Riverhead Town Hall was closed during last Thursday’s snowstorm, as were many local businesses due to more than a foot of snow on the ground.
But Town Board members still met at Town Hall with members of Triple Five Ventures and Luminati Aerospace about plans to purchase more than 1,000 acres of town-owned land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton for $40 million.
The representatives of the two companies, who have formed a joint venture called Calverton Aviation & Technology LLC, met with new Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith first, then with Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman Tim Hubbard. After that, they met with council members Jim Wooten and Catherine Kent.
By meeting in smaller groups, the board avoided being in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, which would have required a quorum of at least three members of the five-member board in a meeting that requires a public notice.
Normally, the board lists on its work session agenda if it is meeting with someone in executive session, which is closed to the public. However, in this case, there was no official public notice that the board members were even having this meeting — let alone that they were meeting in a town hall that was officially closed to the public.
Ms. Giglio said Daniel Preston of Luminati was present, as were Triple Five chairman Nader Ghermezian, CEO Don Ghermezian, Triple Five Capital manager Justin Ghermezian, and other representatives from Triple Five.
Board members said in interviews they were told that Triple Five would be a 75 percent owner of CA&T, with Luminati 25 percent, and that Triple Five is not interested in building residential or retail uses there.
“They said they wanted to create the next Silicon Valley,” said Ms. Giglio, who spoke about the meetings Friday in her weekly radio spot on WRIV.
Some town residents said the meeting — in a closed Town Hall, with smaller groups to avoid the public-notice requirement — was bizarre.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Larry Simms of South Jamesport, a critic of the Luminati proposal. “I’m one of the people who criticized them for proceeding with this deal without knowing about who they’re dealing with.”
He said the language in the letter of intent the town signed with Luminati was written for a prior partner, not for Triple Five.
“To have these presentations crafted in a way to get around the Open Meetings Law, all five board members are culpable,” he said. “They went into this knowing they were going to have these closed meetings that are equivalent to a board meeting because these principals met all five board members in one day. That’s not the way to do business. That’s not a good start for this administration. Nothing has changed in Riverhead.”
Town Board members defended the move.
Supervisor Jens-Smith said the meeting with CA&T principals was scheduled for Thursday, prior to knowing that Town Hall would be closed, and the principals of Triple Five had arrived from Canada and were staying in the Hyatt Hotel in downtown and didn’t want to postpone the meeting due to the snow.
As supervisor, she said she was going to be in Town Hall anyway. She added that the attorneys said it would be OK to hold separate meetings.
“We talked to our attorneys and they said we could meet with them individually,” she said. “It was really just to see who the principals were and say hello face-to-face.”
Other board members also described the meeting as an introduction. And Ms. Giglio said she did not think the board circumvented the Open Meetings Law.
“No decisions were being made. It was an informal introduction,” she said. “I don’t think it was circumventing the Open Meetings Law.”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Hubbard said when asked if he felt the board circumvented the law.
“It was done two people at a time,” he said. “It was done so the board could meet with the people who are looking to buy the property. These players just came into the fold a couple weeks ago and we didn’t know about them or what they wanted to do. We wanted to hear them out.”
Councilman Jim Wooten said it’s not uncommon for board members to meet individually with prospective applicants.
“I think this was more to get a bit of background on who they are and what their company is all about,” he said.
“It was really just an introduction,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the only board member who raised questions about the priority of the separate meetings in a closed town hall.
“They just introduced themselves, and we listened and asked a few questions. That was it. No one had met them yet or knew anything about them,” she said.
She said the meeting didn’t sway her one way or another.
As for whether it circumvented the Open Meetings Law, Ms. Kent said, “In retrospect, I think it would’ve worked well to do the same thing in a work session and have it on the agenda. But it happened quickly and it turned out to be sort of a short meeting, just an introduction.”
Bob Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, cited an Appellate Division court ruling involving a school board that had “less than a quorum gatherings.” The court ruled those meetings did not violate the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“The perception certainly is bad, but I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the new board that had been sitting for only about 10 days,” said Rex Farr, coordinator for the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing, which had been critical of the way the prior administration released information about prospective EPCAL sales over the past eight years.
“We’re hoping the Town Board will give a public disclosure of what went on,” he said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Over the past 30 years, there have been some very bad decisions made in Riverhead. Hopefully, we’re moving in the right direction and can include neighbors and constituents.”