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Review of highway department audit shelved until superintendent can weigh in

The Riverhead Town Board agreed last Thursday to wait until Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson can review an audit of his department before publicly discussing it.

The town’s independent audit committee recently completed an audit and was prepared to discuss it publicly at last Thursday’s Town Board work session.

The committee was formed around 2012 to provide independent oversight of town departments, according to its chairman, Jack Orben. 

He said the committee, whose members are volunteers, has done audits on several town departments since then.

“I like to think that the work we have done has been fair, it has been complete and that it is professional, proposed by people that don’t have any sort of agenda,” Mr. Orben said.

But this highway department audit, he noted, was being done differently from prior audits, in that it was shown to Town Board members before Mr. Woodson could give his input. Town Board members said that was unfair to Mr. Woodson and opted to put off any public discussion until the highway superintendent could comment on the report.

Mr. Woodson, a Democrat, was present at the work session but said he had not seen the audit.

“It’s like putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “You should have came to me first where I could explain some things to you, rather than just bringing it up to the board … it leaves me out there hanging.”

Mr. Orben said the audit was delayed by COVID-19 and by both the committee’s  schedule and Mr. Woodson’s.

“The supervisor [Yvette Aguiar] was anxious to have some commentary on what’s been going on, and I accommodated her by saying I would come here today with the team and we would discuss it,” Mr. Orben said. 

“But there’s a very important missing element of what you’re about to hear,” he said, noting that they would normally give the completed audit to the department head, who could then comment on it or point out things the committee didn’t understand.

“That is not taking place,” Mr. Orben said, adding that in this case, Mr. Woodson was notified “as a courtesy” that it would be discussed at the work session. 

Mr. Orben said there were “an unusual number of instances” where the department was not in compliance with town’s procurement policy.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the board’s only Democrat, asked Mr. Orben why the audit committee didn’t show the report to Mr. Woodson before bringing it to the Town Board, and if it had ever done a previous audit where the department head wasn’t asked for input. 

Mr. Orben said this was a first.

“Because it has taken such a long time, my discussions with the supervisor, I agreed as the chairman of this board, I agreed to come here and present a preliminary report,” he said. “So we skipped the step of going back to Mr. Woodson.”

Asked if he approached the supervisor or vice versa, Mr. Orben replied, “I think that may be gray.

“I think in discussions with the supervisor, there seemed to be developing a mood where people knew we were auditing the highway department. Not just [the supervisor], but others in the community.”

He said they were not moving fast enough to finish the audit by last Thursday’s work session, so they decided to come to the work session and deliver “a preliminary report.”

“At [Mr. Orben’s] request, not the supervisor’s,” Ms. Aguiar said. 

“No one asked me to do that, we didn’t volunteer to do it, It emerged from the discussions with the supervisor, myself and the committee,” Mr. Orben said. 

“I would almost request that you table this until it’s completed,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “I think some stuff can come up tainting the highway superintendent that really shouldn’t if he could have his opportunity to explain what it was.”

Ms. Kent said she agreed.

Mr. Orben said that’s up to the board. “We serve at the pleasure of this Town Board,” he said.