File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead is up for sale.

We’ve seen the amounts raised and spent on Riverhead elections trending upward for a while now. But as out-of-town developers eye the fertile ground here, the influx of campaign cash keeps growing accordingly. 

Developers who want favorable results for their projects want to make sure the “right” officials are in positions of power in local government. They do what they can to ensure that’s the result of local elections. And that means contributing the legal maximum to their candidates of choice — or maybe more than the legal maximum, if nobody’s looking.

Who can blame them? And who can blame the candidates who open their campaign coffers to contributions from people seeking something in return? It’s the American way. 

We’ve all seen how money has polluted our political system — in Washington, in Albany and even in county government. Elected officials seeking re-election raise hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars from contributors willing to put up big bucks to help them get re-elected. 

Let’s not fool ourselves — or allow others to fool us — about how this giant influence-peddling operation works and how ordinary citizens and small businesses come up the big losers.

Developers, law firms, lobbyists and wealthy individuals aren’t dropping thousands of dollars on political campaigns just to be charitable. They expect a return on their investment. And they generally are not disappointed. Believe it — no matter how much the recipients of their generosity protest that campaign contributions don’t influence how they vote on matters that affect their contributors. 

So when we start seeing candidates for town office raising more than $100,000 to get elected in Riverhead — and we see the money flowing in from out-of-town developers and their consultants and promoters — we should be concerned.

We should be concerned when Rand Industrial of Denver, Colorado drops $4,000 in a Riverhead election — and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who received the donation, her biggest to date, says she doesn’t “particularly know” who it is or why they’re donating to her campaign and takes offense that we’re asking.

We should be concerned when HK Ventures, the developer of the biggest industrial proposal ever made in Riverhead, drops $5,000 into the coffers of the party committee that holds four of the five seats on the town board.

And we should be concerned when a paid lobbyist for NextEra Energy, a utility-scale commercial solar energy facility, gives $2,500 to the incumbent supervisor’s re-election campaign 10 days before the developer’s plan gained final town approvals.

But Supervisor Yvette Aguiar took great offense that we asked if campaign contributions might influence her decisions, complaining that some of our questions were meant to put her “on the spot.” Well, yeah. That’s our job. And it’s her job to answer, because we’re asking on behalf of the people who live here. 

But the supervisor told us it’s not appropriate to ask her these questions, because she is an elected official. We should, she said, ask her campaign treasurer — who is also her campaign manager, as well as her husband. 

I believe it is 100% appropriate to ask the candidate — especially an incumbent elected official — about who she’s taking campaign contributions from. 

This particular candidate has taken in almost $21,000 in contributions over her election limit from more than a dozen different businesses, on her way to raising more campaign cash than any other supervisor candidate since at least 2007, which is the oldest data the State Board of Elections online database includes for Riverhead Town races. (Jodi Giglio twice raised a bit more than Yvette’s $111,000-plus in town council races.)

Be that as it may, I’m just a reporter, not a law enforcement officer. I’ll do my job to let the public know the facts, regardless of who doesn’t like it, and leave it up to the people charged with enforcing the laws to do theirs. 

Ultimately, though, they are all part of the same system that works to the advantage of people in power — regardless of party affiliation — at the expense of the rest of us. Public campaign financing would go a long way toward fixing this broken system, but that’s not about to happen because the broken system benefits those same people.

The current supervisor’s fundraising is but one example of how big money donors worm their way even into local politics in a small town like Riverhead. And make no mistake: she is not the first. It’s been the trend in Riverhead for a while and it’s only going to grow, as developers like international conglomerates and big energy companies sink their hooks into Riverhead.

This is how our political system “works.” So, when applications are inexplicably fast-tracked, while the comprehensive plan languishes and the codification of new downtown zoning and updated parking district rules fade into oblivion, ask yourself “Who benefits?”

As former Supervisor Jimmy Stark used to tell me, “Follow the money, pal. Follow the money.” 

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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.