Image: Video screen capture from townofriverheadny.gov

I take my work very seriously. It’s my belief that news reporting is an important job. My mission is to keep the community informed about things that affect their lives — and to do it accurately and honestly.

So when someone says I’ve gotten something wrong, I’m not one to blow it off. I always look into it carefully and if I’ve made a mistake, I correct it. When I make a correction, I append a note to the article in question indicating that there was an error that’s been corrected. No one is infallible and I’ve made my share of errors, for sure.

When people in a public meeting say I got something wrong in an article — especially something significant — you can be damned sure I’m going to look very closely at their basis for the claim. Even when the people saying such a thing are politicians trying to wiggle out of a corner they’ve backed themselves into. I mean, they’re telling a roomful of people I got it wrong. And the meeting is on television — and online. This is my reputation and credibility as a reporter we’re talking about here. It’s also my livelihood.

Last Thursday, I reported that the town board was considering a partnership with a Melville-based company in a “waste-to-energy” anaerobic digester food waste processing plant to be located on town-owned property on Youngs Avenue. I reported the pertinent details of the proposal, quoted some of the board members’ comments and wrote: “The board was generally favorable to the proposal and said they would approve a resolution authorizing a contract with CEA Energy.”

At last Thursday’s work session, the board’s support for the proposal seemed pretty clear.

The company representative, Mark Lembo of Wading River, told the board there is a March 7 deadline for an important grant application — one that could mean millions of dollars in state funding to build the plant. He said he needed the town board’s support for the project and a signed contract by the end of this month. Lembo — who, it turns out, had already pitched the project to town board members individually a couple of times — said he had already given the town attorney a proposed contract for review. Lembo directly asked the board to pass a resolution supporting the project and authorizing the contract at its next board meeting — the following Wednesday, Feb. 20.

No one on the board told Lembo they couldn’t do what he was asking or that they’d need more time to look into it. No one on the board expressed any reservation about entering into a contract like that without any preliminary legal process, such as issuing a request for proposals or holding a public hearing.

After Lembo left the meeting room last Thursday, the board discussed the proposal. I’ve transcribed that discussion from my audio recording of the meeting. You can read my transcript below. There’s a video of the meeting on the town’s website, too. Click on the button for “Discussion Item Recap: Waste to Energy Plant Presentation.”

When Calverton residents read my story, they were alarmed. They hadn’t heard anything about the plan before that. And it seemed like it was moving ahead very quickly, without an opportunity for public input.

A number of residents went to the town board meeting Wednesday night to object to the town taking any quick action on the proposal.

They were told that the news reports were wrong. (I should note here that the two other reporters covering the Feb. 14 meeting also reported that the town board favored the plan. Newsday reported they would vote on a resolution Feb. 20.)

“It was a misprint,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said Wednesday night. It was just a presentation to the board, she assured residents. “We’re not looking to ram this forward,” she said.

“There definitely was a miscommunication there.”

Councilman James Wooten, quoted by me, by the News-Review and by Newsday as saying the proposal was “a no-brainer” as he voiced his support for it, said Wednesday night his quote was “taken out of context” in those reports. ”The town board was not in any way ready to move forward with this,” he told residents.

Councilman Tim Hubbard said when he said he wanted to “proceed” with the proposal, he meant he wanted to proceed to review it in more detail. At yesterday’s work session, Hubbard said the town board’s intentions about the proposal were “misconstrued by the press.”

When I hear feedback like this, especially in a public forum, it makes my stomach lurch. Did I screw this up that badly?

And if I did screw up that badly, why didn’t a single member of the town board contact me to complain and seek a correction? Not a call, or an email. I even had phone interviews with two board members after I published the story in question and neither of them brought it up.

Now, I think I’ve got a fairly good command of the English language. I was paying close attention to the discussion at last week’s work session. I took notes. I recorded the meeting. I listened to the recording and took more notes as I wrote my story.

I have concluded that my Feb. 14 story does not require a correction. The town board’s discussion was not “misconstrued.” Comments were not “taken out of context.” There was no “misprint.”

In my judgment, constituents got upset and began calling and emailing town board members on Friday and they realized they needed to take a step back. Instead of saying, “We’ve decided we’re going to take more time to investigate this” they chose to blame the press.

Yes, we reporters make convenient scapegoats.

This year marks my 20th year in local journalism here in Riverhead. I’m also a lawyer and I served one term on the Riverhead Town Board — 30 years ago now. Over the course of all that time, I’ve pretty much seen it all. And I’ve seen this sort of thing before.

But in today’s environment, it can no longer go unanswered. The free press in under attack every single day. We are living in a time when reporters are derided as “the enemies of the people” and unflattering reporting is dismissed politicians as “fake news.”

Town board members, please don’t go there. If you have a problem with something we’ve published — if you think we’ve gotten something wrong, let us know. You have the phone numbers and email addresses of all the reporters covering Riverhead Town Hall. Contact us directly. Don’t scapegoat us at public meetings. Don’t fuel media-bashing in our community.

Below is a transcript of the town board discussion at the Feb. 14 work session, after the presentation by CEA Energy (during which the company representative directly asked the board to pass a resolution at its Feb. 20 meeting approving the plan and authorizing a contract with CEA, which Mark Lembo of CEA said he needed by the end of the month in order to meet a March 7 NYSERDA grant deadline.)

JENS-SMITH: Let’s go back to the waste to energy plant presentation. What are you thoughts on this? Is this something that we want to move forward on? Obviously it’s a tight timeline. Is there more information you want more information? Do you want Bill to present something to us?

WOOTEN: I think in theory and in concept and what they presented today it seems like a no-brainer to me. I think it’s a good thing to do. I’m glad they picked that location and not some other location. I think it’s a perfect fit with the recycling center next door. The only thing is the unknowns — you just don’t know where it’s going to go 10 years from now but you can’t let that cloud my decision at this point.

KENT: I think he said the life of plant was 25 years.

JENS-SMITH: I think it’s uh — it not only gets the waste out, it provides the energy that we need. For National Grid right now there is a struggle about getting gas out here. To be able to offset some of that using waste I think is a win for us, a win for the community, and if we also relieve some of the burden on the taxpayers by doing some of these public private partnerships which we’ve talked about. To be able to do that where there’s not a tremendous outlay by the community.

WOOTEN: I agree with you. I don’t care about National Grid’s costs. I like the fact that it’s green. Eventually maybe have it designated where residential can have a separate bin for that…so we can at least feed stock to ourselves. I don’t know about the long-term benefits for the public would be.

JENS-SMITH: National Grid  — right now there’s not as much gas —

WOOTEN: I know they’re having trouble with pressure —

JENS-SMITH: So to offset some of that for our community for ourselves. We’d have some control over what we’d have here. It’s just an added plus.

WOOTEN: Oh I think so.

KENT: He was saying right now the grocery stores currently have to ship upstate.

HUBBARD: When it was originally presented to us it wasn’t presented as a public-private partnership. It was more like, you build it. I’m more interested now because it’s less risky for us as a town, yet we can still receive some money and the benefits of disposing of the food waste. We I’m sure as Americans we probably waste more food than anyplace else in the world.

WOOTEN: Why are they producing so much food?

HUBBARD: You see pallets of stuff out there that’s probably still perfectly fine to eat and it just gets wasted. At least there’s good out of it instead of just dumping it in the ground.

KENT: I think it’s a good program but we are pressed on time.

JENS-SMITH: We are pressed on time. Are you at a comfort level to make a decision on this or do you want more information from in-house to have a comfort factor to move forward?

WOOTEN: Right now the only thing the town’s giving is the land and $79,000 and a commitment for half a million over two years, right?

JENS-SMITH: Correct. But do you want that laid out a little bit more concrete so we know—

WOOTEN: We have to look at those sources i think a lot of its going to come through the there’s a pot of money we have through the recycling, we have some money there — at least the 79 grand of it.

JENS-SMITH: Yeah. So would you like more information or should we just start moving forward with it?

HUBBARD: I’m pretty comfortable with it. I’ve met with Mark [Lembo] twice and then again today’s presentation and I’ve also done a little research on my own. I’d like to see it laid out so we know exactly, but I’d like to move forward with this. I would like to see it laid out so we know exactly but I would like to move forward with this.

WOOTEN: Yeah, let’s give them some [inaudible] They’ve gotta get these out soon. If they don’t get the NYSERDA grants and all the things that they’re going for, they might have a change of heart as well.

KENT: I visited the plant. It was helpful to visit it.

JENS-SMITH: All right. So we will proceed accordingly.

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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.