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Civic group files ethics complaint against town planner

The Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association has filed an ethics complaint in Riverhead Town seeking an opinion on Riverhead’s building and planning administrator, who appeared as a consultant before the Southampton Town Planning Board on a project proposed for the Riverside traffic circle. 

“We feel that Riverhead’s planning director, Jeff Murphree, has betrayed the public trust by serving as an officer of the town and concurrently serving as a paid planning expert for the developer of the proposed 7-Eleven and mega 12-pump gas station at 9-11 Flanders Road,” FRNCA president Vince Taldone wrote in an email to association members.

Mr. Taldone said his organization opposes to the proposal, which Mr. Murphree supported in his role as a planning expert for the applicants, 9-11 Flanders LLC. 

The Riverhead Ethics Board met Tuesday night, but those meetings are not open to the public.

Erik Howard, the deputy town attorney assigned to the Ethics Board, said Wednesday afternoon that the complaint was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting and it is pending a final written decision.

“I would anticipate the determination on the complain to be issued within a week,” he said.

A retired New York City planner, Mr. Taldone said he believes Mr. Murphree has acted in conflict with his duty as the chief planning official for Riverhead Town. 

Mr. Murphree appeared at a March 25 Southampton Town Planning Board meeting on 9-11 Flanders LLC’s proposal to redevelop the southeast corner of the traffic circle with a 12-pump gasoline station and a 3,024-square-foot 7-Eleven.

An abandoned gas station has occupied the nearly 40,000-square-foot property for more than 10 years.

Officials say a gas station is a permitted use there, but a convenience store is not. 

“The proposed use of the property is in direct conflict with the Southampton Town-approved Riverside Revitalization Action Plan as well as all current Riverhead Town efforts to create a walkable, interconnected and safe pedestrian-centered downtown experience,” Mr. Taldone wrote in the complaint.

Mr. Murphree said at March hearing that many of the proposals Southampton officials would like to see at that location rely on the availability of sewage treatment, and that property owners can’t be expected to wait that long. 

He said the new gas station and convenience store would replace the blight that’s there now.

Mr. Taldone also took his case before the Riverhead Town Board on April 6. 

“I just don’t understand entirely how it’s not a conflict of interest for your staff member to be promoting walkability” in Riverhead Town, while “trying to defeat walkability” by working for the developer of the 7-Eleven project in Southampton Town, he said.

If this is not a conflict of interest, Mr. Taldone said, the town should consider making this type of “side job totally unacceptable for someone in such a leadership position.” 

“So why don’t you write a letter to the clerk,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said. “It seems that your concerns are lengthy, and they are a little complicated. We can forward it to the building department and we can take it from there.”

“I do think it’s important for Riverhead and Southampton to work together as neighboring towns,” Councilwoman Catherine Kent said. “The connectivity there is important.”

The town’s Ethics Code, in the section on private employment, says that “a Town officer or employee shall not engage in, solicit, negotiate for or promise to accept private employment or render services for private interests when such employment or service creates a conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of his or her official duties.”

However, it adds that this “shall not be construed to apply to private employment outside of the jurisdictional limits of the Town, or whenever a Town officer or employee has provided public disclosure” of the work.

The Ethics Board rulings are merely recommendations to the Town Board, Mr. Howard said. He said the written determination is initially confidential to the subject of the complaint and the complainant. In this case, Mr. Taldone would be given a copy.

“I would assume it would be attainable at some point after,” Mr. Howard said.

Mr. Murphree declined comment.