The Riverhead Town Board discussed the town's ethics code with ethics board chairperson Donna Barnard Jan. 16. (RiverheadLOCAL photo: Denise Civiletti)

The Riverhead ethics board has recommended that the town prohibit “town officers, elected and appointed, and employees who hold policy-making positions, from serving as a political party official or committee member of a local, county or state political party.”

The board also recommended expanding the type and scope of political activities that are off-limits to town employees. Current code simply bars “political solicitation” of any town officer or employee by another town officer or employee if the solicitation is made “individually” and “with undue influence.” The ethics board recommended more sweeping provisions, such as those found in the Brookhaven and Southampton town codes.

But after a 45-minute discussion at Thursday morning’s work session, it was unclear whether the town board would embrace the the ethics board’s recommendations.

Supervisor Sean Walter said he does not support banning town officers and employees from serving as rank-and-file political committee members, just from serving on the party’s executive committee.

“Committee members don’t really have any power. The power is really vested in the executive committee,” Walter said, a point which raised no opposition from council members.

The supervisor does believe all elected officials should not hold party leadership positions.

Council members, however, stopped short of endorsing a ban against all elected or appointed “officers” from serving on party executive committees. Expanding the ban to all elected officials would place the all-Republican town board in the difficult position of telling their own party chairman he must choose between his party post and his elective office. That’s something council members still seem unwilling to do — something which the supervisor began advocating last year and, ironically, the very issue that generated the request to the ethics board for an opinion in the first place.

Instead, the town board discussion Thursday focused on the question of which officers or employees were actually policy-makers. And that question is one the ethics panel didn’t touch.

Riverhead ethics board chairperson Donna Barnard speaking to the town board at Thursday's work session. (RiverheadLOCAL photo: Denise Civiletti)“Only you can determine that as the town board, because only you know everyone’s duties, everyone’s official capacity, and what results of the things that they do have on the town,” Riverhead ethics board chairperson Donna Barnard said Thursday.

“You know what’s funny? We punted it to you and I’m sensing a punt return,” Walter told Barnard.

Riverhead’s current ethics code only prohibits members of the planning board, zoning board of appeals, architectural review board, board of assessment review and conservation advisory council from serving in party leadership positions. They can sit on political party committees, but cannot serve on the executive board of a political party: the offices of chairperson, vice chairperson, secretary or treasurer.

The ethics board made the recommendations in a Nov. 20 advisory opinion to the Riverhead Town Board, issued in response to the town board’s request, last July, for an opinion on whether the ethics code’s provisions on “political activity” by town officials and employees should be revised.
Last summer, as a fractious Republican primary election campaign was heating up, Walter advocated banning all elected officials from holding party leadership positions. Assessor Mason Haas, who had briefly challenged Walter for the Republican committee’s supervisor nomination last spring, had been named vice chairman of the Riverhead Republican Committee and was expected to succeed John Galla as chairman in September.

Republican council candidate Anthony Coates, who sought to wrest the Republican nomination from incumbent Councilwoman Jodi Giglio in a hard-fought primary campaign, hammered Haas on the subject. Coates announced on July 2 he’d filed a complaint with the ethics board about Haas taking the vice chairman post.

“I believe the office that assesses taxes and decides on grievances should be professional, impartial and free from politics,” Coates said in a press release. “I don’t think a political boss should decide how much you’ll pay in taxes.”

Haas countered that Coates didn’t understand the role of assessor, arguing that an assessor is not a policy-making position. “We enforce state laws,” Haas said. “We don’t set the tax rate. We assess a market value,” Haas said.

The supervisor subsequently sought a public hearing on an ethics code amendment to ban all elected officials from party leadership posts.

“The public should have a certain amount of assurance that all elected officials are beyond reproach,” Walter said in a July 17 interview. “You never want to think that your assessor or highway superintendent could in any way be thinking about politics in doing their job.”

But the the next day, lacking support for the idea from a majority of the board, Walter backed down. He instead asked council members to seek the ethics board’s opinion on the question of “political activity.”

“If we try to debate this, I don’t think we’ll get a consensus,” he said at the July 18 work session. “I want to refer it to the ethics board to come up with some well thought-out recommendations.”

The suggestion still met with resistance from council members, with Councilman James Wooten and Councilman George Gabrielsen openly questioning Walter’s motives. Wooten said Walter’s proposal was “purely politically motivated” and Gabrielsen said the timing of it had the “flavor” of something personal. Walter denied the charges.

“This is what’s good for the town,” he said. “I would take it further and say town board members shouldn’t even be on the committee. I hope the town council members would put the ethics concerns of residents over partisan politics,” Walter said.

A board majority eventually agreed to ask the ethics board to review the provisions of the ethics code concerning “political activity,” effectively shelving further board discussion of the prickly subject until after the November election.

The town board asked deputy town attorney Ann Marie Prudenti, who also serves as counsel to the ethics board, to prepare a draft of ethics code revisions for discussion.

The board is left to grapple with the question of which town officers and employees hold policy-making positions, Walter said in an interview after the meeting.

In addition to committee chairman Haas, two members of the planning board, its chairman Richard O’Dea and vice chairman Joseph Baier, town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz and sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel are members of the Riverhead Republican committee.
Riverhead Industrial Development Agency director Tracy Stark-James is the Republican committee secretary. Gabrielsen was a committee member, but resigned on Nov. 27, he said on Thursday.

Haas, who maintains that his own elective office is not a policy-making position, said this week the entire inquiry was politically motivated. He opposes an across-the-board ban on town officers and employees — including policy-making employees — from being rank-and-file committee members.

“I dont see the issue. Committee members are committee members. They’re the voice of the public,” Haas said in an interview Thursday, noting that party committee members are elected by the voters in their election districts. It is a process that does not typically require an actual election; committee member nominations are almost always unopposed.

“If the people in those E.D.s aren’t happy with what they do, they can toss them off,” Haas said, pointing out that there were contested election districts in the 2013 party primary.

“This was brought up for political purposes, during campaign time,” Haas said. “I’m not going to weigh in on this,” he said. “I’ll sit back and see what they’re going to do.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.