One thing was clear from a candidate discussion hosted by RiverheadLOCAL last night and streamed live on Facebook: the town supervisor candidates disagree on just about everything.
Incumbent Sean Walter, a Conservative running on the Republican line, seeking a fifth two-year term, and Laura Jens-Smith, a Democrat making a second run for town office, debated for more than an hour on a host of local issues in a discussion that was lively and occasionally contentious.
The two candidates offered very different takes on everything from dealing with race issues in Riverhead to downtown apartments and parking, EPCAL and Luminati Aerospace and the town’s fiscal condition.
Jens-Smith and Walter sparred over the appropriate response to the racist Facebook rant by the town attorney’s wife that went viral last week, sparking an emotional debate in the community.
Walter, criticized by some for focusing his reaction on what he said were mental health and substance abuse issues in one individual rather than a reflection of racism in the community at large, said last night the community discussion that followed the incident has been good for the town.
“I for one want to pray over it because I don’t have all the answers,” Walter said. “I think God needs to be in the picture.”
The supervisor said when he attended the Energia leadership academy at Molloy College a few years ago, he took a course offered by Erase Racism, and heard for the first time the term “white privilege.”
“It never even occurred to me that I’m treated differently than a black man of a similar age and similar characteristics,” Walter said.
He advocated educational programs in the primary grades to combat racist attitudes, which he said is a problem that “goes across all races — everybody comes with preconceived notions.”
Jens-Smith accused Walter of being dismissive about the issue and criticized what she said was an attempt to put responsibility on the school district.
“The town has a responsibility to help fix the problem. Racism is a problem in our community as it is all across America,” Jens-Smith said. She argued the town should set an example by being more inclusive in its hiring practices, which Walter argued are constrained by civil service requirements.
He said the African-American community doesn’t take the police test in the same numbers as whites and Hispanics, for example. “I don’t know why,” he said. “The problem is within the civil service system.”
“We need to reach out to the community,” Jens-Smith countered. “How can we be more diverse? The town needs to show leadership.”
The candidates had a long and somewhat contentious debate over the future of EPCAL.
Walter said the contract negotiations with Luminati Aerospace are still ongoing and the town has given the prospective purchasers — Luminati Aerospace is looking to partner with billionaire businessman John Catsimatides on the deal — a “drop-dead date” of Nov. 3 or 4 to have the contract finalized. Then the town will be able to very quickly move to the public hearing required by state law when a town looks to sell land in an urban renewal zone without an appraisal.
Jens-Smith criticized the length of time the negotiation has taken and questioned the timing of its conclusion just before election day, with the hearing to be held after the election. “It wasn’t going to go past July either,” she said.
Jens-Smith said Luminati Aerospace founder Daniel Preston doesn’t have the resources or experience to develop the site and questioned whether he even has the ability to deliver on his announced plans to build aircraft there. She criticized his business track record.
Walter, who has frequently compared Preston to Howard Hughes, as he did again last night, said, “We’re not going to cast Daniel Preston aside just because he’s had some questionable businees dealings
Walter said the combination of Catsimatides, “a money man,” and Preston, “a visionary,” is a unique mix.
Asked if Catsimatides had made a firm commitment to a joint venture with Preston, Walter could not confirm it. He said Catsimatides still had a lawyer involved in the negotiations and remains interested in the project.
The two candidates also clashed over the prospect of housing at EPCAL, a discussion that led to an argument over the challenger’s credibility to govern the Town of Riverhead because she lives in Laurel, close to the Southold Town line and within the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, where she is an elected trustee and president of the board of education. Walter said her “focus” is Southold.
That statement angered Jens-Smith, who spoke of her involvement in the town and pointed out that Walter lives at the opposite end of town, not far from the Brookaven town line.
“Would you tell your neighbors who live within the Shoreham-Wading River School District they don’t really live in Riverhead?” she asked.
The candidates also discussed downtown revitalization and parking.
They presented different views on whether additional high density-housing should be allowed downtown and how to provide parking for new downtown residents. Walter advocated changing the zoning to allow townhouses in the areas north of Main Street, where he also said he would like to see new parking lots built. He opposes the construction of a parking garage. Jens-Smith contends the high-density, five-story buildings should have been built north of Main Street, not on Main Street, and she opposes any new approvals. She said parking for the new residents should be provided by developers.
Walter said downtown revitalization efforts have been successful, citing the amount of money being invested in new and rehabbed buildings. “We have $70 million or $80 million being invested in downtown. Any supervisor or mayor would be ecstatic about that kind of investment. I’m ecstatic about it,” he said.
Jens-Smith said the downtown has parking problems and they’re going to get worse because of poor planning by the town.
“I said when I took office I was going to create a parking problem,” Walter said. “We’re not there yet.”
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