Riverhead Town Board meetings have been closed to in-person public attendance since April 2020 under the town supervisor's state of emergency declaration. Image: Video screenshot

On May 4, I signed on to the Town Board meeting by Zoom and asked to speak both on resolutions and in the open comments section of the meeting. I got to speak on a resolution but was not called upon in the open comments section. I called the clerk’s office to register my complaint.

Ironically, I intended to speak about the curtailment of opportunity for public involvement in town governance.

The comments I would have made are as follow:

Supervisor Aguiar, is Town Hall going to reopen on May 19 in light of the lifting of COVID restrictions by Governor Cuomo? If not, why not? It’s understandable that some restrictions had to be made due to COVID, but Supervisor Aguiar, you have taken it too far: You have effectively shut down open government in Riverhead. There is no longer opportunity for meaningful input from Riverhead residents and that needs to change.

Some examples:

The five-minute limit on Zoom allows for no give and take with Town Board members. We speak, we are muted, and our questions may or may not be answered. There is virtually no chance for follow up from the public. Moreover, all kinds of misstatements by board members go unchallenged because the public cannot speak once muted.

Town Board meetings are held only at 2 p.m. If there ever was a legitimate reason for this, it no longer exists. Folks who work during the day can’t participate. This needs to change. The Planning Board alternates 2 and 7 p.m. Why can’t the Town Board?

The Town Board is supposed to operate by means of resolution where the public has a chance to comment. Of late, all too often the actions being approved by resolutions have already happened and the Town Board is merely ratifying a “done deal.” Today, resolution 2021-315 ratified authorizing the supervisor to enter into a contract with Comcast. It was a contract the supervisor had already signed days earlier! Without Town Board approval, she had no authority to sign that contract. Another example is resolution 2021-239 which authorized retention of Frank Isler’s law firm to prepare and file a lawsuit against the N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation — no doubt a hefty expenditure for the Town. This resolution was presented and approved on April 6, but Mr. Isler had already prepared and filed the lawsuit on March 17. This isn’t how our government is supposed to work. The Town Board is supposed to authorize, then act, not act and then authorize after the fact.

The town has become hopelessly dilatory in responding to Freedom of Information requests. We used to get a response within seven days. Now the acknowledgment states that due to COVID, offices are closed and staff has limited access to records, so they “hope” to respond within 20 business days. This is nonsensical. Everyone is working at Town Hall and COVID is just an excuse to delay timely responses to the public.

In sum, I ask you, Supervisor, to stop hiding behind COVID and open up Town Hall on May 19. We are supposed to be living in a democracy, not an autocracy. You need to enable the people of Riverhead to fully participate in local government, and you need to conduct the town’s business openly — not behind closed doors with ratification after the fact.

Kathleen McGraw is a lifelong part-time resident of Northville.

Editor’s note: The “In My Opinion” column is open to anyone who wants to submit a viewpoint on any topic. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not reflect the point of view of RiverheadLOCAL’s publishers. We welcome submissions. Be sure to include your email address and daytime phone number. Click here to submit your opinion.

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