The entrance to Riverhead Town Hall has been closed off with a pressboard wall and a noncommercial interior door since March 2020.

Lately, when I watch Riverhead Town Board meetings, I keep hearing the Twilight Zone theme song in my head. You know the one. That eery, creepy little tune that opened the show about a world that was just… off-kilter.

Week to week, I find myself at a loss for how to even report on what goes on at these meetings, because they make so little sense.

Enter Rod Serling: “You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: the Twilight Zone.”

Cue the creepy music.

If this seems a little stream-of-consciousness, it’s only because it is. I just finished viewing the live broadcast of the May 4 board meeting and I’m coping with that familiar I-think-my-head-might-explode-from-wandering-around-the-mirrored-rooms-of-this-fun house for the past couple hours.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with one simple proposition. Just because you say it’s so, doesn’t make it fact. And let’s go from there.

OPEN MEETINGS

The governor’s executive order 202.1, signed March 12, 2020, does not require government meetings to be closed to the public. It authorizes public officers to hold meetings that are otherwise required to be open to the public “remotely by conference call or similar service” (read:Zoom) provided the public has the ability to view or listen to the meetings “and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

The executive order leaves it up to the public body, with the caveat: “to the extent necessary.”

What’s the public health reason for keeping the public out of public meetings when the state has lifted gathering and capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters, catering halls and just about everything else?

And in case you’re wondering, does the county health department require it, even if the state doesn’t? I wondered, so I called and asked. The answer is no. This decision was made for Riverhead Town Hall by the Riverhead Town Supervisor. It may have been warranted a year ago, but it is no longer. The only purpose served, as far as I can tell, is the ability to hit the mute button when citizens ask too many questions and insist on answers.

And what about all the other public meetings that the public cannot attend in Riverhead — which are neither recorded nor transcribed? The Architectural Review Board, the Landmarks Committee, the Conservation Advisory Council, the Agricultural Advisory Committee, etc etc.

It’s worth noting that the Riverhead Board of Education has been holding open meetings for a while now.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Madam Supervisor, tear down that wall. (It violates fire code anyway.) Let the sunshine in.

ON EPCAL

The lawsuit against the DEC, authorized by resolution last month to overturn the DEC’s “notice of incomplete application” for the town’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act permit is a new, separate and distinct lawsuit from the one brought against the DEC in 2010 challenging the method by which the DEC adopted new regulations pertaining to the “incidental take” of threatened or endangered species.

The fact that the town has not prosecuted the 2010 action since 2015 in the hopes of using it as a bargaining chip as it seeks approval of the WSSSR permit doesn’t make the two lawsuits “the same” — regardless of the gymnastics performed on demand by a deputy town attorney. They are two different actions. If you’re wondering, all you need to do is read the resolutions authorizing both of them.

ALSO EPCAL

Stop saying the town can ask Triple Five for “updated financials.” This presupposes Triple Five provided financials to begin with. They did not. For a previous board, this was a major bone of contention. And a majority of the town board chose not to require it.

While on the subject of the financial wherewithal of the purchaser to perform its contractual obligations — to buy and develop the land according to the development plan written into the contract — various phrases have been bandied about on this topic.

We’ve heard that the town can ask the purchaser 30 days ahead of the closing to demonstrate it can close and develop the site.

Today we heard from the supervisor that the town has the right to a “forensic audit” of the purchaser prior to closing.

Where is this written? It’s surely not in the contract of sale. The agreement mentions nothing about the purchaser having to prove anything prior to closing, 30 days or otherwise. It certainly says nothing about a forensic or any other kind of audit. The agreement says:

“Purchaser has the financial ability and the skills and experience necessary to purchase and complete the development of the Property and to perform all of its obligations under this Agreement.” It is silent about proof — another example of how well this contract was written to protect the taxpayers’ interests. No court — outside of the Twilight Zone — is going to interpret this paragraph to require a “forensic audit” of the purchasers’ books and records.

EPCAL, AGAIN

The supervisor is correct in her conclusion that this contract leaves a lot to be desired.

But she’s dead wrong in her conclusion that her immediate predecessor had anything to do with how it was written, no matter how anxious she may be to blame her for it.

The EPCAL contract of sale Laura Jens-Smith signed in 2019 was essentially approved 3-2 in December 2017 by a lame-duck town board — with outgoing supervisor Sean Walter and outgoing councilman John Dunleavy casting two of the three votes to schedule a “qualified and eligible” hearing on the purchasers, Calverton Aviation & Technology. Former councilman Jim Wooten, who recently joined the supervisor’s office as an assistant, was the third vote.

You just can’t rewrite history. Either you’re being duplicitous or you really just don’t know what happened. Which is it?

ONE MORE THING ABOUT EPCAL

Yes, there are actually many more things about EPCAL, but they will keep. This next point will not.

Today, the supervisor, turning to building and planning administrator Jefferson Murpree said, “I understand that there is water for each eight subdivisions — there is water pipes laid out to go into each — lot. Is that true? It’s a huge expense. The water piping, the infrastructure for the eight-lot subdivision is already in place — you don’t have to move it. If you start changing lines — You want to elaborate on that a little bit?”

Murphree — though he owed it to fact-based decision-making and to the taxpayers who pay his salary to set the record straight — instead of contradicting the supervisor, simply changed the subject.

“I asked a very simple question of Dick Ehlers,” Murphree said, ostensibly in response to the supervisor’s request for confirmation of a completely off-the-wall statement. “I said, is the eight-lot the minimum that we can do. And he said, absolutely, it’s the most minimum subdivision that we can do on that property given all the the different facets that are going on with well fields, the sewer plant, all the town infrastructure that’s going in place, eight lots is the minimum, regardless of what we do with the property, eight lots is the minimum that we can do.”

Just to recap: The supervisor sought confirmation of something that is completely false. There is no “piping” already in place to serve the proposed eight-lot subdivision. There is no infrastructure already laid out.

And Murphree “confirmed” her cringe-worthy premise with a completely nonresponsive statement of his own — that didn’t make much sense either. For her part, the supervisor seemed content with his answer, replying with an “mmm-hmm” as if the town’s principal planning officer had indeed confirmed what she said about “piping” already in the ground to serve the proposed eight-lot subdivision.

This is right about when my head exploded.

I can’t take reporting on the Twilight Zone any more. I don’t want to travel through another dimension, “a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. “ I don’t want to take “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

I like planet Earth. I’m comfortable in a fact-based reality, where words aren’t ingredients in a tossed salad — where they actually mean something.

I don’t know how to “report” on life in an alternative reality. So when things go off the rails, from now on I’m going to take to the opinion page and call it out.

I couldn’t live with myself otherwise. Frankly, this town and its future mean too much to me to keep silent and pretend the Twilight Zone is a normal place.

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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.