Proposal to eliminate party leaders as elected officials is back

Riverhead Republicans celebrate their victorious sweep Election night in downtown Riverhead in 2013. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)
Riverhead Republicans celebrate their victorious sweep Election night in downtown Riverhead in 2013. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

Three weeks after Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman Jim Wooten failed to get the Republican committee nomination for reelection, a proposal has resurfaced before the Town Board to ban all elected officials from serving on the executive committee of political parties.

That would mean that Riverhead Republican chairman Mason Haas, who is also an elected assessor, would have to give up one of those positions.

The proposal, which had been discussed in 2013 as well but was not adopted, now appears to have three votes, as Mr. Wooten, who opposed it in 2013, now supports it, along with Mr. Walter and Councilman George Gabrielsen.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who won the Republican endorsement for supervisor and is being challenged by Mr. Walter in a primary this year, opposes the measure, as does Councilman John Dunleavy.

The Town Board on Tuesday is expected to vote on a resolution to schedule a public hearing on the proposal. The hearing date hasn’t been set yet, but was expected to be at the July 7 meeting, which starts at 2 p.m.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Mr. Wooten said of the proposal Monday. “It’s been a long time coming. I think it’s important that the two are separated. When you get elected, yes, you need political support. But once you’re elected, you really have to go beyond that, and focus more on what the public needs, and not the party. I think it’s a conflict to be elected and try to manage a political party.”

Mr. Wooten acknowledged that he opposed the same proposal two years ago, when the town considered a number of ethics proposal. And though the act may seem as political retaliation, Mr. Wooten said that wasn’t the case.

“We’re not doing this now because we didn’t get the nod,” he said. “The reason it didn’t go through before was because of me. I didn’t support it the first time because I didn’t think it went far enough and I thought it needed to be more specific.”

He said at the time it did seem like retribution because there were a lot of allegations going back and forward between the supervisor and Mr. Haas, who had screened to run for supervisor that year, over party caucuses and open government issues.

Ms. Giglio sees it differently.

“It’s Sean,” she said of the new proposal. “He didn’t get his way at the convention  and so now he’s going to be vindictive and go after someone personally using taxpayer money.”

Democratic candidate for supervisor, Anthony Coates, said that the issue was one he pointed to years back as well.

“Two years ago I warned of the dangers that come with elected officials serving as political party bosses…party leaders don’t belong operating in Town Hall,” he said in a press release last week.

He added on Tuesday: “For six years, this board has governed like the Hatfields and McCoys. I’m running to do the people’s business.”

Mr. Haas said an elected assessor is not a policy making position and they are strictly governed by the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

He added that there are three elected assessors and an independent Board of Assessment Review, so it would be very difficult for an assessor to illegally change someone’s assessments for political reasons.

But Mr. Walter feels the prohibition should apply to all elected officials, regardless of whether they are policy makers.

“When you’re an elected official, you’re a de facto policymaker. It can’t be any clearer than that,” Mr. Walter said.

The supervisor said he would like the ethics proposal to go even further and ban all town department heads and employees, as well as elected officials, from serving on political committees in general, and not just on the executive board — which is the chair, vice chair, treasurer and secretary.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Ms. Haas had sent an email to Republican committee members over the weekend saying, “This amendment is clearly in response to certain individuals not getting the nomination of this party to run. It was discussed with me in front of several of you, over the last 3 months in meetings with our supervisor. He warned (this proposal) would be forthcoming if one of the 3 incumbents (two board seats, supervisor) failed to receive the party’s support.”

Mr. Haas reiterated that in an interview Monday.

“It was said to me on three different occasions and two times in front of other committee members,” he said.

“No,” Mr. Walter said. “Mr. Haas sat me down in front of a bunch of people on the committee with grievances about me, including this ethics thing and that I supported (Democrat) Al Krupski for county legislature, whom I support again. I can’t wait to put up my Krupski sign.”

Mr. Walter said the ethics proposal isn’t in reaction to his not getting the nomination. On the contrary, his failure to receive the nomination may be because he supports the ethics proposal.

Mr. Dunleavy said he plans to vote against the proposal, which he feels is retribution for the committee nominations.

But Mr. Dunleavy said he’s trying to “fly under the radar” and stay out of this controversy.

Mr. Gabrielsen said he supported this ethics proposal two years ago and still does. He said he was a member of the Republican committee then and resigned when this ethics proposal was being considered.

“It’s long overdue,” he said, adding that he feels it should apply to all committee people and not just the executive board.

The proposal being considered Tuesday also applies to department heads, and members of the planning board, zoning board of appeals, architectural review board, board of assessment review, conservation advisory council, ethics board, and the executive director of the Industrial Development Agency. Adding another layer, IDA Executive Director Tracy James-Stark was the only Republican committee member to not cast a vote in the supervisor nomination.

The proposal gives elected officials and department heads 20 days to resign after the enactment of the proposal, and gives the other positions five days to do so.

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