The town board’s weekly work session again ended with an argument among board members over personnel appointments.
This time, the subject of dispute was Community Development Agency director Dawn Thomas.
Before the work session ended, Councilman Tim Hubbard said he wanted to introduce a resolution appointing Thomas to the civil service position.
She’s held the job as a provisional appointee since former CDA director Chris Kempner resigned in May 2017. At that time, there was no Suffolk County civil service eligible list for the position. Since then, a civil service exam has been given and Thomas scored 100 on it. Four other people also scored 100 on the test. Civil service law requires the town to hire from among the top three people on the list, so Thomas can now be appointed as a permanent civil service employee.
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith yesterday objected to Hubbard’s move to give Thomas the civil service appointment. She argued that the town should interview the other people who scored 100 on the test.
“It is an important position, a department head position. She does a good job but we have four qualified candidates who are reachable. So in the spirit of transparency, we should interview the candidates who have taken the test,” Jens-Smith said.
“It behooves us to interview them to see who is the most qualified,” Jens-Smith said, adding “I have no doubt it will be Dawn.”
Hubbard asked if she thought Thomas would be the best pick, “why waste the other people’s time” calling them in for “a false interview.” Thomas is “doing an excellent job,” Hubbard said.
“I’m concerned what you’re basing that on,” Jens-Smith answered. “I would recommend the interviewing of the four candidates.”
“There are three votes on this board” to appoint Thomas, Hubbard said.
“I think it’s just insulting,” Councilman James Wooten said. “To me, it’s a smack in the face,” he said.
“It’s not fair,” Wooten said, his voice and his color rising. “It’s not fair as a manager. It’s not fair to the workforce. It’s not fair to the spirit of community employment. It’s not fair. And I don’t care who it is. It’s not the right thing to do.”
Jens-Smith, Hubbard and Wooten squabbled over whether anyone had asked the supervisor to put a resolution appointing Thomas on the agenda.
“We would not be in this position that we are in but I found out yesterday a resolution was drafted yesterday outside of my office. The department head knew about it, a councilperson knew about it. They put it forward as a resolution without any conversation in my office,” Jens-Smith said. “And that’s why we’re in the situation that we’re in.”
“That’s not accurate,” interjected Thomas, who had entered the room in the middle of the discussion about her job and taken a front-row seat in the audience.
“This is not any way, shape or form what I would have chosen to have a conversation abou this position. I think it is ridiculous,” Jens-Smith said.
As Thomas tried to speak, Jens-Smith put up her hand to stop her. “Excuse me, excuse me for one minute,” she said. “Let me finish talking.”
“But it’s completely inaccurate though,” Thomas said.
“Let me finish talking,” the supervisor said. “So this is where we are. It will be on the agenda and we can vote on it.”
In her office following the meeting, Thomas was visibly upset.
“The supervisor’s suggestion that I went around her is inaccurate. I spoke directly to her chief of staff on Wednesday and followed up with an email,” she said.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who was absent from the work session yesterday due to illness, said in an interview today the resolution appointing Thomas to the civil service post was in the computer program that generates the town board’s meeting agenda on Wednesday.
“It’s not true that we went around her, the resolution was in the system and they pulled it because it doesn’t go along with her agenda,” Giglio said.
Giglio accused the supervisor of creating a “toxic environment” that is demoralizing town staff.
Joe Maiorana, an assistant community development project supervisor who has worked in the Riverhead CDA office for more than 25 years, said he was very distressed by the town board discussion and by the idea that Thomas might not get the appointment.
“I can tell you, this department has never run more smoothly than it has under Dawn’s leadership,” he said.
The community development director is a civil service position. When there is a county civil service eligibility list — based on exam scores — municipalities must appoint a person from the list. The government must hire a person from the top three on the list.
In theory, the civil service system requires government hiring decisions to be based on merit through a competitive process, rather than political patronage.
“There hasn’t been interview process since [former CDA director Chris] Kempner was hired in 2007 or ‘08,” Jens-Smith said in an interview after the meeting yesterday.
“The community development director is a high-paid job in the town that does require quite a bit of background and knowledge and expertise,” Jens-Smith said. “It’s not just getting grants. It requires being out in the community, attracting new businesses here. It’s complex,” she said.
“Hiring from within is not always the healthiest,” she said. “This is not personal and it’s not political,” Jens-Smith said.
Hubbard said he sees no reason to interview anyone else for Thomas’ job because she “does a great job.” The whole office does a great job, he said.
He pointed to her accomplishments in the past year. Thomas was instrumental in gaining the federal opportunity zone designation for downtown and EPCAL, Hubbard said. The opportunity zone designation provides investors with strong tax incentives for investing in development within the zone. That Riverhead had two of the 514 census tracts statewide to gain the designation was quite an accomplishment for the town, he said. She also pursued and obtained a $3 million grant for the Riverhead Water District.
Thomas, who lives in Jamesport, had served as town attorney for more than a decade before leaving to clerk for a State Supreme Court Justice in 2011. She returned to the town attorney’s office in 2016 as a deputy town attorney and was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Kempner’s resignation the following year. She is a member of the Riverhead Republican committee.
Besides Thomas, there are six other people on the Suffolk County Civil Service Department eligible list who scored 100 on the civil service exam: Irene Bradley, Elyse Jay, Christine Kearney, Jeffrey Kryjak, Alex Wallach and Kellie Woznick.
The law allows, but does not require, the town to give preference to Riverhead Town residents. Thomas is the only person at the top of the list who lives in the town. The list was established Feb. 8, according to the Suffolk County Civil Service Department website.
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