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Former supervisor Sean Walter to be sworn in as town justice to fill vacant seat

Former Riverhead Town supervisor Sean Walter is expected to be sworn in as town justice Thursday, formally filling the seat vacated by the late Allen Smith.

According to unofficial election results posted by the Suffolk County Board of Elections, Mr. Walter received 7,934 votes in the Nov. 3 election. His opponent, Joseph DiBenedetto, a retired law professor, received 4,989 votes and officials do not anticipate absentee ballots impacting the outcome of the race.

Mr. Walter said Monday that it will be a “wonderful privilege” to serve as the next town justice. “Every time I go through an election, I’m humbled by the people who put their confidence in me,” he said.

Speaking about the unusual circumstance of a November swearing-in ceremony, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said she asked Mr. Walter if he’d begin serving on the bench sooner than expected in order to ease the burden on Justice Lori Hulse, who has been handling the duties of both town justices since Judge Smith died in July.

In October, the Town Board voted to temporarily increase Judge Hulse’s salary by 50% as she continued to cover his caseload. 

“She was receiving 50% of Judge Smith’s salary while doing 100% of his work,” Ms. Aguiar said.

Judge Smith, also a former town supervisor, had served on the bench since 2000.

“What an honor to follow in Allen’s footsteps,” Mr. Walter said, describing how the late judge was a mentor to him both as an attorney and as town supervisor. “He faced many of the same problems I faced. I have very big shoes to fill.”

Mr. Walter said he’d continue to practice law, as he did during his eight years as town supervisor. His scope will likely be limited to real estate closings, trusts and estates, though he said he’d continue working on zoning and planning matters outside of Riverhead Town.

In his new role, Mr. Walter said his goal is to honor Judge Smith’s legacy, God and the town’s residents. “You want somebody [on the bench] — and I hope I’m going to do this — who serves the town with dignity and honor and treats everybody fairly.”

Mr. Walter could begin serving on the bench as soon as election results are certified. A swearing-in ceremony is planned for Thursday, Nov. 12, at 3:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

In the meantime, he says he has been shadowing Judge Hulse’s proceedings, which are limited to Skype due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a new town justice is sworn in, town officials must also contend with the impending vacancy on the Town Board.

Unofficial county election results also project that Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio will win a state Assembly seat with 34,290 votes, a 26-point lead over Democratic challenger and former Riverhead Town supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who received 19,935 votes.

A third-party candidate, William Van Helmond, received 730 votes.

The totals on the Board of Elections website do not reflect the number of absentee ballots to be counted, which is not expected to flip the current estimation.

Ms. Giglio has so far declined to claim victory and, likewise, no concessions have been made. Ms. Jens-Smith said that while it’s unlikely she’ll win, she would wait to concede until being “mathematically eliminated.”

Ms. Giglio has been elected to five two-year terms on the Town Board and cannot run again due to term limits. Her last term would have expired in 2021 and Ms. Aguiar said Monday that the Town Board may look to fill her seat by appointment rather than special election.

“The seat is open to anyone in the community and someone will be selected to fill the seat,” she said, adding that recommendations may come from political party officials, the business community and residents and that candidates will be screened through a process prior to a Town Board vote.

She also said Ms. Giglio will be missed on the Town Board.

“She worked extremely hard and is really capable to be in Albany representing Riverhead,” Ms. Aguiar said. “The amount of knowledge she had … is tremendous and we’re going to have to make up for that void.”