(Updated- Aug. 29) Riverhead Town tax assessor and Republican party leader Mason Haas is suing the town to challenge the constitutionality of an ethics code amendment he says was adopted to force him from his post as chairman of the Republican committee.
The town board last month amended the town ethics code to ban elected officials from holding party leadership positions. The amendment will take effect on Tuesday, Sept. 1. Haas is the only official affected by the code change.
Haas has hired Riverhead attorney Lane Bubka, who is also a member of the Republican committee, to file the lawsuit.
Bubka on Friday afternoon served Riverhead town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz with notice that he would ask a State Supreme Court judge to sign an “emergency order to show cause” Friday afternoon in an effort to block the code amendment from taking effect. In a letter faxed to Kozakiewicz, Bubka said he would be seeking “immediate injunctive relief regarding the unconstitutionality of the Local Law adopted by the Toen [sic] of Riverhead on July 21, 2015.”
In an interview late Friday afternoon, Haas said he did not yet know whether the application had been granted; he was still awaiting word from his lawyer, he said. Bubka could not be reached for comment.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter on Saturday morning said Kozakiewicz had the application put over to Thursday. There was no order to show cause signed, Walter said. Notice of the application was given at 12:56 p.m. yesterday to appear in court at 2:30.
The supervisor said council members James Wooten and George Gabrielsen will both support a resolution appointing outside counsel to represent the town. He said he considered the town attorney, who is running on the Republican line for town justice, to be “conflicted.”
“In fact, the whole town attorney’s office is conflicted because of the behavior of Mason Haas, who speaks to them about issues before the town board,” Walter said.
Haas denies those charges. “We haven’t even had a caucus in over a year,” he said, referring to closed-door “party caucus” meetings among the town board members that had been criticized by the supervisor, who said they were illegal under the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“It’s a shame that Sean thinks the taxpayers have deep pockets,” Haas said.
“I regret it has come to this,” he said of the lawsuit. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. Why don’t they just do what the ethics board said they should do?”
Haas was referring to a Riverhead Town ethics committee opinion that the town board should decide which government positions are “policy-making” and then ban people who hold those jobs from holding party leadership posts. The town board asked the ethics committee for its opinion on the subject in 2013.
“The glove didn’t fit,” Haas said today, “so he didn’t pursue it.” Tax assessors, he argues, are administrators who do not make policy. There is no discretion in their jobs, as they only enforce state laws.
In the summer of 2013, Anthony Coates — who is the Democratic candidate for supervisor this year — filed an ethics complaint against Haas, who had been named vice chairman of the Republican committee that June and was considered the “heir apparent” to the party chairmanship. Coates, then a registered Republican challenging the committee’s council candidates — Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman John Dunleavy — in a primary campaign, accused Haas of campaigning on town time. He also raised the first objections to the idea of an elected official serving as a party leader and argued that it should be barred by the town’s ethics code.
“If there’s any office in town hall that shouldn’t be held by a party leader, it’s tax assessor,” Coates said in a July 2, 2013 interview. “I don’t think a political boss should decide how much you’ll pay in taxes.”
Two weeks later, Walter announced his intention to sponsor an ethics code amendment that would ban elected officials from serving on a political party’s executive committee.
“The public should have a certain amount of assurance that all elected officials are beyond reproach,” Walter said in a phone interview the following day. “You never want to think that your assessor or highway superintendent could in any way be thinking about politics in doing their job.”
Haas was elected Republican Committee chairman in September 2013.
But Walter did not have three votes on the town board to move the amendment forward. That changed this year, after the Republican committee refused to endorse him and Councilman James Wooten for re-election. The day after the party committee’s nominating convention, Wooten, who denounced the party leader, said he would support the ethics code change Walter sought in 2013.
“I blocked it from happening,” Wooten said in a May 27 interview. “I was trying to protect myself. That backfired,” he admitted. “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.”
Haas said the motive for the code change is obviously retribution — but it violates his rights as a citizen.
“The Republican committee is an organization that I belong to,” Haas said today. “If the committee members who represent the Republican constituents in the Town of Riverhead want me out, they’ll vote me out. If the taxpayers want me out as their assessor, they will vote me out,” Haas said. “It’s not for the supervisor to use his office to manipulate this for his own political purposes.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect an interview with Supervisor Sean Walter on Saturday, Aug. 29.
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