The town board at its Aug. 17 meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The appointment of a Jamesport man to fill a vacancy on the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals was criticized by residents at last Tuesday night’s town board meeting and drew opposition from Councilwoman Catherine Kent.

Kent cast the lone vote in opposition to the appointment of Daniel Zaweski to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Frank Seabrook, whose term was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2024. Seabrook, who has served on the Zoning Board of Appeals since March 2010, was reappointed to a new five-year term last year.

Kent complained that the process for naming a new ZBA member was not “open” and that the town board should have solicited resumes from the community at large.

“I think this is another situation where the public has been cut out of this process. We could have opened this up to the public, had them submit resumes and interview them. And instead, just one person is being appointed,” Kent said.

“This is no reflection on that person at all. I don’t have anything against the applicant that’s in the resolution,” she said. “I just think that there should be a procedure that’s followed. I think it’s more of a progressive way to do things.” Kent sought to table the resolution but her motion to table did not receive a second. Kent then cast the only vote against the resolution appointing Zaweski, which passed 4-1.

A handful of residents spoke against the resolution for similar reasons.

The appointment process perpetuates an existing lack of diversity in town government, said Riverhead resident Ellen Hoil, who is a frequent critic of the town board and a candidate, with Kent, on the Democratic ticket for town office this year. Kent is running for town supervisor and Hoil is running for tax assessor.

Hoil said the appointment shows the town board is not interested in diversity in Town Hall, where, she said, “all your boards are made up of white males.”

That rankled Councilman Tim Hubbard. “I was born that way, Ellen, sorry,” Hubbard interrupted.

Hoil also said the failure to post the opening violated the rules of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because the ZBA position is a paid position.

“As a paid government position it has to be an open process, according to the EEOC,” Hoil said.

“The board appoints this position,” Hubbard told her. “Every person we hire in this town is a paid position. Should we bring every one of them here — C’mon, Ellen, get real,” Hubbard told her.

He also maintained that proceeding as Hoil suggested meant “we would hire somebody or put somebody in this position because they have a different skin color.” He said the person being appointed was “highly qualified.”

The board did not provide any information about Zaweski’s background or qualifications to the public. According to his page on the social media site Linked In, Zaweski is a manager at PSEG Long Island and has a background in the electric energy industry dating back to 1989.

John McAuliff of Riverhead, another frequent critic of the board’s actions, said the board has made other “partisan” choices for positions without any public process or discussion. He said the town board should improve the process by opening it up and making a “serious comparative choice.”

Kathy McGraw of Northville also criticized the process. “How will Town government ever become inclusionary if handpicked candidates are quietly selected for such jobs? Both the Planning Board and ZBA are made up exclusively of white males. Hard to believe in this day and age the people of Riverhead will tolerate this kind of ‘good old boy’ system,” McGraw wrote in an Aug. 14 email to the town board.

But executive session and/or party caucus discussions and agreements on planning board and ZBA appointments have been the rule rather than the exception in Riverhead for a long time. Local civic organizations and environmental groups nearly a decade ago implored the town board to adopt an open process for appointments to the planning board and ZBA.

In a letter dated Oct. 9, 2012, the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, joined by the Wading River, Calverton and Jamesport civics as well as the Group for the East End and the North Fork Environmental Council, asked the town board to set minimum qualifications for appointees to the planning board or ZBA and to institute a policy of public interviews of candidates for open positions on the boards.

“In order to serve on either the Planning Board or ZBA, we believe an appointee should possess some very basic qualifications. At the very least, all appointees should have two years of experience dealing with land use issues from any number of a variety of perspectives including, but not limited to, as a: planner, architect, engineer, former official, civic leader, and/or environmentalist,” the organizations wrote. “Both boards should be comprised of members with a broad range of relevant backgrounds so that different perspectives and areas of expertise are represented.”

The groups asked the board to establish a public interview process, but town board members rejected that idea out of hand, saying those are personnel matters that shouldn’t be discussed in public.

In an interview today, Kent said the ZBA post is a “key position” in the town because the ZBA by law has the authority to provide “relief” from the town’s zoning code to property owners who seek to use or build on property in ways that don’t conform to the zoning code. Such relief is known as a variance and the ZBA can grant variances to nearly all zoning code requirements, including allowed uses, setbacks, lot coverage and more.

On Feb. 19, 2020, at the meeting where the town board reappointed Seabrook to a new five-year term, it also appointed a new member to the ZBA, former Suffolk County Court Judge Ralph Gazzillo. Kent abstained from that vote after saying the town should solicit resumes for ZBA and planning board positions and change the selection process. She said in the future she would vote no on board appointments that came about by a closed-door process.

Kent said today Hubbard handed her Zaweski’s resume during a recent executive session and told her Zaweski would be appointed to fill the vacancy on the ZBA.

Kent said until then she had not been aware there was a vacancy on the ZBA. She had not seen any letter of resignation, she said — and as of today still has not seen any resignation from Seabrook.

Seabrook’s resignation letter is not on file with the town clerk’s office, Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm said today. “We never received it,” she said.

The town board had not passed a resolution accepting Seabrook’s resignation prior to last week’s appointment to fill the vacancy. The resolution appointing Zaweski did not mention a resignation or otherwise explain the vacancy. It merely stated there was “a vacancy created by Frank Seabrook, set to expire on December 31, 2024.” (Sic)

Seabrook today confirmed he had indeed resigned from the ZBA position “last month or the month before.” He said he couldn’t remember the exact date. He sent his resignation to the town supervisor’s office, Seabrook said.

Kent questioned whether the failure to file Seabrook’s resignation with the town clerk means the resignation was not effective. That would mean the town board filled a position that wasn’t vacant, Kent said.

New York State Public Officers Law says town officers “may resign their offices to the town clerk” or to the presiding officer of the body that appointed them, in which case the resignation “shall be filed with the clerk.”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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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.