Local residents expressed frustration Tuesday over changes to how Congressman Lee Zeldin’s staff meets with constituents at his office in Riverhead.
The men and women were among about 50 demonstrators from all five East End towns who marched from the courthouse on Griffing Avenue to Mr. Zeldin’s office at 30 West Main Street to request that the congressman schedule a town hall style meeting.
The group, which chanted “This is what democracy looks like” as they marched through downtown Riverhead, has been regularly meeting with the district director for Mr. Zeldin (R-Shirley) since the new session began Jan. 3. This time, however, they were greeted by a sign at the door that said meetings are now by appointment only. Other tenants of the building said an email was sent out advising them to not buzz anyone they don’t know into the building.
“This is what democracy doesn’t look like,” said Robert Brode of East Hampton, one of the demonstrators.
Eileen Duffy of Quogue, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s event, said language had also been added to the congressman’s website this week to say meetings at the Riverhead office are now by appointment only. That language is not included in details about his offices in Patchogue or Washington, D.C.
Jennifer DiSiena, a spokesperson for Mr. Zeldin, confirmed the changes in an email Tuesday.
“Due to the small size of the office, and the new disruption tactics of these liberal obstructionists locally and nationally, this office is now by appointment only,” she wrote.
Ms. DiSiena instructed anyone interested in scheduling an appointment with Mr. Zeldin to fill out a request form on his website. She also dismissed claims by the demonstrators that the congressman has been inaccessible by pointing to his busy schedule meeting with community groups across the district this past weekend.
Ms. Duffy said this is the fourth time since the new year the group has attempted to meet with the congressman, who was in Washington Tuesday. Last week, Mr. Zeldin’s district director, Mark Woolley, fielded questions from a crowd of about 90 residents at the Riverhead Free Library.
Ms. Duffy said the group, which has no official title but has built momentum through a Facebook group titled “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin,” wants the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the congressman on a wide range of issues.
“One time it was focused on the Affordable Care Act and another was about the Muslim ban,” she said. “Today is about getting the Congressman to host a town hall.”
John McAuliff of Riverhead recalled a series of town hall meetings hosted by Mr. Zeldin’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Bishop.
“It’s part of the job of being a congressman,” Mr. McAuliff said. “[Mr. Bishop] held them even when faced with the Tea Party movement.”
Ms. DiSiena said Mr. Zeldin has regularly attended public forums and hosted telephone town halls since taking office in 2015 and is planning more for this year. As for a public town hall?
“Unfortunately, liberal obstructionists locally and around the country have committed themselves to causing mass disruptions at public events for their own political theater,” Ms. DiSiena said. “That is neither effective, productive or constructive. This included a recent Rotary event in East Patchogue where these protesters were banging on car doors, jumping in front of cars, shining lights into cars and yelling at attendees to harass them.”
Ike Israel, the manager of 30 West Main, said the email advising tenants not to let strangers into the building was about making sure all tenants were secure.
“This is a private building, not a government office building,” Mr. Israel said. “I believe in freedom of speech and the First Amendment but it needs to happen outside. It’s not gonna happen in the lobby of a private office building.”