The town board — and Supervisor Sean Walter in particular — got an earful Tuesday afternoon on a proposed ethics code amendment that critics said was motivated by retaliation against Riverhead Republican party leader Mason Haas for the Republican party’s failure to nominate the supervisor and Councilman James Wooten for re-election this year.
The proposed code change would ban all elected officials — including town assessors, a post held by Haas — from holding a leadership position on a political party committee.
Some speakers, including Riverhead Democratic Committee chairwoman Marge Acevedo, argued that the language of the proposed amendment went further, also barring elected officials from serving on county and state political committees.
The proposed amendment was first aired in 2013. The town ethics board, to which the question was referred by the town board, declined to take a position on whether all elected officials should be barred from holding party leasdership posts. Instead, the ethics board said the town board should determine which positions — elected or appointed — are policy-making positions. People holding policy-making positions in town government should not hold any political party office — leadership or otherwise, the ethics board said in a letter to the town board. But no action was taken by the town board.
“This board has had two-and-a-half years to resolve this,” Acevedo said. “Now it appears this has become a political football since the Republican party recently denied Sean Walter the nomination for supervisor.”
Walter brought the proposal to the table again right after the Riverhead Republican party nominating convention, where, in a close vote, he lost the supervisor nomination to Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. Councilman James Wooten, who didn’t support the amendment in 2013, said in an interview the day after the convention he would support it now. He acknowledged he had hoped to “protect himself” and after losing the nomination in May, had “nothing to lose by trying to do the right thing for the town.”
Members of the Riverhead Republican Committee stood up to oppose the proposal, citing the presumed motivation of Walter and Wooten in brining the amendment forward again now.
“Two of you were not chosen by the committee and now the ethcis issue has returned again,” Riverhead Town Republican Committee treasurer Tammy Robinkoff said.
“The supervisor’s attempt to exact political revenge should not be supported,” GOP committee member Joann Spanburgh Waski said. “He began pushing for this change just days after he did not receive the support of the Riverhead Republican Committee.”
But the Democratic candidate for supervisor and one of that party’s council candidates spoke in support of the measure.
“James Madison said it well: ‘All men having power should be mistrusted,’” supervisor candidate Anthony Coates said.
“You need to build checks and balances. You need to establish rules. You need to build an ethical moat around this town hall. You need to do the right thing for the right reasons,” Coates told the board. “You should keep this building, as much as you can, free from politics.”
Democratic council candidate Laura Jens-Smith urged the board to consider the amendment “on the merits” even though the timing of the proposal was “ill-advised.”
“Officiers of the town are required to act fairly, impartially and without taint of conflict and without any appearance of conflict,” Jens-Smith said.
But Republican council candidate Robert Peeker objected to “the idea of anybody telling me what I can and cannot do politically.”
“I’m sure that was not the intention of the Founding Fathers.”
No elected officials spoke at today’s hearing.
The hearing record was left open for written comment for 10 days.
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