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

The town board approved a $20,000 salary increase for Highway Superintendent George Woodson to compensate him for managing the municipal garage this year.

The board had Woodson take on responsibility for the town garage last spring and approved the $20,000 pay hike — pro-rated for 2018 — at that time. It was a much-debated and controversial decision from the start and one the board agreed would be provisional. As the year drew to a close, board members revisited the issue to plan for the new year.

In November, during a work session discussion, the board was split along party lines on whether to have Woodson continue in the role, with the Republicans favoring a plan to put oversight of the department with the chief of police. The chief would handle it without any additional pay. Councilman Tim Hubbard advocated the shift because it would save taxpayers $20,000, he said. Councilman James Wooten said he did not support having an elected official in the role of a department head who is supposed to answer to the town board.

A month later, Hubbard said in an interview he’d changed his mind about supervision of the town garage. He became the presumptive swing vote to approve a pay raise for Woodson if Wooten and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio remained opposed.

The board on Dec. 18 voted to set a public hearing on a local law to authorize the pay raise. The local law is necessary because state law requires the town to publish the salaries of certain elected officials, including the highway superintendent, with the notice of hearing on the preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year. Any increase over a figure published in the notice can only come after the adoption of a local law authorizing the increase. The published amount of Woodson’s salary did not include the $20,000 increase.

Chrissie Curtis, wife of the head mechanic at the town garage, Mike Curtis, spoke at the hearing today to praise Woodson for his efforts with the garage and the results he’s had since taking over management there.

“I don’t know of one Riverhead resident whose jaw didn’t drop on hearing the decision [to shift oversight responsibility to the chief of police],” she said. “I can’t understand the decision that was made. If it was about $20,000, the police chief wasn’t the prudent choice,” Curtis said.

Hubbard responded to her comments by arguing with the use of the word “vote” in an opinion column by Greg Blass in this publication. He said there was no vote taken.

“The only vote we’re taking is here, right now,” he said, referring to the vote on the local law authorizing the salary increase.

No formal vote on the assignment of duties to Woodson was taken last year or is expected to be taken this year. The board voted on the local law after the public hearing was closed. The measure passed 3-1, with Giglio absent from the meeting.

Wooten cast the dissenting vote on the pay hike for Woodson. He said it wasn’t personal or political, but he does not believe the role of a department head should be filled by an elected official who does not answer to the town board.

“I think Gio is the perfect person to fill that position,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said in an interview after the meeting. I think his experience as highway superintendent overseeing the mechanics and equipment there makes him well suited to run the garage. The employees there are happy working with him and he’s accomplished a lot there,” she said.

Woodson said he just wants to do the right thing for the town.

“The only goal I have is to make the garage better, modernize it a bit, maybe even make some money for the town,” Woodson said in a phone interview.

“I’m all about Riverhead,” he said.

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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.