Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter should be made to apologize or be reprimanded for the way he “yelled and cursed” at Councilwoman Jodi Giglio after a Town Board executive session meeting Thursday.
So says Councilman George Gabrielsen, who witnessed the exchange between Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio, as did Councilman John Dunleavy.
According to an account of the incident provided by the three council members, the board had just wrapped up an executive session, which is closed to the public, and Councilman Jim Wooten and Mr. Walter had already left.
The three council members who remained in the board room were discussing something that had happened at a Republican committee meeting the night before.
At the same time, Mr. Walter said, he had been notified by someone who was at the same committee meeting that members had discussed passing a resolution banning Anthony Coates, who is Mr. Walter’s friend and political adviser, from accompanying the supervisor on lobbying trips to Albany. The resolution would also ban him from being in town cars or in Town Hall with the supervisor.
Mr. Walter then “came charging like a pit bull” into the room, and began yelling and cursing at Ms. Giglio, Mr. Gabrielsen said.
“It was very unprofessional behavior,” Mr. Gabrielsen said.
“I thought he was out of line,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “This is where Sean has problems. He opens his mouth before he thinks. That’s the way he is, he gets mad and he comes storming in.”
“Every word out of his mouth was the F-word or the A-word,” Ms. Giglio said.
“Jodi’s feisty, but she was scared,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “He owes her a big, big apology or maybe he should get a reprimand. I work with all of them but you’ve got to respect the dignity of an elected official in Town Hall. I think he went over the top.”
Mr. Walter acknowledged he was “very upset” and that he has a bad temper, although he said he thinks that to some extent, some people are “telling fish stories” about the degree to which he was mad.
“People know I have a temper, and I do my best to keep that in check and I apologize when that temper flares up,” he said. “But sometimes it’s hard, when you’re pushing buttons working against me, standing on that rock while I’m trying to push it uphill or conspiring to secretly get the votes to put Jodi Gigio or Jim Wooten in the tax receiver’s job without telling the supervisor.
“Something is wrong.”
He also thinks banning Mr. Coates from Town Hall would be unconstitutional, though Ms. Giglio said Mr. Coates would still be allowed to speak during public comment portions of meetings. He just wouldn’t be able to perform town business without the board’s blessing.
The subject matter that triggered the dispute revolved around Mr. Coates, who is a registered Democrat and who had written an op-ed column in the News-Review two weeks ago criticizing Mr. Wooten and Ms. Giglio.
The column came after the two council members took a public stand against the handling of a building permit application from J. Kings, a wholesale food processing company looking to operate out of a Calverton warehouse.
(Mr. Wooten and Ms. Giglio responded with a column of their own a week later.)
Mr. Coates then accompanied Mr. Walter on a trip to Albany on Wednesday to lobby for state legislation that would create a commission to fast-track development proposals for the town’s Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL.
Mr. Gabrielsen said he doesn’t think Mr. Coates should be writing columns criticizing board members if he’s going to be somehow working on behalf of the town. And Ms. Giglio said that if Mr. Coates is representing the town in Albany, then the Town Board members had better know exactly what he’s saying.
Mr. Dunleavy acknowledged he was the one who asked the other board members last Thursday what happened at the Republican committee meeting Wednesday night, because he couldn’t attend.
Mr. Gabrielsen said someone at the Republican committee meeting also suggested there is a liability problem for the town to have a non-town employee in a town car and on official town business.
But it was not Ms. Giglio who raised the concerns with Mr. Coates at the committee meeting, even though Mr. Walter’s anger was directed mainly at her last week, she said.
“This is like the fourth time since I’ve been in office that he’s attacked me like this and progressively it gets worse,” Ms. Giglio said. “This was the worst it’s ever been, though.”
Ms. Giglio said the supervisor said during the argument last Thursday that he wants her off the board and that “Tony Coates and I are going to run and we’re going to beat you,” she said. “He really doesn’t want me on the board.”
Mr. Gabrielsen and Mr. Dunleavy backed that account.
The two councilmen said Mr. Walter was threatening to end Ms. Giglio’s political career.
Mr. Walter said he would like to see Mr. Coates on the board, but that Ms. Giglio’s fate should be left up to the voters.
As for Mr. Coates, the supervisor feels his contributions are invaluable when lobbying in Albany.
“Tony helps a lot,” Mr. Walter said. “This man knows people. For instance, during a recent trip to Albany, Blair Horner comes up to Tony and says ‘Hey Tony! What are you doing here?”
Blair Horner is a former longtime legislative director for New York Public Interest Research Group who last year became vice president of advocacy for the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey.
“He’s one of the most famous environmental lobbyists in Albany,” Mr. Walter said of Mr. Horner. “I’ll bet you nobody else on the Town Board knows Blair Horner. I don’t know Blair Horner. But that’s the kind of thing we need in Albany.”
The supervisor said the fact that Mr. Coates is a Democrat is also an advantage in Albany.
“Some of the board members and the committee members are putting Republicanism above the best interests of the town,” he said. “When you are trying to move something through the Assembly and the Senate, you have to work with both parties…don’t think that having a Democrat up there lobbying is lost on these Democrats. They know who he is. They appreciate that.”
Mr. Coates is working on a volunteer basis, although an attempt to get him a one-year town job paying $65,000 as a legislative secretary was defeated by the board majority earlier this year. Mr. Walter had been paying Mr. Coates $1,000 a month from campaign contributions, though the most recent campaign finance reports available, from January, showed that Mr. Walter only had only $32 left in his coffers.
“No one ever suggested banning Tony from Town Hall or from his freedom of speech,” Ms. Giglio said. “He is welcome to go speak at the microphone during open session as anyone from the public is welcome to do.
“However, when he is in chambers with the supervisor on behalf of the town that is of concern. We don’t know what he is saying or advocating or making deals on. And the liability of anyone being in a town vehicle other than a town employee is of concern to a few on the board. If there should be an accident, they could sue the town for millions.”
While all five Riverhead Town Board members were elected with Republican backing, the board members have frequently disagreed on issues, and Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio were initially rivals for the party’s supervisor nomination in 2009.
Ms. Giglio said Mr. Walter wants her to fill the soon-to-be-vacant tax receiver’s post, which she doesn’t want.
Mr. Wooten has expressed interest in that job but Mr. Walter has not committed to voting for him.
“He wants me to be the tax receiver because I’m too vocal and he wants me out of his hair,” Ms. Giglio said, “And I guess he doesn’t like the fact that I have contradicting views.”
Mr. Walter said he thinks Ms. Giglio would make a better tax receiver than Mr. Wooten, but that he thinks the position should be left vacant and decided by an election in the fall.
Mr. Walter said he believes Thursday’s incident is now “water under the bridge” and will not affect who the Town Board interacts with in the future.
Ms. Giglio sees it differently.
“The single common element of all of all Sean’s problems is Sean,” Ms. Giglio said. “He cursed at and called out John Dunleavy in his office a few months age, he called George Gabrielsen vindictive, he almost got into a fist fight with Jim Wooten and he was in my face. You never hear of me or any other board members having fights or nasty arguments. It’s always Sean at the center.”
When asked if he plans to apologize to Ms. Giglio, Mr. Walter said only, “I’m going to stay positive and move our agenda forward.”
“My take is that I have a lot of work to do,” Mr. Walter said. “I have got to finish up this [EPCAL] subdivision. I’ve got to keep EPCAL moving forward. I’ve got to keep downtown moving forward. I’m going to keep my nose to the grindstone.”
He said he thinks the EPCAL legislation will probably pass in the state Senate this legislative session, but not in the Assembly.
The supervisor said he also thinks the town Republican committee should concentrate on nominating people and getting people elected — and not on trying to set town policies.