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Q&A: Jens-Smith reflects on tenure as Riverhead Town supervisor

Tuesday marked Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith’s final Town Board meeting, as her term concludes at the end of the year. Ms. Jens-Smith, a Democrat who served two years before losing to Republican Yvette Aguiar in November, took part in an “exit interview” with the News-Review.
NR: How do you rate your term in office?
LJS: I think I had a good tenure. I think I came in trying to accomplish a few things. I had promised to be a watchdog over at EPCAL, and I promised to get the town in good fiscal shape.
And another of the big things was the master plan. To take a hard look at where the town wanted to be in the next 10 years.
The current master plan was started probably 18 years ago.
I think I accomplished the things I want to accomplish with those projects.
I would like to have been able to see them through, with another term. But I think we set the town on a very good course moving forward. And I’m proud of that.
NR: What was your biggest accomplishment?
LJS: I think the biggest accomplishment was fiscally. Our reserve funds had been depleted during the previous administration by almost $11 million or $12 million. And we’ve been able to, between the couple of budgets that I did, put almost $3 million back in our reserve funds. This will help improve our financial rating moving forward. We were able to take advantage of some of the interest rates in the stock market by refinancing some of our bonds, and we reduced it that way.
We also stayed within the budget and we were able to address some capital projects. We had long been told we had no funding to do any capital projects, such as our parks, replacing our vehicles and fixing our boilers here, which were kind of held together with duct tape and Band-Aids.
NR: What was your biggest disappointment?
LJS: I think the biggest disappointment is not being able to follow through on some of the things we started. I think that during my tenure we started a lot of things and a lot of projects so I think my biggest disappointment is not being able to see some of those through to completion and to see that they are in more of a sustainable place.
NR: Why do you think you lost?
LJS: I think the two-year term is difficult, which is why I put out for the four-year term. Especially coming in as a new supervisor.
I was in the minority so it was really challenging, coming in after a full Republican board for 10 years.
As a town of the second class, I don’t have the opportunity to appoint anybody, so I came in with everything that was already in place here.
So I think it was a challenge to get some of the initiatives moving forward. In the two-year term, to get stuff accomplished in the town and campaign at the same time, it’s difficult. I was trying to accomplish a lot of things in town and it may have hurt my strategy campaigning. Had I stopped doing my work in town and devoted more time to campaigning, I think I probably would’ve been better off. But I don’t necessarily think that would be the best for the town.
NR: What would you change if you could?
LJS: I think I would’ve been more vocal in letting people know what we were doing here. I think a lot of the things — we’ve got a lot of stuff done in the past two years. I think I could’ve maybe had a clearer message to the community and the residents of what exactly we were doing, and had a more focused message on getting that out to the community.
Everything you try to do in Town Hall has so many facets to it and everything you’re trying to accomplish has so many facets to it and I think not bringing all of those things together get a clear message out to the community.
I probably could’ve done a better job on that.
And then also think it was a very negative campaign and I felt that was difficult to address. Especially in the last couple of weeks it became a very negative campaign by my opponent.
I think she used the school district and the bond issue, which isn’t necessarily a town issue.
There was a lot of false information out there, such as that I was selling the water district or that I was getting rid of the police department or that I did not negotiate contracts with police department, or that my budget wasn’t what it was.
NR: Do you plan to run again or plan to stay involved in any way?
LJS: I think I definitely want to stay involved. I ran because I love this town. I want to see good things for it and that was my goal in running. I think I have put a lot of things forward that are good for the town.
So I want to stay involved.
As far as running again, I think that being a public servant is important. So I certainly am mulling over whether to run again for another office or this office.
I think it’s really important to have people in office that care and listen to the community and try and bring things forward that benefit the residents and are sustainable.
Whether it’s Route 58 or lowering taxes and making it affordable to live here, or whether it’s encouraging good jobs to come here. We have EPCAL over there. I have been big as a watchdog over at EPCAL and I think it’s really important that people serving in the community are there as the voice of the community, to make sure that the residents of Riverhead come first.
I tried to be a watchdog while in office. As well as a forward thinker, for the town.
NR: What does the town need most going toward the future?
LJS: I think putting in the update of the master plan is crucial. People don’t necessarily want five-story buildings downtown. They want to see what’s going on with Route 58.
When the master plan was put in 16 years ago, the plan created Route 58 and what you’re seeing now being built in downtown.
And I don’t know necessarily that the community wants to see that continued going forward. The master plan set the zoning as to what is going to be developed. Updating that is crucial too, not only because of farmland, because we know that the TDR program, as it was first envisioned, has not been as successful as it was intended to be. We did a lot of purchasing in the past and we ended up still paying debt on that. You have to think of new and innovative ways to preserve the farmland.
How to do that is all going to be wrapped up in the master plan, along with tourism, traffic, jobs, what buildings are going to look like and what the feel of the town is going to look like. What people want from their hamlets here.
I think that’s going to be the biggest issue going forward, because that will be what we look like in the future.
Photo credit: Tim Gannon
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