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Riverhead highway chief says audit was politically motivated

Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson believes a recent audit of his department is politically motivated and was begun at a time when people thought he was running for town supervisor.

But Jack Orben, the head of Riverhead Town’s independent audit committee, says that in the 10 years the committee has existed “we have never discussed politics… we have religiously avoided any kind of involvement in the political part of this town.”

The independent audit committee was started by former Supervisor Sean Walter’s administration in 2011 and has audited various town departments during that time. 

It is comprised of Mr. Orben, Joel Hackett and Ernie Anderson, who are volunteers, and Charlene Kagel-Betts and Ron Pulito,of East End Accounting Services, who are paid.

Back in January, the independent audit committee did an audit on the town highway department, and they were about to discuss it at a Town Board work session when board members ultimately agreed to hold off on the presentation because it was done with no input from Mr. Woodson. 

That audit was discussed again at Thursday’s work session. 

“I think our highway superintendent George Woodson deserved an apology for the way that (January) work session unfolded,” said Councilman Ken Rothwell at Thursday’s work session. “I think the Town Board had a misunderstanding regarding the independent audit process and about what was to be presented at that time.”

Mr. Woodson, who has been in the highway department for 36 years, including 13 as its elected superintendent, opted not to seek reelection this fall, citing disagreements with Town Board members. 

“I think it’s all b.s.,” Mr. Woodson, a Democrat, said in an interview Friday. “I think back in the day, some people thought I was running for supervisor and then, all of a sudden, I get audited, and this guy shows up at the job and is looking specifically for two or three vehicles, as if somebody told him something.”

Mr. Orben also said Thursday that a vendor of the highway department told him that Mr. Woodson played in a golf tournament with a vendor and questioned if a ethics board investigation had been initiated to see if this had happened more than once. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, a Republican, said Thursday that nobody has asked for an ethics board ruling. 

“The Highway Superintendent’s Association has a golf outing every year, where the vendors play and the highway superintendents play,” Mr. Woodson said Friday. “In 13 years, I played golf with the [vendor] twice.”

Ms. Aguiar on Monday said the independent auditor picks the department to audit, not the Town Board.

“In fact, the department was selected early last year in 2020, a few months after I took office, before anyone knew who was running or [before] I had decided to run for a second term.”

Mr. Orben also questioned a highway department policy that allows highway department employees to borrow equipment for their personal use. 

Mr. Rothwell, the Town Board liaison to the highway department, said that policy was “an oversight” and has been corrected. He said it only applied to small items.  

“If somebody needed to borrow a shovel or chainsaw or something like that,” they could, Mr. Woodson said. “It’s not like we’re letting people take dump trucks or big equipment home. I’m so glad I’m retiring.” 

Mr. Orben said he was concerned that if someone got injuring using town equipment, the town could be held liable. He said the committee chooses which departments to audit randomly. To date, they have also audited the parks department, the community development agency and the building department. 

Mr. Orben said Mr. Woodson told him that he would avoid using the procurement policy of the town to buy equipment.

“He was very proud of the fact that, in his mind, he was able to save the town money and buy a better truck at a reduced rate,” Mr. Orben said.  

Mr. Woodson said that highway superintendents are not required to seek bids on used equipment from other municipalities. 

Mr. Rothwell, one of four Republicans on the five-member Town Board, had nice things to say about Mr. Woodson. 

“He’s worked very hard and deserves thanks for his years of service,” Mr. Rothwell said. 

“The last meeting, I would label as being awkward,” Mr. Orben said of the January meeting. 

Mr. Orben said that in January, “there was some sense of urgency” that he was getting from the town as to why the highway audit wasn’t done, which is why they sought to make a presentation in January. 

Because of the pandemic, the audit took much longer than others that the committee has done, Mr. Orben said. 

“We intended to give you the highlights, but that that never happened,” Mr. Orben said of the January meeting, where Town Board members opted not to hear the report with no input from Mr. Woodson.