Jefferson Murphree returns to building and planning department after suspension

After an eight-month suspension, Riverhead building and planning department head Jefferson Murphree returned to his position last week, with disciplinary charges still pending. 

Riverhead Town Board officials voted last Tuesday to end Mr. Murphree’s suspension, which began March 21 when Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar filed charges of “insubordination, neglect of duty and incompetence” against him. 

“We’re pleased that they have ended his suspension — he has been wanting to come back to work,” said Gerard Glass, Mr. Murphree’s attorney. From the days he was first suspended, they paid him essentially to stay home.”

Mr. Murphree, who was hired as Riverhead’s building and planning administrator in 2012 after working for Southampton for nearly 13 years, resumed his role, but now in a limited capacity.  

Riverhead Town Attorney Erik Howard said because of plans to reorganize the Department of Land Management — which Mr. Murphree oversaw  prior to his suspension — his responsibilities now consist of reviewing site plans, working on environmental reviews and issuing staff reports. 

“The position the town is still taking is that we’re seeking termination,” Mr. Howard said. “The Town Board voted to bring him back to do planning work, so long as he was getting paid.” 

At the same Nov. 21 meeting, the Town Board unanimously voted to hold a hearing to consider amending the code that established the Department of Land Management, which encompasses the town’s Planning Department, Building Department and Fire Protection Office.

If passed, this amendment would replace the existing department with the Department of Economic Development and Planning — which would comprise the Community Development Department, Planning Department and Building Department, according to the recent Town Board agenda. 

Mr. Murphree’s title of Building and Planning Administrator would be  taken out of the code entirely and replaced with an Administrator of Economic Development and Planning. 

Mr. Howard said the idea was to consolidate the town’s building, planning and community development departments to create a “more unified strategy and mission.” 

A lawsuit Mr. Murphree and Mr.  Glass, filed against Ms. Aguiar in July stated that he was unaware of Ms. Aguiar’s disciplinary  charges and “had no idea they were even being contemplated.” 

In those  court documents, Mr. Murphree claimed the charges were “politically motivated” with the election approaching at the time. Mr. Glass said Mr. Murphree felt he was made to be “the fall guy” for delays in the Master Plan caused by a third party. Mr. Murphree also claimed he was a “political scapegoat” to distract from any issues that would potentially influence  voters in the upcoming election, according to court documents.  “(Ms. Aguiar) felt they had to blame somebody,” Mr. Glass said, “so they pointed the finger at him because he’s a civil servant, not a political servant.” Mr. Glass issued a subpoena in July demanding  Ms. Aguiar to provide requested records, such as Mr. Murphree’s personnel file, resolutions regarding his pay raise approved at beginning of this year, evaluations, disciplinary records and other documents.  

In September, the Suffolk County Supreme Court dismissed Mr. Murphree’s lawsuit, stating he “received reams of documents from the Town, more than he was entitled to receive under the law and delayed the resumption of his disciplinary hearing by several months.”

Mr. Glass said since the town supplied the requested materials, they did not need to go forward in appealing that ruling. 

“Ultimately, they gave us what we were seeking,” Mr. Glass said. “That was only over procedural issues within the hearing, it had nothing to do with his right to the job or the hearing or any of that — they took his computer away, how do you defend yourself?”

The disciplinary charges alleged mismanagement of the town’s long-delayed comprehensive plan update as well as  building and planning applications, including State Environmental Quality Review Act reviews. 

During a Zoom call with the Greater Jamesport Civic Association in February 2022, Mr. Murphree apparently made comments that appeared dismissive  of issues important to the community. Mr. Murphree is alleged to have said he never personally experienced the heavy traffic on Sound Avenue on a fall weekend, and that he had no desire to do so, according to a written charging document.

He also reportedly told the group that he almost never visits Riverhead’s beaches during the summer and that he has never visited any of the town’s wineries “because they were overflowed and crowded with a bunch of drunk people … and/or it wasn’t [his] idea of a fun time,” according to the charges. 

In the charging document, Ms. Aguiar alleges that Mr. Murphree “recommended that the Town Board push back completion of the update of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan by approximately seven months — to the spring of 2023, due to what was represented to have been — in words or in substance — COVID-related delays, even though [Mr. Murphree] knew or should have known, that the delays were attributable, at least in part, to [Mr. Murphree’s] own actions and inactions.”

Ms. Aguiar also contends that by June 23, 2022, only 50% of the comprehensive plan’s work had been delivered and that no progress had been made regarding changes to the rules surrounding  transfer of development rights or the public outreach requirements within the  plan.

In June 2022, the town  terminated its contract  with AKRF Environmental Planning, the company it hired three years earlier for $675,000 to update the comprehensive plan. The Town Board hired BFJ Planning of Manhattan in December 2022 for $422,000 to complete the comprehensive plan.

Ms. Aguiar also testified to the charge of insubordination, citing a February 2022 exchange in which she said she directed Mr. Murphree to apologize to the Greater Jamesport Civic Association for his comments. Mr. Murphree allegedly “failed and/or refused to do so” on each workday through March 14, 2022. 

On that date, Mr. Murphree said he was conferring with his attorney about an apology and that he would  give Ms. Aguiar a response shortly, but he never did, according to the supervisor. 

The final allegation says that “on one or more workdays commencing Sept. 20, 2021, through and including March 10, 2023, [Mr. Murphree] refused and/or failed to commence actions or implement actions to resolve building inspection/planning related issues on one or more projects.”

These projects include SEQRA reviews, according to the charges, as well as projects at Island Water Park, 203-213 East Main St. and the Peconic Hockey Foundation. 

“Some of the charges are 18 months old — they lay in wait and bring up these charges like an afterthought,” Mr. Glass said. “He has an unblemished professional record of 25 years — he called for an open hearing because they let us know from the outset that their intentions are to terminate.”

Mr. Glass added he would be “quite surprised” if Mr. Murphree’s position was eliminated because as a civil servant, he has rights to perform the job even if they eliminate the title. 

The public disciplinary hearing is expected to resume at the scheduled Town Board meeting on Dec. 5 according to Mr. Howard, which could potentially lead to Mr. Murphree being reprimanded, demoted or fired

“The Town has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this already,” Mr. Glass said. “He is one year away from retirement — it makes no sense.”