After two years of intermittent squabbling over the issue, the Riverhead Town Board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on a proposed ethics code amendment that would ban elected officials from serving in leadership positions on party committees.
The measure was first advocated by the supervisor in July 2013 when town assessor Mason Haas was in the running to become Republican party chairman, but a majority of the board didn’t support it.
Haas argues that such a ban would be appropriate for officials holding policy-making positions in government and denies that the tax assessor post is a policy making office.
The town board asked the ethics board to rule on that issue, but the ethics board bounced the question back to the town board, saying that the town board should establish which positions are policy-making positions. The town board did not follow up with a ruling on that question.
Although all five board members voted last night to call a public hearing, not all are in favor of the code change.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio questioned the timing of the measure’s re-emergence, following as it has the Riverhead Republican Committee’s rejection of incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman James Wooten at its May 26 convention. In a vote that separated Walter and Giglio by half a vote, the committee selected the councilwoman as its candidate for supervisor. Walter is challenging that decision in a primary election. Wooten, who lost the committee nod by a wider margin, is also running a primary for the nomination.
Giglio said last night she believes the town board should decide which positions are policy-making posts and target those rather than adopt a blanket ban on all elected officials serving in party leadership posts.
“If it were that pressing we should have had a hearing on it two years ago,” Giglio said.
“If I had the votes in 2013 I would have pushed it forward,” Walter countered. “No one supported it but George Gabrielsen.”
The day after the convention, Wooten had angry words for Haas, whom he called “an idiot.”
“I blocked it from happening,” Wooten said of the ethics amendment. “I was trying to protect myself. That backfired. Now you know damned well we’re going to go to public hearing on elected officials being on the [party] executive board. I’ll be looking to take it off the floor,” Wooten said. “I got nothing to lose by trying to do the right thing for the town.”
An assessor dealing with business representatives opens up the possibility of “squeezing them for donations,” Wooten said May 27. “It’s just ugly.”
Wooten’s words angered Haas, who said the accusation was patently false.
“I can’t believe he’d say such a thing. He’s basically accusing all three members of the board of assessors of being corrupt. It’s outrageous,” Haas said.
The assessor said the councilman “does his own fundraising” and he is in the policymaking position.
Gabrielsen said last night he had been on the town Republican committee and “felt uneasy about it” so he resigned.
“I think elected officials should stay away from the committeees,” Gabrielsen said.
Walter said he agrees with that idea, though the code amendment doesn’t go that far.
This morning, Haas criticized Walter for suggesting that he believes elected officials should not be on party committees at all. He forwarded a Jan. 9 email from the supervisor asking Haas to appoint him to the committee, to represent the election district in Wading River where Walter lives.
Walter acknowledged the email but said he was only looking to get a seat on the committee because Haas had “banned elected officials who were not committee members from attending meetings.
“The purpose of the committee is to get feedback to elected officials from the community,” Walter said. “How is that supposed to happen if we’re not allowed to attend the meetings?”
“The executive committee is really where the power resides. The tax assessor in this town is in charge of the elected Republican board. That’s a lot of power,” Walter said, “and Mason is not afraid to wield it.
The public hearing is scheduled for July 7 at 2:10 p.m. at Riverhead Town Hall.
Meanwhile, Charles Sclafani of CJS Tax Service has written to the town supervisor asking that Haas be directed to recuse himself from participating in any tax grievance proceedings he may have with the town because Haas has “a clear conflict of interest” as chairman of the Riverhead Republican Committee.
“I believe his position as Republican Chairman impairs his ability to make objective and fair decisions relating to my client’s grievance and to his assessor’s job performance,” Sclafani wrote. “His impartiality will be seriously questioned.”
Sclafani is a staunch Walter supporter whose wife works as the supervisor’s confidential secretary in town hall.
“This is just political,” Haas said today. “He [Sclafani] works on Sean’s campaign and his wife works in Sean’s office, he said. “If anybody should be recusing himself it should be him. People might think they’d get special favors because his wife works for Sean.”
The supervisor is “taking taxpayer dollars and using the position of his office to attack me,” Haas said. “He should be concentrating on running the town instead of these political games.”
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