the town discovered potential violations, which could help make the motel a safer place, but did not believe “the ends justified the means.”

“I don’t understand why it couldn’t have been done in cooperation [with the county], that’s all,” he said. “I’m really having a hard time with that. No one is [living in the motel] because they want to be there, and they shouldn’t have been victims in any of this.”

Councilman John Dunleavy, also a retired Riverhead police officer, said the town had been getting complaints from fire officials and acted accordingly to try to correct a matter that could have been a life or death situation.

“If you see the photos [the town] took, you’ll see electrical wires running right under the sink. If there ever was a fire in this place, we’d get blamed if somebody got hurt,” he said, adding that the motel’s owner should have acquired permits to overhaul the building’s electric and plumbing.

“That’s why we have building codes, to keep people safe,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

He also charged social services commissioner Greg Blass with misleading town officials by previously saying most all the children who were living at the motel with families attended Longwood and Riverhead public schools.

“There’s people from Amityville, Bay Shore, living up there,” he said. “I think there was one from [Riverhead schools].”

None of the council members interviewed said they knew the raid was coming.

Mr. Gabrielsen said he’d like to see the town adopt a new policy when it comes to such “drastic” actions being taken by code enforcers.

“I’m going to look to have a policy in place where they have to come to the Town Board,” he said. “We’ll call an emergency meeting and let voices of reason look at it. As leaders we represent all of the people. I need to have an answer for them.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio also said a Town Board discussion, as well as a talk between town and county officials, could have been helpful before any government action was taken.

“We need to refine this process,” she said, “and when we suspect there are violations based on community complaints, we need to discuss solutions collectively on the board. And I would have liked to have sat down with Greg Blass and found out what his plans were; how temporary this was and what accommodations were being made to help these people get back to live where they’re from.”

“I just think it could have been done a little bit differently,” she said.

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