Three candidates are running for a two-year term.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter has run a solid campaign, during which he’s been an effective advocate for his take on the town’s finances and the master plan, his approach to downtown and his vision for the Enterprise Park at Calverton.
If only his two years in office had gone as smoothly. During his first term, the fiery Mr. Walter has banged heads with fellow Republican Town Board members over a no-bid mold cleanup contract given to an office staffer’s relative; taken heat for offering what local tea partiers called a “government bailout” to the said-to-be ailing Great Rock Golf Club before bailing on his public/private plan; faced harsh words from Town Board members as Councilman James Wooten challenged him for the GOP’s supervisor nomination; and run into sharp criticism over his handling of the homeless and needy at the railroad station, behind East Main Street and at the Wading River Motel. Mr. Walter’s actions have been the subject of a few unflattering News-Review editorials.
During that same time, however, he’s started to steer the town in a starkly different direction from where it was headed during six years under his predecessor and current challenger, Phil Cardinale.
Under Mr. Walter’s leadership, he and the all-GOP Town Board have halted the ridiculous legal battle between the town and Suffolk Theatre owner Bob Castaldi, who has since begun work restoring the downtown theater. We also like Mr. Walter’s assessment of himself being the “salesman-in-chief” for the town. He works tirelessly to try to attract already successful Long Island businessmen to downtown; his efforts may soon begin bearing fruit.
As for the town’s finances, Mr. Walter made the very politically risky but necessary move of shrinking the town’s workforce. In this economy, most businesses have laid off employees. Workers in the private sector, many of whom are now out of work or underemployed, shouldn’t have to sacrifice more from their thin wallets through higher taxes to protect their counterparts’ jobs in town government. He should continue on his path of establishing sustainable budget practices.
The biggest question mark remains at EPCAL. One council member told the News-Review he wouldn’t be surprised if the town’s efforts to study, subdivide and market the former Grumman property end up costing taxpayers over $1 million. Mr. Cardinale predicted it would take as long as 10 years to get the property into the hands of private developers, and that in the meantime taxpayers are being asked to front money for improvements that should be paid for by developers. “I like making money at EPCAL,” Mr. Cardinale has said on the campaign trail. “[Mr. Walter] likes spending money.”
Only time will tell whether Mr. Walter’s is the right approach, but Mr. Cardinale can’t deny that he didn’t sell any land during his six years as supervisor. He called the awful Riverhead Resorts proposal a win-win for the town because if it didn’t happen, at least the town would have some money to show for it due to non-refundable payments required through the sales contract.
We ask, to what end? Smaller, more realistic and tax ratable projects could be up and running right now if not for the Resorts mess. Mr. Cardinale is highly intelligent and the way he structured the Resorts sales contract was shrewd, but we’re sure most Riverhead residents would rather have good jobs available for their children and grandchildren than a few million bucks in the town coffers, much of which will eventually disappear with not much to show for it other than marginally lower tax bills. Meanwhile, the land — given to us by the U.S. Navy specifically for economic development — remains off the tax rolls.
Lastly, Mr. Cardinale’s plan for what he calls “true revitalization” downtown failed — by his own measure — though, to be fair, it was due in part to timing, with the collapse of the economy. But during this campaign he didn’t say he would change much in trying to remake Main Street, even though the economy continues to sputter along. We may one day go back to the comprehensive approach for downtown revitalization, involving just one or two deep-pocketed developers, but now is the time for a different take on things.
The News-Review endorses Sean Walter for a second term as town supervisor; we want to see if he can bring more activity to Main Street and set the town in a better direction both at EPCAL and in its overall town budgeting.
In the near term, we would strongly urge that Mr. Walter, should he be re-elected, keep his door open to all potential downtown developers and prospective buyers at EPCAL, even if the two-year EPCAL study is still under way — and even if a movie theater proposal is “this close” to happening, as he has said for more than a year. A true salesman wouldn’t prejudge any potential buyer.
And in the long term, if town land is eventually sold at EPCAL and Riverhead finds itself flush with cash, Mr. Walter, a former town Conservative Party chairman, should put his political ideals aside and consider exercising eminent domain on East Main Street if the old buildings remain empty there. If he won’t, we’re sure the taxpayers will find someone who will.
Independent party candidate Greg Fischer has brought a number of out-of-the-box ideas to the campaign trail that the major party candidates would be smart to research on their own and potentially advance, such as the town generating at least some of its own power, and retirement and assisted living zoning downtown (though not on Main Street). Mr. Fischer, who started the Riverhead First party himself, is an idea man, for sure. He was an interesting interview in our News-Review editorial meeting because he was willing to think aloud and move off his talking points, when so many candidates bring nothing new to the table.
But, like his running mate Ruth Pollack, some of his thoughts and ideas were too big for the town supervisor position he’s seeking. He says he would push for an inspector general in Suffolk County and that he has an immigration reform plan. On immigration, he says he would lobby federal lawmakers to get his plan implemented, because such issues wind up affecting Riverhead residents. We’re sure they do, but we’re not sure lobbying on such issues would be a useful way for a supervisor to spend his time in town office. Mr. Fischer also has legal and family problems that could be major distractions if he’s in Town Hall.
If Mr. Fischer wants to make changes to the way things work in Suffolk County and elsewhere, he should proceed with plans to start publishing a “whistle-blower newspaper,” as he calls it. Or he should offer his thoughts and ideas through letters to the editor or guest columns in mainstream papers. That, or advise town and county political committees.