Home Opinion Greg Blass ‘Uncle Riverhead’ warns town board members to tread carefully on Q&E

‘Uncle Riverhead’ warns town board members to tread carefully on Q&E

The town board, pictured here at the opening session of the CAT qualified and eligible hearing on Feb. 27, sits in a quasi-judicial role in the proceeding. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Let’s suppose that Uncle Riverhead was passing through town hall, and dropped in to chat with the Riverhead Town Board once again about EPCAL. Not all the board members are thrilled to see him, but he’s sort of family, and he doesn’t take that long to say what’s on his mind. So asking him to take a seat, they exchange pleasantries, offer him some water, and politely listen to what he has to say.

Now here you are in the middle of this crucial hearing on whether CAT (Calverton Aviation Technologies) is “qualified & eligible” to buy EPCAL and develop it as an aviation technology center for research and development, training and manufacturing, soon to be on a grand scale, they assure us, generating all manner of jobs.”

Because you are in the midst of this hearing, it’s probably a good idea, says the uncle, to just listen to what he has to say, and not to respond or comment. This is because you have been in a “quasi-judicial” role in this. That means you are similar to our zoning board of appeals, or the SC Planning Commission, or like a jury during a trial, or a judge during a trial without a jury.

It means that you have to be ever so careful with how you conduct yourselves, and not have any — ANY — contact with the applicant that is not on the record of this Q&E hearing. This is particularly true with Q&E hearings, owing to the law that governs them.

With this in mind, the uncle asks that his comments be recorded verbatim and made part of the record of the hearing for all to see. He would attend the hearing himself, but it’s too late into the night for him, and well past his bedtime. So a steno comes in and starts recording everything. As the uncle continues, a couple of the board members move uncomfortably in their seats.

Uncle Riverhead then quietly recalls an interview with a member of the town board that he heard just the other day on WRIV radio. He found the councilperson’s remarks so troubling as to leave him with indigestion and a headache. In that interview, the councilperson boasted of her recent trip into the Big Apple to meet privately with the CAT claque. She took it upon herself, by herself, to meet with them for hours about their pending application. (See story.) She assured the radio listeners that all this was simply a matter of doing “due diligence.” She was even able to get answers privately to questions that had been asked publicly. What?

Uncle Riverhead started to raise his voice a bit. He assured the councilperson who was sitting there in this get-together that he had nothing against her personally, but because this was among family, though on record, he had to be candid: this visit behind closed doors with the CAT crew was so inappropriate as to require that she admit this mistake, and recuse herself from any further participation in the Q&E process, and abstain from any vote in the town’s final decision on the CAT’s EPCAL application.

It would be just as wrong for a member of the county planning commission, or the town ZBA, to go out of his way to meet privately and off the record, and solo, with an applicant whose case is before that board. Imagine, urged Uncle Riverhead, if during a court trial, a member of a jury decided on his own to travel to a distant office to sit with one of the parties in that trial, to go over the whole case, and then thereafter to talk about it in public, before the verdict.

That’s the indigestion part, said Uncle Riverhead. The headache part was how the councilperson wound up the interview, warning that CAT had oodles of cash, and was, as she opined on the radio, clearly qualified and eligible in her mind, so qualified and eligible that the town “wouldn’t have a leg to stand on” to vote against their being qualified and eligible. She warned repeatedly that a no vote in turn would “tie up the EPCAL property with lawsuits for five years or more.”

Uncle offered that there are two things very wrong with this position: First, an applicant’s financial status is only a part of the criteria for the board to consider. CAT’s credibility, record of performance elsewhere, how they’ve delivered on past promises, record of litigation with other municipalities in development deals, their past relationships and behavior with earlier partners — even something as intangible, but just as valid, as whether the town has a reasonable basis to lack confidence in them — all these and much more come into play in deciding if an applicant is qualified and eligible. This is as it should be.

Second, woe to the town if they fear to exercise their lawfully given and TOTAL discretion, in their quasi-judicial role, in deciding CAT’s Q&E, because CAT might sue them for exercising their discretion. What has this EPCAL thing come to?

As Uncle Riverhead thanks the town board for the courtesy of their time and heads for the door, he offers one last, parting caution. He respectfully reminds them that the people of Riverhead are smarter than some board members may think, and they see how widely rumored pressures might have their effect on the changing of positions with some on the board over this EPCAL deal. Some of these pressures likely come from people right in town hall who have political clout, and for whatever sudden reason, they have now chosen to lean on the town board, with apparent, considerable effect on a couple of them.

The uncle pleads with them not to let these hidden, shadowy pressures have any impact on their attorneys, who may be asked to give an opinion on whether the councilperson should recuse herself on the Q&E vote. In saying goodbye, he leaves the board with the thought that the lawyers will surely advise that she abstain, based at least on the appearance of impropriety. Donning his hat and heading out, Uncle Riverhead tells the board that this will indeed be the attorneys’ advice, if it is actually based on the law, and on what is moral and right.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg