For the first time ever, two women are battling for the town supervisor post in Riverhead. And it’s become a hard-fought battle in the closing weeks of the campaign, as the incumbent works to convince voters she deserves a shot at a second, two-year term and her challenger tries to make a case for turning the incumbent out.
Who are the candidates?
Laura Jens-Smith, Democrat of Laurel, who unseated four-term incumbent Sean Walter in 2017, is facing a challenge by Republican Yvette Aguiar of Riverhead.
Jens-Smith, 56, grew up in Port Jefferson, graduated from Comsewogue High School and earned nursing degrees from Beth Israel School of Nursing (A.S., 1985) and Pace University (B.S., 1995.) She worked at Beth Israel Medical Center from 1985 to 1988 and at Hospital for Special Surgery from 1989 to 2002. She and her husband moved to Laurel in 2002. They have two adult children.
Jens-Smith served on the board of the North Fork Early Learning Center from 2002 to 2006 and worked as a project coordinator for the North Fork Alliance in Greenport from 2012 to 2016. She was elected to the Mattituck-Cutchogue board of education in 2011 and served as its president from 2015 to 2017. She stepped down from the school board after her election as town supervisor.
Aguiar, 60, is a real estate agent and retired New York City Police Department detective sergeant, where she served in the counter-terrorism division. She retired from NYPD after 20 years of service in 2003.
A native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, she lived in Queens and moved to Hampton Bays in 1999 before moving to Riverhead with her husband Paul Carr over five years ago. The couple has an adult son.
Aguiar holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in public administration from John Jay College in NYC. In 2011, she was awarded a PhD in homeland security from Northcentral University, an online university headquartered in San Diego, California.
Aguiar is a full-time associate professor of security and global studies for the online American Military University, which is owned by the publicly traded company, American Public Education Inc. She is the former chair of the criminal justice program at the now-closed Briarcliffe College in Queens and the former deputy chair of the security management program at Technical Career Institute, also known as TCI College, in New York City, which closed its doors in 2017.
She is a member and officer of the Riverhead Elks Lodge and the Riverhead Lions Club.
The daughter of Puerto Rican natives who moved to New York City before she was born, Aguiar says she has lived the American Dream.
“I started kindergarten speaking only Spanish,” she said. “My family was of very humble means. My mother was a seamstress, and made all my clothes for school. But they worked hard and instilled me with a strong work ethic.”
The record on key issues
After an unsuccessful campaign for a town council seat in 2015, Jens-Smith took aim at the supervisor’s office, announcing her candidacy in January 2017. She attacked incumbent Sean Walter’s record on redeveloping the former Grumman site in Calverton, speaking out against the proposed sale of the town’s remaining vacant land there to Luminati Aerospace. She also criticized downtown revitalization efforts that relied on the development of five-story apartment buildings on Main Street.
Jens-Smith defeated Walter by 649 votes in 2017 — 53.6% to 46.4%. But she took office as a minority supervisor, with Republican Councilwoman Jodi Giglio winning re-election to a third four-year term and political newcomer, Democrat Catherine Kent eking out a 128-vote victory to claim an open seat. Giglio rejoined council members James Wooten and Timothy Hubbard, giving Republicans a 3-2 voting advantage that would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to Jens-Smith’s top priority: steering the enterprise park development in a different direction.
The three-vote Republican majority thwarted the new supervisor’s avowed plan to torpedo the EPCAL deal, when Hubbard cast his vote with Wooten and Giglio to find Triple Five affiliate Calverton Aviation and Technology “qualified and eligible” in November 2018. That vote followed a nearly year-long process of arguing over the purchaser’s ability to develop the site and whether the town had obtained sufficient information to even make a decision. Jens-Smith’s calls for requiring the purchaser to provide financial statements to the town were resisted by the majority — who, citing the cost of hiring an accounting firm to review financials, concluded that information provided by the applicant was sufficient.
Jens-Smith in 2017 campaigned on a platform that included stopping five-story apartment buildings on Main Street. She said she supported and would pursue a moratorium on new apartment buildings but subsequently dropped that idea in favor of new regulations to limit development size and bulk. But those proposed code changes stalled in the face of opposition by land owners and board members. She has also supported a new application to build a four-story apartment building on East Main Street.
As supervisor, Jens-Smith has overseen the development of a multi-million dollar capital projects plan to improve the town’s aged water district infrastructure.
And, in spite of her opposition to the EPCAL sale, she has shepherded the subdivision map required by the contract of sale through the review process. The subdivision application is currently pending before the town planning board, awaiting approvals from the county health department and the state DEC.
Jens-Smith brought forward initiatives for a new master plan, funded by “community benefit” money paid to the town under an agreement between a large solar power company which is building two commercial solar energy facilities in Calverton. She has also supported the creation of a pattern book for downtown development at a cost of $174,000, which was opposed by Hubbard and Giglio.
The supervisor points to a balanced budget, savings by cutting the town’s debt through refinancing older, higher-interest bonds, settling contracts with the town’s labor unions that provided for early retirement incentives and reduced payroll costs and establishing a capital budget for the town to allow planning for capital expenditures.
Some issues continue to dog the town, such as large vacant buildings on Main Street and smaller shops that struggle to survive in the absence of foot traffic downtown. Effective code enforcement also continues to bedevil officials, who haven’t been able to find a way to fully fund the code enforcement division or the staff needed in the town attorney’s office to prosecute violations.
Campaign 2019 takes shape
Aguiar hits Jens-Smith on many of these issues. She has come out in opposition to the downtown pattern book and a comprehensive master plan update, arguing that these efforts will take too long to complete and cost too much. Aguiar says the master plan will take five years. Jens-Smith says the contract with the planning consultant calls for the job to be done in 18 months, which Aguiar says is unrealistic.
Aguiar says Jens-Smith has a secret plan to off-load the Riverhead Water District to the Suffolk County Water Authority. She also accuses the supervisor of having secret meetings about a takeover. Aguiar does not cite evidence to support these charges, but says she has sources, whom she could not name, inside the water authority to back them up. Jens-Smith vehemently denies the allegations, pointing to the development and funding, under her administration of a capital improvement plan for the district. SCWA chairman Patrick Halpin said in an interview no one at the water authority has had any conversations with Riverhead about the town water district and the water authority has no interest in acquiring it.
Aguiar says the supervisor has not done enough to court a movie theater company for Riverhead.
When the school district went public with a $100 million plan to expand and improve district facilities, Aguiar jumped on the issue, voicing opposition to the expensive proposal and blaming inadequate code enforcement by the town government for overcrowded housing that she argues is causing school overcrowding.
Asked for evidence linking overcrowded schools with overcrowded housing in Riverhead, Aguiar said during the RiverheadLOCAL debate last week it is obvious by the number of homes with cars bearing out-of-town license plates she sees parked on lawns, as well as by homes that have multiple satellite dishes on their roofs.
Jens-Smith says she is not convinced overcrowded housing is the main cause of overcrowded classrooms in Riverhead. She points to the relative affordability of rental housing in Riverhead as a factor fueling the student population in the Riverhad school district, even as other area school districts have declining enrollments. Answering Aguiar’s charge that the town has not gone to State Supreme Court for an injunction since she took office, Jens-Smith argues that the town had not been doing that for a long time before she took office and the town attorney’s office has chosen to proceed in town justice court instead.
Aguiar proved herself an aggressive debater who didn’t miss a chance to take a swing at the incumbent, as she did during last week’s debate when Jens-Smith said the EPCAL contract of sale was not yet signed.
“You sign the contract of sale at closing,” the supervisor said, when asked to explain what she meant by her statement that the contract was not signed.
“There’s someone who doesn’t understand real estate,” Aguiar countered.
In fact, Jens-Smith signed the contract of sale last year, after the board voted to find Calverton Aviation & Technology qualified and eligible.
Campaign finance disclosures
Jens-Smith has raised more money than Aguiar but spent less, as of Oct. 21 — the cut-off date for the last pre-election disclosure report required by the state.
Jens-Smith has raised over $51,000 in campaign contributions this election cycle, as of Oct. 21. That sum includes a $956 in-kind donation of the venue and food for an Oct. 2 fundraiser at Hampton Hills Golf and Country Club in Westhampton, made by club owner Barry Beil.
Jens-Smith spent $19,811 on her re-election campaign this cycle through Oct. 21. She had $14,135 in the bank at the end of the last reporting period.
Aguiar has raised $28,200 from donors as of Oct. 21 and made over $46,000 in loans to her campaign committee. She also filed a 24-hour notice reporting an $1,800 contribution on Oct. 28. State law requires a 24-hour notice for any contribution or loan received by a filer in excess of $1,000 if received between the cut-off date of the 11-day pre-election report but before Election Day.
Aguiar spent $31,000 on her campaign as of Oct. 21 and closed out the reporting period with $27,743 cash on hand.
The next disclosure report, the final one for the 2019 election cycle, is due Dec. 2 and covers the period from Oct. 22 through Nov. 28.
Editor’s note: This story has been amended after it was initially published to correct two errors in dates. Yvette Aguiar moved to Hampton Bays in 1999 before moving to Riverhead about five and-a-half years ago. Also, she retired from the NYPD in 2003, not 2006.
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