A town board majority plans to remove oversight of the municipal garage from Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson, right. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson’s brief tenure supervising the day-to-day operations of the municipal garage is about to end, with a town board majority looking to shift that responsibility to the Riverhead police chief.

The highway superintendent has since been supervising the garage, which repairs and maintains the town’s fleet of vehicles — including 134 highway department and 96 police department vehicles — since April. The town board unanimously approved the idea — and a $20,000 annual salary increase for Woodson, prorated — on a trial basis, through the end of 2018.

The three board members who want to shift responsibility to the police chief say they’re looking to save the $20,000 they agreed to pay Woodson to assume the duties. Chief David Hegermiller would not be paid any extra salary or stipend to take on the extra responsibility.

It’s not a reflection on how Woodson has handled supervising the garage, according to Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard.

“Don’t take it personally,” Hubbard told Woodson at Thursday’s work session. “Business is business and if I can save $20,000 for the taxpayers, I’m gonna do it. It’s a business decision.”

At the Nov. 1 work session, board members discussed using those funds to give other elected officials salary increases in 2019.

Woodson does take it personally.

“I don’t like when you bust your butt and people talk down to you and say you’re not doing the job,” he replied. “All the things I do in this town — I always try to do the right thing.”

Woodson presented the town board with a list of 35 items that he said the highway department provides to other town departments at no charge to their budgets — from providing equipment to the buildings and ground division, to cutting grass and trimming trees at EPCAL, making signs, patching holes in various town parking lots,

He also updated the board on what he’s accomplished at the municipal garage since April, including clean-up and organizing the yard at the facility, which is located adjacent to the highway department facility, removing 60 vehicles that had been sitting there, some for years, without purpose. He’s also cleaned up the gas pumps at the facility and updated equipment. Woodson said he’s cleaned up and organized the armory building, as well, which has been used to store a lot of miscellaneous vehicles and equipment. The armory site was deeded to the town by the state in 2011 for redevelopment as a police/justice court facility.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent oppose delegating it to the police chief.

“His charge is to police this town and keep it safe,” Jens-Smith said. “I think the chief already has a lot on his plate.” She complained that a request she made to the chief for crime data shortly after taking office in January took him six months to fulfill. “Obviously he’s a very busy man.”

Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Town Police detective, said the chief would not be taking on the responsibility himself.

“There’s a captain in that police department that has time to do this,” Hubbard said.

“If there’s a captain that doesn’t have their days filled,” Jens-Smith said. “We don’t have current stats. The police should be doing their own job, not overseeing the municipal garage at the salaries they’re getting paid,” she said.

“Elected officials shouldn’t be overseeing anybody,” Hubbard countered.

Councilman James Wooten, also a retired Riverhead cop, says having an elected official oversee a town department is a problem because an elected official is not accountable to the town board the way an appointed department head is.

“Town garage employees answer to the town board,” Wooten said after the meeting. “I’ve said it from day one. If there is any malfeasance on any level — how do you possibly discipline an elected official?”

Wooten said the appointment of a clerical staff person at the garage has solved a lot of problems there that were the subject of an 18-month audit of the department’s operations during the tenure of its last appointed department head.

The audit committee called the operation “a free for all” without meaningful management or accountability. The highly critical report, though presented to the town board in February 2016, covered a period before and after the department head, John Reeve, retired in 2014. It noted some improvement in procedures and accountability when oversight was shifted to the engineering department beginning in 2015.

But officials agree the engineering department, which oversees the town’s buildings and grounds division and street lighting district, lacks the staff and time to effectively oversee the municipal garage.

Jens-Smith, a Democrat who took office in January, proposed shifting the responsibility — with a $20,000 raise — to the highway superintendent, also a Democrat. She had the support of the board’s other Democrat, Kent, who also took office in January. But the board members, all Republicans were reluctant to embrace the idea, with Councilwoman Jodi Giglio expressing strong opposition. Eventually, all five signed on — it at least for the balance of the 2018 fiscal year.

Now the Republican majority supports taking the responsibility — and the pay — away from Woodson.

“This isn’t about Gio or any personalities or politics,” said Wooten, who since January serves as the town board’s liaison to the municipal garage. “It’s about the job and the structure.”

The police chief said he is prepared to carry out the board’s orders, whatever they may be.

He disputes the notion that the police department’s captain  has extra time on his hands. Besides being his second in command, the captain is responsible for the department’s accreditation by the state. It’s a huge job, Hegermiller said.

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.