The Republican and Democratic candidates for Riverhead Town Board faced off before the Greater Jamesport Civic Association last Thursday at the Jamesport Meeting House.
Incumbent Republican Supervisor Yvette Aguiar is running against Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the Democratic challenger.
There are two open seats for Town Council. Ken Rothwell, who was appointed to a vacant seat in January, is running along with fellow Republican Bob Kern, currently president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce. The Democrats are running retired town police officer Evelyn Hobson-Womack and winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez.
The format gave candidates time for opening and closing statements and, in between, all of the candidates were questioned on specific issues. Election Day is Nov. 2.
Ms. Aguiar, who is seeking a second term, said the COVID-19 pandemic arrived just about a month after she took office. She said she took action by having meals delivered to seniors who could not gather at the senior center, and acted quickly to allow outdoor dining because the state put limits on indoor occupancy at restaurants.
“This was a lifeline given to us,” she said.
Ms. Kent, who was elected in 2017, said Riverhead had some of the highest tax increases on the East End at that time, and “in my two years in office, I was able to keep taxes low.”
She said the Town Square project that Ms. Aguiar takes credit for was actually part of a grant application the town made several years ago and for which it had received more than $1 million in funding.
One topic on which the opponents clearly differed was the Triple Five contract with the town to purchase land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.
Ms. Kent said she voted against the “qualified and eligible sponsor” hearing for Triple Five and she said they have shown the town few financial documents to show they have the ability to buy and develop EPCAL. She said one only has to look up articles about Triple 5 online to see they have had financial problems elsewhere as well.
Ms. Aguiar said she inherited the Triple Five contract.
“It’s an inheritance that I really didn’t want and still don’t want,” she said.
But, she said, attorneys have told the town it cannot break the contract and, if it tried to, would be in court for five years, during which the property would be tied up.
Ms. Hobson-Womack was born and raised in Riverhead and served active duty in the Army for six years. She later served in the Army reserves, worked in a nursing home, and was a bus driver in Riverhead before joining the town police department .
She is the first female African American detective to serve in the Riverhead Police Department.
Mr. Micieli-Martinez is a winemaker who has started his own brand, Montauk Daisy, based in Riverhead, and also is a consultant. From 2007 to 2018 he was the winemaker and general manager at Martha Clara Vineyards, and has been involved in the Long Island Wine Council and Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Mr. Kern also worked at Martha Clara Vineyards for 10 years and said he helped bring more than 200 events to the community for free during that time.
He has been president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce for six years and has served on Riverhead Town’s agricultural advisory committee for more than 15 years. He is currently chairman of the town’s business advisory committee.
Mr. Rothwell was appointed to the Town Board in January to fill the seat vacated by Jodi Giglio, who was elected to the state Assembly. He lives in Wading River and is a licensed funeral director who owns funeral homes in Wading River, Southampton, Hampton Bays and Westhampton. He is also a captain in the Southampton Fire Department and helped pull a man from a burning car in Southampton over the summer.
More than 15 issues were discussed last Thursday, although not every candidate had an opportunity to address each question.
Ms. Hobson-Womack said the town should “run, not walk” away from the Triple Five contract.
“Triple Five has not been able to produce any documents that show they are financially stable to go ahead with the project,” she said.
Mr. Micieli-Martinez echoed that sentiment, saying “they haven’t shown sufficient evidence of their financial ability.”
Mr. Kern said he doesn’t think the contract should be terminated. Mr. Rothwell noted that the current Town Board inherited the contract, saying, “We are obligated and bound by law” to follow through. But he added that the contract doesn’t matter unless they get a subdivision approved by the state first.
Ms. Aguiar said she “thinks its a great idea and we do have it.”
But she noted when the governor’s executive order was lifted, she asked the four Republican members of the Town Board if they wanted to continue using Zoom, and they did not. She said there are still other ways residents can communicate with the Town Board, like watching meetings live online or on channel 22, or emailing or sending a letter.
Ms. Kent said the supervisor often tries to cut speakers off. She said Zoom enables people who cannot attend a meeting to participate. Mr. Kern said “it doesn’t bother me at all” to have Zoom.
The two Democratic candidates also supported the use of Zoom.
“We have the technology,” Mr. Micieli-Martinez said. “To restrict access to government is a failure of government. Zoom should be available.”
Mr. Rothwell was not asked that question.
Overcrowded housing and noise
Ms. Aguiar, who had campaigned on taking down overcrowded and illegal housing, said that a month after she took office, an executive order from the governor placed a ban on evictions that she said will stay in effect until Jan. 15, 2022. She said the town is gathering information to take to court during that time.
Ms. Kent said the town police department has not expanded over the years and must do so.
“Safety concerns must be addressed,” she said, adding that the town is growing.
“The police department should work together with code enforcement to enforce what is already in place,” Ms. Hobson-Womack said.
None of the other candidates was asked to respond to this question.
Calverton and Manorville groundwater
Ms. Kent said there should be no concerns that the Suffolk County Water Authority “is the big bad guy coming to take over out district.”
She said she would work to secure the estimated $9.2 million needed to connect Manorville homes to the Riverhead Water District.
“We need to get [the residents in these areas] water as soon as possible,” she said. “No one deserves to worry about their drinking water on a daily basis.”
“Clean drinking water has been an issue for 20 years, and in the last nine months we have made headway,” Mr. Rothwell said.
Riverhead Town, which has its own water district, and Brookhaven Town, which uses the Suffolk County Water Authority, are both looking for $3.5 million grants, he said.
Mr. Rothwell said that if SCWA can get it done tomorrow, “go for it.”
Ms. Aguiar has frequently said she believes SCWA is trying to take over the Riverhead Water District.
Other candidates were not invited to weigh in on this issue.