Riverhead planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree at a November 2018 public hearing. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead Board of Ethics has found no violation of the town’s ethics code by planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree in connection with his employment as a planning consultant by a developer in Riverside, according to a written opinion by the ethics board dated April 30.

Murphree has a contractual right to accept outside employment on matters outside the Town of Riverhead, the ethics board said. It found no evidence that Murphree’s work for the developer of a gas station and convenience store in Riverside conflicted with his official duties as Riverhead’s planning and building administrator.

Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association president Vince Taldone filed a complaint with the Riverhead ethics board after Murphree’s appearance before the Southampton Planning Board on behalf of 9-11 Flanders Road, the owner of property on the Route 24 traffic circle. The owner seeks to build a 7-Eleven gas station and convenience store on the site, which is presently developed with a long-vacant gas station.

In his complaint, dated April 8, Taldone alleged that Murphree’s work for the developer conflicted with his duties as a planner in Riverhead because, he alleged, the proposed use does not conform to the goals os the Riverside Action Plan adopted by Southampton Town and contradicts the Town of Riverhead’s downtown revitalization goals to establish a walkable community.

The complaint said the goals of the two towns are interconnected, but the ethics board said the complaint did not “cite or reference any legislation, resolution, policy, ordinance, rule or other provision of town code adopted by the Riverhead Town Board memorializing or otherwise codifying such efforts – particularly the suggestion of efforts toward interconnected development between downtown Riverhead and the Riverside area.”

Riverhead Town has no independent jurisdiction over land development proposals in the Town of Southampton, the board said, and thought it may be an “interested party” entitled to review and comment on certain proposals made on sites adjacent to its boundaries, Riverhead Town did not submit any comments in connection with Southampton’s consideration of the Riverside Action Plan, which was adopted in 2015, or its implementation of zoning code amendments to implement the plan.

Further, “in conducting its review of the gas station proposal pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), “depending on how the project is ultimately classified, it is this board’s understanding that the Town of Southampton could, but is not required to refer the proposal to the Town of Riverhead for non-binding comments as an “interested agency,” the board wrote.

“It appears to this board that the complaint submitted advances an ipso facto argument suggesting that because the Town of Riverhead makes efforts to encourage pedestrian traffic in downtown Riverhead, the construction of a convenience store and gas station in a neighboring town must be inconsistent with those efforts,” the board said in the opinion.

The ethics board said Murphree’s 2012 employment contract with the Town of Riverhead does not prevent him from accepting private work as a planning expert outside of the Town of Riverhead and engaging in such work on his own time.

In a response to the complaint dated April 11, which the board said was submitted in the form of a request for an advisory opinion, Murphree stated that the applicant-property owners have no applications pending before any Riverhead Town board or agency, according to the ethics board opinion.

“Murphree further states that all work performed on behalf of the developer is done outside of the hours during which he is engaged in duties arising from his employment by the Town of Riverhead,” the ethics board wrote. Murphree told the board he utilizes his home address, personal cell phone and personal equipment to complete all work in connection with the private work.

The board found that “there are no facts offered to establish that Mr. Murphree’s private representation in this instance violates” any provision of the Riverhead ethics code.

Murphree declined comment on the decision.

Taldone said he was not surprised by the outcome.

“The town’s ethics rules are so weak — allowing senior staff to work on just about anything as long as it is beyond the town’s border,” Taldone said. “The ethics board can only work with the rules it has.”

Riverhead needs to change its ethics rules to prevent this type of conflict from happening, Taldone said.

“The real zinger is that the ethics board stated that it is not the body that can determine whether the project, a mega 12-pump gas station and 7-Eleven, is a detriment to the town’s policy of support for a walkable, pedestrian friendly downtown,” Taldone said.

“That is exactly right and therein lies the obvious conflict,” he said. “The appropriate entity to comment on the planning issue at the gates of downtown is Riverhead’s planning department,” Taldone said.

Taldone said that is the essence of Murphree’s conflict. The town official who would prepare comments for the town, as an interested party, on the development proposal at hand is working for the developer, Taldone said.

“Should we ask him for an official town letter in opposition. How would that work out?” Taldone asked.

“The Riverhead Town Board should immediately amend the ethics rules to prohibit any employees from working on projects outside the jurisdiction of the town that may have some impact on the town or where the official might be called upon to weigh in on that impact,” he said.

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