Outgoing Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar reflects on her tenure

When Yvette Aguiar first entered the Riverhead political scene in 2019, she said many officials in government never believed she would be elected town supervisor. 

She was a complete newcomer, which fueled some skepticism, but the Republican said she never claimed to be a politician — her focus was to be a representative of the Riverhead community and an advocate for its needs.

It wasn’t the first time in Ms. Aguiar’s life that she was faced with a challenge to overcome.

As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, she only spoke Spanish at home, and had to learn to read and write in English as a kindergartner. In adulthood, she committed time to getting her master’s degree in public administration while working full-time as a detective in the New York City Police Department, which she described as “very hard.” 

After retiring as a sergeant in the NYPD’s counter-terrorism division in 2003, earning a Ph.D. in business, obtaining a New York State real estate license and working as an associate professor of security management at the online American Military University — which she still does to this day — she felt she had the tools for the next step in her professional journey: running for public office. 

“I knew if I wanted to succeed and live the American Dream, I had to struggle — I struggled my entire life,” Ms. Aguiar said. “The biggest challenge came when people said, ‘Well I don’t know if we’re ready for somebody like her.’ ”

Four years and two terms as town supervisor later, Riverhead has gone through a “transformative renaissance,” Ms. Aguiar said in her final State of the Town address earlier this month. 

“The foundation has been laid and the house is coming up,” she added.

“I made it a point to make sure that I reached out to the entire community, and I effectively did it,” Ms. Aguiar said in an interview with the News-Review following her farewell speech. “People start seeing you, they start believing in you, and it transforms people’s opinions.” 

Ms. Aguiar was elected in November 2019 and took office in January 2020, two months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But she did not let the crisis faze her, she said, in part because she has been front and center during transformational events like this before. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Aguiar was right across the street when the first plane hit the North Tower at World Trade Center. She and other police officers responded in the aftermath, witnessing the horrors of that day up close, and enduring the effects of exposure to the toxin-filled air.

“I lived through that for 18 months, from being injured to recovering, and I still have some secondary issues being handed medically,” she said. 

Although it was a harrowing time, Ms. Aguiar said she believes that experience is what helped her become a leader a. When the pandemic hit, she said, she and the rest of the town employees were ready and immediately sprung into action.

The foundation has been laid and the house is coming up

Yvette Aguiar

Working as many as 18 hours a day , seven days a week, on little sleep, Ms. Aguiar said her top priority at that time was to make sure Riverhead’s vulnerable elderly population was taken care of. 

The town government established a program enabling seniors to order groceries, meals from local restaurants, medication and other essential items, which were delivered directly to their doors. 

Vaccine registration for seniors also posed as a challenge, as COVID-19 vaccine availability was initially sporadic, Ms. Aguiar said. To tackle this, the supervisor and her team launched an outreach program to assist seniors with transportation to and from Riverhead vaccination sites, and created a hotline in partnership with the town Senior Center to aid in making appointments. 

Ms. Aguiar said she personally spent days and nights making thousands of phone calls to seniors to pre-register them and make sure they received their vaccines. Many elderly people were scared at that time, and some didn’t have family, so they relied on town officials for guidance. 

“That was one of my highlights, being able, under such a dark predicament, to provide that to the seniors,” Ms. Aguiar said. “I personally was there when they received them — to see their gratitude, to see them relieved — the calls lessened.” 

As a Spanish speaker, Ms. Aguiar said she took initiative in organizing comprehensive outreach to the Hispanic population in Riverhead, which was seeing a particularly high COVID-19 positivity rate in April 2020.

Through reverse 911 calls in Spanish, flyers in Spanish-speaking markets and stores and providing information to La Fiesta — Suffolk County’s largest Spanish-language radio station — more in that community became aware of testing and vaccinations, and the illness rate dropped “exponentially,” Ms. Aguiar said. 

In her final speech as town supervisor on Dec. 4, Ms. Aguiar noted that the pandemic did not derail government operations in Riverhead. She cited several major achievements, projects and initiatives — many made possible through the unprecedented $29.4 million in grant funding the town received over the last four years.

One of Ms. Aguiar’s most notable accomplishments — and her proudest, she said — was the $20 million acquisition of land for the new Riverhead Town Hall, now fully operational at 4 West Second St. 

She described the ribbon-cutting as a point of “pride” for the entire town — from residents to the employees and management of the new government headquarters. 

“We see people walking into this new building and going, ‘This is ours. ” Ms. Aguiar said. “How beautiful this is, we’re so proud.”

The $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant awarded by the state for a new Town Square and the expansion of the Suffolk Theater, now known as The Suffolk, is another major achievement for Riverhead, Ms. Aguiar said, as well as the demolition of the former Swezey’s Furniture store and the former Twin Forks Bike shop on East Main Street. 

Dawn Thomas, director of Community Development for Riverhead Town, said she believes Ms. Aguiar and the entire Town Board were “unified” in their vision to reinvigorate Riverhead’s downtown. 

Ms. Thomas reflected on her first impression of Ms. Aguiar when she initially ran for office, which was recognizing her “deep love” for the community and “willingness to think outside of the box.” 

This passion was often apparent in her actions, such as when Ms. Aguiar climbed into the excavator to be the first to bulldoze one of downtown’s blighted buildings — an image etched into Ms. Thomas’ memory. 

This was “the beginning” of the town’s commitment to bettering the downtown, Ms. Thomas said. 

“I think it was just affirmation that the teamwork approach and the openness to listening, radiated by the supervisor, it just couldn’t have felt better,” she said. “It’s such a win for the town — and a recognition that our plans created under her leadership were the plans that would work moving forward.” 

Drag racing on Long Island made a return to Long Island during Ms. Aguiar’s tenure with a permanent home at EPCAL in Calverton. 

Even with the “naysayers” who voiced concerns related to safety, noise and the environment, drag racing promoter Peter Scalzo said Ms. Aguiar took a chance on providing “motorheads” a space to enjoy the sport with their families. 

“In my opinion, she was the greatest supervisor ever,” said Mr. Scalzo. “I credit Yvette for having the guts to give us the opportunity to prove what we’ve said, and I think we’ve been pretty successful.” 

Ms. Aguiar received some pushback during her tenure as supervisor for some controversial issues, including widespread concerns about the proposed Calverton Aviation & Technology “jetport” project at EPCAL and the emergency executive order she signed concerning asylum seekers. 

However, she said, she stands by her decisions. 

For more than a year, a colorful and growing cadre of Riverhead residents living in neighborhoods surrounding EPCAL had been pressuring town officials to abandon the plan, which called for CAT to purchase 1,644 acres from the town for $40 million. 

Following years of document submission and review by the IDA, , last month the IDA determined CAT was unable to provide adequate assurances of its financial capability to develop the property — leading to an emergency executive session called by Ms. Aguiar during which the Town Board unanimously voted to cancel the 2018 contract.

“EPCAL was the white elephant I inherited, but I also took care of the white elephant — it’s no longer in the room,” Ms. Aguiar said. “I know if [CAT was] prepared, it will show, and if they weren’t prepared it will show, and at that point, I can walk away and return the land back to the people — that was my goal and we got it done.” 

Back in September, New York City dropped its lawsuit against Riverhead Town over an ongoing executive order that prohibits the housing of asylum-seeking migrants from New York City in the town’s hotels, motels and shelters. 

In her farewell speech, Ms. Aguiar addressed this emergency order, first executed in May 2023, stating she made the “bold decision to continue securing the welfare, health, and security” of Riverhead residents. She said the emergency order ensured the town’s enforcement codes were not changed and the town could appropriately address the needs of its homeless population.

Although she faced criticism for how she handled the situation and the source of her information on the crisis, Ms. Aguiar said she knew the decision she was making was for the good of the residents who “felt that we didn’t need this here right now.”

“That was a very tough decision to make … I did what I felt was right at that time. They were about to put them on the bus that night,” Ms. Aguiar said, though evidence of that assertion has yet to be presented . “People were scared, people want to maintain safety and they want a quality of life, they want to be able to have a job if they need it — when you have an influx, doesn’t matter who is it, that’s going to take away from the residents.” 

As for the future, Ms. Aguiar said she is bowing out of politics for good, but she said there is a possibility she will serve in a civil service position. 

She said with all her accomplishments, there “was a price to pay,” and she hopes to make up for some lost time with family and friends — as well as celebrating a major milestone of turning 65 in February. 

Even though she is taking time away from public office, she said she will “always be around.” 

“I missed out on a lot, a lot of family events, lack of travel, lack of going to concerts, going to see the [Christmas] tree in the city, all these things that people will eventually find time for, but I never really had it — and I think it’s about time.”