Riverhead Town Board members discuss management of the municipal garage with Highway Superintendent George Woodson Nov. 15. File photo: Denise Civiletti

At first glance, for most people, the inner workings of a garage, a municipal garage at that, spark little interest. But when it comes to the Town of Riverhead’s municipal garage, well, that‘s a different story. There we have all the clumsy intrigue, confused play-acting, crude politics, and shameful pettiness of a cheap novel.

About three years ago, things were so bad at Riverhead Town‘s garage that the town‘s own audit committee rated its operations at the level of a “free for all.” The department head, who also oversaw the sanitation department, retired in December 2014 and the town board had divided his duties among other department heads. Responsibility for the garage fell to the town engineering department. That improved some things, but the audit committee found it still lacked important controls and oversight. The engineering department was already tasked with running the town‘s buildings and grounds and street lighting divisions, in addition to its engineering duties.

The board then promoted one of the garage‘s four mechanics to take over and bring a semblance of order. They placed the garage‘s “reorganized” structure in the oversight of our former town supervisor‘s chief of staff. But after his boss lost his re-election bid last year, the chief of staff was out of a job. Of course, the town board never planned for such a complication.

Responsibility for oversight of the garage went back to the engineering department in January. To its credit, with a new supervisor and council member, the town board gave the garage situation a closer look. Then, as of last April, common sense and bi-partisanship made a rare entrance, and the town board unanimously voted to place the garage under the control of the town highway superintendent.

It did not escape their notice that the highway department is the garage‘s largest user, with 134 of its vehicles housed and maintained there. And with 96 police cars and a host of other town vehicles at the garage, the highway super, whose workplace is right by the garage on Rt 58, was a perfect fit. Adding $20,000 to his $94,803 annual salary took care of the compensation side of the arrangement, and all went well — too well, in fact.

In the short space of time since that decision, things at the town garage by all accounts have improved considerably. During the highway superintendent‘s watch, the key word was organization. Being much engaged, he was at the garage everyday, just next to his own office, troubleshooting and connecting with the workers.

A clear chain of command emerged. The garage facility and garage yard were cleaned up, with scores of unused and mostly unusable vehicles, many parked there for years, disposed of. Gas pumps were modernized and made safe. The armory building across the street, now town property and currently a storage site for the town garage, was also cleaned up and operated more efficiently.

But this success didn‘t sit comfortably with, of all people, the town board — or some of them. You see, the town highway superintendent is of one political party (Democrat), and the town board majority is of another (Republican). Their town GOP organization, such as it is, started muttering about the political folly of “empowering” the enemy. And what was up with giving that big raise to a Democrat? That should go to a Republican. Something had to be done. It didn‘t matter how, just do it. So much for the Republican ideals of Lincoln, TR, LaGuardia and Reagan.

Meanwhile, with the garage newly in his charge, the highway chief started asking questions, the kind that some of town hall‘s in-crowd simply didn‘t like. Why, for instance, does the Suffolk County PD store their impounded vehicles from all over the county at the town garage until they auction them off, with no compensation to Riverhead? Couldn‘t they share in some of the auction proceeds?

And why, asked the highway supe, does the town contract out for private towing of town vehicles to the garage? Clearly the town would save money with its own tow truck.

Three town board members, as the GOP majority, never took the time to visit the garage to see these needed changes underway. Instead, they got cranky at their Howell Avenue desks. They didn‘t go for someone from another party, someone who himself doesn‘t give a hoot about party politics (ask anyone who works in the highway department about that), starting to look better than he already did, and asking too many questions. He had to go, and fast.

Let‘s reflect here on the words of the author and publisher, Ernest Benn (1875-1954): “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”

For the town board‘s majority, the wrong remedy for the now smoothly running garage was an easy call: relieve the highway chief of the garage‘s management and put the chief of police in charge. Well, not really. The board majority said the beauty of their plan was to have it run by a Riverhead PD captain. The town board majority has long had an axe to grind against them both.

So, at a televised board meeting that had to be seen to be believed, with the audio working this time, they insisted that the police command really does have plenty of time on their hands. No matter that they will be largely absent from the site. As for the town PD‘s having their hands full with crime and unsolved incidents? Not to worry.

Also, this board majority proudly announced that they will save us, the taxpayers, the $20K they had added to the highway supe‘s pay, as the police chief or his deputy won‘t get that for running the garage. Patting themselves on the back, they touted this as a sound “business decision.”

And seeing no contradiction, they said they can set aside that $20K for a nice raise in 2019 for an elected official (a Republican, of course) who was named during this meeting on TV. The Republican councilwoman who let that cat out of the bag tried some quick damage control, denying she ever named anyone slated to get this money, assuring all who would listen that the videotape misquotes her. So the town board majority adjusted their position such that the $20K salary increment, earmarked earlier for managing the garage, will go next year to unidentified “elected officials” who “work hard.”

A sensible rule for being in a hole is to stop digging. Undaunted, the town board majority dug themselves deeper by minimizing the highway chief‘s role in the turnaround at the garage, saying, with straight faces, that these reforms and improvements were achieved mostly by a clerical worker they had already placed there (more pats on the back). So then why did they put the highway supe in charge in the first place? Well, they didn‘t quite get into that.

At this same meeting, the town board majority also shared sudden worries about ever having an elected person in charge of just about anything. What could they do if there were “malfeasance” at the garage? They were visibly alarmed that an elected official such as the highway superintendent could spin out of control and nothing could be done about it. He couldn‘t even be “disciplined.” Tasking someone in a civil service position, such as a police officer, with running the garage from the other side of town would clearly solve that, right? You can‘t make this up.

So in a three-to-two vote, the TB majority threw a brief but fruitful measure of bipartisanship out the window, embarrassed themselves, and us, and booted the highway chief out of the garage. Fresh from their recent, lamentable vote on the sale of EPCAL for peanuts, another “business decision,” they found trouble in the garage when at long last there wasn‘t any. This brings to mind the startling fiction uttered by one of them prior to his vote for the EPCAL sale, that the issue of unwanted housing, foolishly allowed at the site, has been “addressed.” Really?

Many of us in this great Town of Riverhead need to speak up at the spectacular error of some of our elected officials‘ ways. Keep informed about what goes on in town hall, no matter how shamefully those with the board votes, those with the power, do the people‘s business there. And if we don‘t raise hell, who will? One of our nation‘s founders, John Adams, a name scarcely mentioned in our schools these days, said it best: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.”

Editor’s Note: Councilman Tim Hubbard has taken issue with the author’s use of the term “vote” in this column. The town board discussion and their decision to shift responsibility for oversight of the municipal garage took place at a work session and, as such, there was no formal vote taken. However, board members made the decision to move oversight of the garage at the work session in question. See story.  

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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