Residents at the Heart of Riverhead civic group's first meeting on May 13. Photo: Alek Lewis

Prospective members of Riverhead’s new downtown civic association on Saturday laid out their vision for the civic’s role in the town, including maintaining their neighborhoods’ beauty and collectively advocating for residents in town government.

Around 40 people gathered in the Riverhead Free Library meeting room for the organizational meeting of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, where cofounders Cindy Clifford, Juan Micieli-Martinez and Steven Kramer addressed the crowd on why they created the organization.

“For me, and probably for a lot of us, we have chosen this as our home. I mean, some people maybe are here by default, but the majority of us might come by default and then stay because there’s something about Riverhead that’s really special,” Clifford said. ”We invest in it with our lives, we raise our families, we build friendships, and Riverhead becomes part of our identity, who we are.”

Clifford went around the room calling on attendees and asking them what their thoughts were for issues the civic could tackle.

Many of the speakers at the meeting identified litter as a key issue for the downtown area and suggested organizing cleanups. 

Eric Raynor suggested the civic association could communicate with the highway superintendent to do a joint cleanup of town roads.

Others want the civic to be active as an advocate in Town Hall.

“So we need to have a voice to stand up, and not just be me standing up there at a podium and saying I object, that there’s more than me that says this isn’t right and what’s happening isn’t right,” Adele Wallach said. 

“I think this gives us an opportunity to help the town board have a better sense of what we as the residents want,” Clifford said. “Because I don’t know that there’s a way for them necessarily, unless they knock on every door, to find out what we’re thinking. So we’re kind of doing some of the work for them.”

Raynor, who said he was previously involved with the Flanders Riverside Northampton Civic Association, said the civic association could also schedule meet-and-greets with members of the government and police department to discuss different issues of concern. He said the civic even had the ambulance company come in to teach how to administer the opioid overdose treatment drug Narcan and distributed free Narcan kits to the community.

Sarah Christ said she would like the civic to help inform its members about lesser publicized events that have neighborhood impact, like fire district elections, which she remembered she didn’t know about years ago, even though she kept up with news and government.

In the audience of the organizational meeting were Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio and former Councilman James Wooten. 

Noticeably absent from the crowd of the meeting were Latino and Black residents of downtown Riverhead. The census designated place of Riverhead, which also encompasses neighborhoods north of the civic’s stated “territory” has a 15.4% Black population and 26.2% Latino population. 

Kramer said in an interview Wednesday that in addition to giving media interviews, the cofounders did social media outreach and some local canvassing to spread the word about the meeting. For outreach to the Latino community, the group communicated with the East End Spanish language news website Tu Prensa Local and Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, Kramer said. He acknowledged there is a lot more work to do if they want to bring those populations’ voices into the civic. 

“We need to figure out access, we need to figure out who we need to talk to, and we need to find out a way to attract members of those communities, because we’re a diverse community here and we need all those voices,” Kramer said. “We just can’t speak from one perspective. We’ve got some definite work to do in that area, and we’ve identified that already.”

The Heart of Riverhead Civic Association is also being created at a time where town officials are questioning civic associations’ legitimacy as a representative bodies of the communities they speak for. Most recently, town board members agreed to schedule a public hearing on a zoning change in Wading River, dismissing the Wading River Civic Association’s opposition to the change, with some board members stating their belief that the civic did not represent the broader Wading River community. 

Kramer said it will be the goal of the civic association to represent all of downtown.

“My own personal takeaway is that broadsides against civic associations and leadership of civic associations, that doesn’t do anything to benefit the town,” he said. “The town leadership should be looking to work with civic associations and not to denigrate their importance, because there’s a significant number of people that are participating in these groups.”

Also in attendance at the meeting was Anthony Niosi, a principal in Niosi Firearms Development, which is planning to move to a vacant space in the former Trutech facility at the corner of Elton and East Main streets. During the conversation, when Wallach made a comment about the Town Board not being representative of the opinions of the community at large, Niosi criticized her comment.

“If they’re elected, therefore they must represent somebody’s opinion, even if it’s not yours or mine,” he said.

Niosi did not identify himself to the group and said he was looking to open an ice cream shop in town. He did not mention his firearms business.

Kramer said in an interview that Niosi’s interaction with the civic association was “disingenuous.”

“I don’t live in an area where I believe there’s going to be any direct impacts from that project, but there are people that live in very close proximity to that proposed project and those people should have a say in the matter,” said Kramer, who also got into a heated conversation with Niosi in Facebook comments online after he pointed out Niosi’s company gave $1,000 to Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s political campaign committee.

“I didn’t want to hijack their meetings. I was only there to listen,” Niosi said in an interview on why he did not disclose his identity to the group. He also said he felt Clifford “singled him out,” although it appeared during the meeting that Clifford was picking on attendees at random during the discussion.

The civic association’s next meeting will be held on Wednesday, June 15 from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. at Riverhead Free Library.

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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: [email protected]