Neighbors link arms at the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force's unity and civility vigil in Southold in 2016. File photo: Katharine Schroeder

Riverhead Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force has a new chairperson and may soon have some new members, as the task force and the town board look to expand the group’s diversity.

The Anti-Bias Task Force at its meeting last month elected Cindy Clifford of Riverhead as its chairperson for the upcoming year. Clifford will replace Connie Lassandro of Baiting Hollow, who has chaired the task force for the past five years.

Members of the task force are affirmed by the town board no later than February of the calendar year for a one-year term.

The town supervisor would like the Anti-Bias Task Force to be more representative of a cross-section of the community, Lassandro told task force members at their meeting last night, which was held via Zoom videoconference.

The supervisor would like to meet with the task force in the next week, Lassandro told the task force.

“I want to meet the current members,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in a phone interview today. Their terms expire at the end of February, she said.

“There will be a resolution. There is a process,” Aguiar said. “If there is a need for more diversity, it will occur.”

Aguiar said the ABTF should be guided by the same standards that apply to all other town committees.

“It should represent our entire community. It should not be be political,” Aguiar said.

“We’re ambassadors to the town,” Lassandro said in an interview today. “We’re not there to incite things. You have to keep things calm. You can’t put fuel on the fire. You de-escalate,” she said.

Lassandro took on the chairperson post after the ABTF was “reinvigorated” in 2014 by former supervisor Sean Walter in the wake of a series of muggings victimizing Latino men in downtown Riverhead. At that time, the task force, initially formed in the early 1990s, had not met in about three years.

Lassandro said she would like the task force to include more representatives of communities that experience discrimination, including people of color, members of the Latino community, members of LGBTQ community, as well as people with disabilities, homeless persons and seniors.

“There is bias and discrimination everywhere,” Lassandro said.

It’s been frustrating to get more people involved and get them to stay involved, she said.

The task force has, for various reasons, shed more than a dozen members appointed or re-appointed since 2017, when its membership was expanded following a strong reaction in the community to a racist rant on social media by the spouse of a town official. A number of the new members who have since left the task force are people of color.

“In her second year as vice chair, and my first as chair, Michele Lynch and I are already working on and/or mapping out plans to expand membership diversity, encourage community participation and raise awareness of our presence and purpose,” Clifford said. “We plan to begin an ongoing collaboration with the Southold, Southampton and East Hampton ABTFs, the Eastern Long Island NAACP and other related organizations, all in the greater effort to live up to our mission.”

Clifford said today everyone is on the same page. “The ultimate goal is to bring the community together, giving voice to people who might not have voice,” she said.

“People aren’t born hating other people,” Clifford said. “That’s taught. If you can teach someone to hate and be afraid, you can teach them to not hate or be afraid.”

Correction: This article has been amended to correct a misstatement about how the Anti-Bias Task Force is constituted. The town board does not appoint members to the task force. Rather, by resolution, the board affirms its membership roster, which is established by the task force pursuant to the ABTF’s adopted bylaws. Membership is affirmed by the town board no later than February of each year. Task force officers are elected by the members of the ABTF, as per the group’s by-laws. They are not appointed by the town board, as stated in the original version of this article.

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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.