Highway Superintendent George Woodson at the town yard waste site on Youngs Avenue in August 2020. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The standoff over loose leaf pickup in Riverhead has escalated: The Town Board Wednesday approved a resolution ordering Highway Superintendent George Woodson to complete loose leaf pickup by the end of the month.

The resolution says the board directs the highway superintendent to assign highway personnel and equipment to undertake and complete loose leaf pickup on or before Nov. 30.

The resolution states the highway superintendent has performed the service for decades, as far back as 1968 under then-Highway Superintendent Alex Horton, based on research from the town attorney’s office. 

It also says that, based on an opinion by Financial Administrator William Rothaar, the highway department’s budget “reflected costs for not only personnel to perform this function but the purchase of equipment and material to perform loose leaf pickup.”

“This is an issue that has been raised for over a year and the board, most of the board, is in agreement they should be picked up,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said. “And hopefully today — and I’ve always said it — hopefully today is going to end this saga.”

The argument between Woodson and the board to conduct the pickup has been going on for years, with Woodson arguing that picking up leaves that have been removed from private property is not a highway department function, but a sanitation function. The cost of the loose leaf program should be paid out of the general fund, not the highway fund, Woodson said. State law requires highway fund moneys be spent only on highway functions. The town’s municipal trash collection contract requires the contractor to pickup bagged leaves from residences within the town’s garbage districts.

Woodson previously said his position is based on the opinion of David Orr, the director of New York’s Local Technical Assistance Program, which is part of the Federal Highway Administration and runs out of Cornell University. Orr said in an interview in September the issue comes down to whether or not the pickup benefits the town’s highways.

Woodson agreed to take care of the pickup last year with the understanding that the highway department would not be responsible for it in 2021. Woodson said he could do the leaf pickup if the highway department was reimbursed for the cost of the work, which he said totaled around $400,000. 

Woodson did not attend the town board meeting and did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Deputy Town Attorney Anne Marie Prudenti said the town has gotten calls from residents, who she said are misinformed, saying that the board are the ones who have refused to continue the loose leaf pickup. Aguiar added that somebody had “misinformed the public intentionally,” but did not refer to a specific person.

“There’s a safety issue with cars sliding and people falling on wet leaves and we need to address this,” Aguiar said. “This is our fiduciary responsibility, is for the safety of the public and providing the services that they pay for.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, cast the dissenting vote. The resolution was adopted 3-1, with Councilman Tim Hubbard absent.

Kent said that since the 1960s the population of the town has more than doubled, leaving more leaves to pick up. She said the money for the leaf pickup should be paid out of the general fund. 

She also said she was “stunned at the way Mr. Woodson’s name has been disparaged” in town hall over the last few months with personal attacks, which Kent called “bullying.” 

“That was some drama,” Aguiar said in response to Kent’s comments.

“That’s not drama, that is just me speaking my mind,” Kent said.

“It’s a service that the people want. It’s not bullying, it’s just asking for the job to get done that has always been done in years past,” said Councilman Ken Rothwell, who said Woodson has not come to the town board to discuss the pickup. Woodson refused to speak to the board in September.

Rothwell also said he didn’t “know what the current population growth has to do with the number of leaves that are falling.” Aguiar agreed. 

“If there are more people, there are more citizens that were taken care of,” Kent replied. She said after the meeting she was referring to residents who raked the leaves from their yards into the street to get picked up by the town. 

Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who voted yes on the resolution, said Woodson is a personal friend and that he shares Woodson’s concerns about the “logistical issues” of the pickup and where the leaves will be delivered. “But I do disagree with him when it comes to the service being necessary,” he said. “I just would hope that in the last six or seven weeks of his illustrious career, he would have a change of heart, but knowing Gio, he probably won’t.”

“Gio is still a good buddy of mine and he’s done a wonderful job throughout his career, and I would never disparage him personally, or the way he’s operated,” Beyrodt said.

“And I totally agree,” Aguiar said. “It’s not a matter of personal attack, we are just asking for the responsibilities of the highway department to be carried out and we thank you for your service to Gio,” she said.

Rothwell requested that Woodson post a schedule for the pickup on his website as soon as possible for residents’ benefit. 

Neither the resolution nor the board majority addressed what would happen if the highway superintendent ignores the board’s direction. The town board could potentially hire an outside contractor for the work and, since it has the power of the purse in town government, charge the highway fund for the expense.

With Woodson retiring Dec. 31, he won’t be around to dispute the issue much longer. Deputy Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski was elected to succeed Woodson. In a phone call yesterday, Zaleski declined comment until he takes office in January.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com