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Ethics board finds no violation for town planner working as consultant on Riverside project

The Riverhead Town Ethics Board found no ethics violation with town Building and Planning Administrator Jeff Murphree working as a consultant on a proposed 7-Eleven and gas station at the Riverside roundabout.

Vince Taldone, the president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, which opposes the project, filed the ethics complaint April 6 with Riverhead Town. Mr. Taldone said he received a copy of the ethics board’s written decision Thursday morning.

The ethics board’s ruling are confidential, but are sent to the person bringing the complaint and the person who is the subject of the complaint, according to Erik Howard, the town’s deputy attorney assigned to the ethics board. Mr. Howard said those people are free to release the decision from that point.

According to the ruling, Mr. Murphree told the ethics board that “all work performed on behalf of the developer is done outside of the hours during which he is engaged in duties arising from his employment by the Town of Riverhead.”

Mr. Murphree said that he uses his home address, personal cell phone and personal equipment to complete all work in connection with the private work.

“Further, Mr. Murphree sates that he makes no representation of employment by the Town of Riverhead when appearing before any other agencies,” the ethics board ruling states. 

The ethics board said that while Mr. Murphree held a similar position when he worked for the Town of Southampton, he was not involved in the forming of the zoning now in place in Riverside, where the proposal would be located.

“They did what I knew they were going to do,” Mr. Taldone said of the ethics board. “They basically wrote pages and pages, and then in the last paragraph, they made the two main points.

The first point stated there’s no conflict because Mr. Murphree’s contract allows him to work outside of town limits.

“And then in their second point, the ethics board claims that it is not the board that should determine whether Mr. Murphree’s advocacy for that project is detrimental to the walkability of downtown Riverhead,” Mr. Taldone said. “It’s not a question they can address as an ethics board.”

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 or the work.”

The ethics board’s rulings are recommendations to the Town Board, according to Mr. Howard. He said that ethics board’s makeup cannot have a majority of any one political party.

Mr. Murphree appeared at a March 25 Southampton Town Planning Board meeting on the proposal to redevelop the southeast corner of the roundabout.

In an email to FRNCA members, he had written that the civic group feels Mr. Murphree had “betrayed the public trust” by working as an officer of the town while also serving as paid planning expert for the project just across the town line.

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

Southampton Town officials say a gas station is a permitted use there, but that a convenience store it not.