File photo: Denise Civiletti

Pressures abound in every town hall on Long Island. Most town boards handle these pressures fairly well. In Riverhead, however, why do these pressures, mostly from out-of-town developers, seem always to have the upper hand? Let’s take a look at some of these pressure tactics, and how they seem to thrive in a town hall that desperately cries out for some backbone, some common sense, some street smarts and some leadership.

We might explore further how the hidden, increasingly secretive approach to decision-making at Riverhead Town Hall has so intensified as to be a shameful disservice to the community.

The town board has brought much of this upon itself. Little of what the town board does anymore becomes known unless by accident, or some sort of leak. Interviews, in particular with the town supervisor, pose a challenge to one’s sanity. And the pandemic has provided the pretext for more covert activity than ever, rivaling the CIA’s HQ in Virginia.

At one time, during town board meetings, the citizens of Riverhead could publicly question their board members, and get answers, or at least some sort of response. Those were the good old days — now, the board’s meeting rules are quite different, much to the town board’s delight, while open government suffers.

When the board meets formally, for the sake of COVID protection, the public attends by Zoom. But why must town board meeting rules stifle public participation? Few citizens wish to bother now. Those who do have 5 minutes. Then they are shut down with the turn of a switch. No one can engage their town representatives about the agenda or whatever else they might raise. Just say your piece and disappear. And above all, be quick about it.

Give-and-take, a cherished staple of local government, as once in Riverhead, is now verboten. The wall that results resembles the absurd, unnecessary wall put up at town hall’s entrance. And the supervisor’s “emergency” edict has scheduled Town board meetings only in the afternoons, when few can attend or tune in anyway.

The Town Board work session, once an informative venue for open and even candid discussions among elected and civil service decision-makers on a variety of subjects, has been whittled down to a scripted event with an inexplicably thin agenda devoid of discussions of the most important issues facing the town. And that’s if it takes place at all. Thus have too many unexplained surprises become the unhealthy (for democracy) norm.

While discouraging public scrutiny, the subtle, shadowy hands of what can be called the “pressure agents” have been hard at work. The political power elite from the Suffolk County Republican Committee, who also pull lots of the strings in the Town of Brookhaven, have gleefully found quite a leadership vacuum to fill in Riverhead. Are they manipulating the Riverhead Town Board just as the county Democratic Party has done to the County Legislature and its Budget Review Office, transforming both into barely functioning bureaucracies?

The county/Brookhaven GOP in-crowd seems a bit too happy with the hidden paths the pressure agents can take to get their way in Riverhead. Consider how an attorney from Brookhaven Town, who is the lawyer for the county GOP committee, also privately represents NextEra’s proposed “solar array” for commercial solar panels to cover about 200 acres in Calverton. He has had remarkable cooperation from the supervisor.

A case in point is the “Community Benefits Agreement” that provides $1.5 million (why does Riverhead never demand more in these deals?) to the town if the project gets approved. The town board discussed parts of it at two work sessions in November. At the Dec. 10 work session, a resolution authorizing the supervisor to sign it, with the agreement attached, was in the board’s packet of resolutions to review and discuss in advance of the upcoming (Dec. 15) meeting. This was the first time the document was made public.

A funny thing happened to the agreement between the Dec. 10 work session and the Dec. 15 board meeting: A condition appeared in the document providing that NextEra’s payment to the town only happens if the project were to gain final site plan approval approval by the planning board on or before the impossible date of Feb. 4 — an impossible time frame because the site plan didn’t yet have a planning board public hearing or preliminary approval from the planning board.

One cannot help but wonder who was behind this devastating change. But when the town board learned of the change, during its Dec. 15 meeting — as they were about to vote on it — they turned to their town attorney. He said the document before them that afternoon was an older version of the agreement and he was “baffled” by how the older version got into the agenda packet for the Dec. 15 meeting.

The lone Democratic town board member then asked to table the matter, but the board pushed to delete the “baffling” change so it read as it did originally when the board had first reviewed it, have the supervisor sign off, and talk no more of it, publicly, anyway. Hush is the word always these days.

Had this not been discovered (everyone was allegedly in the dark about it except the “looks-good-to-me” supervisor), no one would have noticed it until it was too late. Then the payment to cash-strapped Riverhead, actually a pittance (South Fork towns haggle and get multi-millions for deals like this) would have just slipped away, as the deadline for the town’s approving NextEra’s project would be utterly impossible.

Most amazing is that the supervisor let it be known afterward that this mystery clause was fine with her, for the simple reason that, in her words, the change was “what the developer wanted.”

How did the supervisor not know that (or did she)? And given the town attorney’s bafflement at the agreement’s mysterious amendment, who put it there? Would NextEra’s (aka County GOP) attorney know? Would Riverhead have had to sue for the payment? Incidentally, Riverhead has not been shy about settling for less even after winning in court. You can’t make this up!

Along comes the Riverhead Republican committee’s nominating convention. A Riverhead Town councilman (another hidden development) was ready to challenge the supervisor for the party’s nod as its supervisor candidate in this November’s election. Further, according to sources, he had the votes to take the nomination from her by quite a margin.

But the county GOP elite would have none of that. Cranky and imperious, they strong-armed the councilman to back off, and they dispatched their (aka NextEra’s) attorney to the town the convention, attended by many via Zoom. The reason? To act as parliamentarian and make sure the proceedings followed all the rules and votes were correctly tabulated, of course. Or was it really to make sure any challenge to the county’s preferred supervisor candidate — the incumbent supervisor — was snuffed out? One can imagine the parliamentary tricks he had up his sleeve. The councilman’s name was not even put in nomination. Furtive texts bubbled from many a cell phone that night.

So let’s reflect on this for a moment. Here’s the attorney for the huge solar panel project, wearing his hat as the county committee counsel, front and center at the Riverhead Town GOP convention, attended by Riverhead planning board and town board members and the town attorney — who were deciding the fate of his solar client’s application. If nothing else, this arrangement certainly looks terrible.

The time has come for Riverhead Town Hall to do two things.

Open up the processes — all of them. And start to assert yourselves as the leaders the people have every right to expect you to be. Simply thank the county bosses and their attorneys, for their input, and politely tell them to shove off.

Change the way you receive public input, and have night meetings to allow more of Riverhead’s citizens and especially working people to tune in. And open up Town Hall just as schools, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters have at long last opened to the public. People have asked this often at board meetings, but the board, protected by the make-your-statement-and-shut-up rule, as with so many issues raised by the public, responds with no more than the usual “Thank you, your time is up, next speaker, please.” Really?

“The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done…” said Abe Lincoln.

Maybe Town Hall should man up and tell the endless stream of pressure agents that the people don’t really need the wares they peddle — the hundreds of acres of commercial solar facilities to power distant mansions where local zoning prohibits these unsightly solar “farms,” or the acres of automobile storage, or absurd IDA tax “abatements,” sand mines that keep on trucking and who-knows-what at EPCAL (sold for a song)— with everything decided behind the scenes and presented to the public after it’s already a done deal: Thank you for your service, but can’t you see that enough is enough?

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg