The Riverhead Republican Committee's slate of candidates for town offices, from left: Receiver of Taxes Laurie Zaneski, Assessors Dana Brown and Meredith Lipinsky, council candidate Denise Merrifield, Council Member Tim Hubbard, supervisor candidate, council candidate Joann Waski, Town Justice Lori Hulse and town clerk candidate James Wooten. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead Republican Committee has picked its slate of candidates in this year’s local election, tapping Council Member Tim Hubbard for town supervisor, Joann Waski and Denise Merrifield for council, James Wooten for town clerk and incumbents for re-election to the positions of tax assessor, tax receiver and town justice.

The committee meeting took place in the meeting room at the Riverhead VFW Post Monday evening.

Riverhead school district trustee Brian Connelly, who had screened for designation as a council candidate, withdrew his name from consideration on Monday morning, screening committee chairperson Victor Prusinowski told committee members before the voting got underway. Connelly changed his mind about running for Town Board because of his commitments as a New York City firefighter and as school board president, according to Prusinowski.

Connelly’s withdrawal left the committee with only one position in contention, the office of town clerk, which was sought by Wooten and Diane Tucci and settled in Wooten’s favor by a roll-call vote.

The other votes were all taken by acclamation, with committee members calling out their agreement as a group after a candidate’s name was placed in nomination by a committee member.

Before the voting began, Prusinowski thanked Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who decided not to seek re-election this year, for “doing a tremendous job.” Aguiar announced her decision to bow out in a video conference with staff and supporters on Friday evening, Feb. 3, followed by a press release.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead supervisor bows out: Aguiar announces she will not seek a third term of office

“The town has come a long way under her leadership, together with the Town Board working together,” Prusinowski said. “We want to thank her for her service. It’s a thankless job to put yourself forward to serve,” he said, “so we want to thank her and wish her well for her future. And I think she’s she’s done a great job for us,” Prusinowski said.

The committee members present then moved through the formal process of nominating and voting for their candidates, with a number of members absent and voting by signed proxies.

After the votes were recorded, Hubbard spoke to the committee, thanking them for their support and pledging to work for the good of the town if elected supervisor.

Council Member Tim Hubbard, candidate for town supervisor, speaks to the Republican committee on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Hubbard, a 32-year member of the Riverhead Police Department who attained the rank of detective first grade, retired from the force in 2014. In 2015, he was elected to the Town Board and was re-elected in 2019. His term as a council member ends this year.

“I’ve been your town councilman for the past seven years. During those seven years I have had the honor and privilege — and sometimes not the honor and privilege — of working under three different supervisors in the town. From working under those three supervisors, I feel that I’ve learned what I refer to as ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the supervisor’s office,” he said. “The bad, we’re getting rid of. The ugly, we’re going to forget about, and the good is what I’m going to use to move on forward with this town.”

Aguiar “has set the table for a lot of things to happen in this town,” Hubbard said. “We have many irons in the fire, from the set, possible pending sale of EPCAL, the completion and development of the town square, the TOD district on Railroad Avenue, and certainly very important, too, is the completion of our comprehensive plan,” he said. “I plan to see all of those items through. We want them to come to fruition.”

Hubbard said he does not have “personal agendas” and always looks “at the big picture and what’s best for the Town of Riverhead.” He will continue to do that in the supervisor’s office, he said.

A lifelong Aquebogue resident is the father of five and grandfather of two. He is a Riverhead High School graduate and studied criminal justice at Suffolk Community College before entering the police academy and becoming a town police officer. He was a member of the street crime unit, an advanced crime prevention officer and commanding officer of the department’s juvenile aid bureau. He also ran the Riverhead Police Athletic League for over 20 years.

Council candidates Waski and Merrifield also addressed the committee.

Joann Waski, candidate for Town Board, speaks to the Republican committee on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“Everybody that knows me knows that I love Riverhead,” Waski said. “And when I say Riverhead, I’m talking about all of Riverhead, from Wading River, Calverton, Baiting Hollow, Northville, Jamesport, Aquebogue — all of Riverhead. It is my promise to help everyone within the town,” said Waski, who was appointed chairperson of the Riverhead Planning Board in November 2021.

“I believe that my time on the Planning Board has really allowed me to see more into what goes on to make things happen and to be a part of what Tim — soon to be supervisor — Hubbard has to say with the vision of Riverhead going forward. I am ecstatic to be a part of it,” Waski said. “I know how much goes into into all of this, and I thank you for allowing me this opportunity.”

Waski, president of Peconic Abstract, a family-owned title abstract company in Riverhead, is a Riverhead High School graduate and attended Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts for business administration. In addition to her position on the Planning Board, she is a member and current chairperson of the town’s Board of Assessment Review. Waski also serves on the boards of the North Fork Animal Welfare League and Heidi’s Helping Angels. She is a former member and vice chairperson of the Riverhead Republican Committee.

Waski, a Jamesport resident, is married to a retired Riverhead Police detective and is the mother of three adult children.

Denise Merrifield, Town Board candidate, speaks to the Republican committee on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Merrifield told the committee she promises to “fully support Riverhead and Tim’s agenda.”

A retired Suffolk County assistant district attorney with 20 years of service, including three years as deputy bureau chief of the major crime bureau and seven years as deputy bureau chief of the child abuse and domestic violence bureau, Merrifield promised “to give that same dedication to this position — my full, undivided attention to support everyone in this community.”

“I feel that as a lawyer, I have effective communication skills, that I will help bring people around during our meetings, conducted in a very professional manner, and I will help everyone move our agenda forward,” Merrifield said. “I’m very excited to be part of the team, and thank you all for your support.”

Aguiar named Merrifield deputy supervisor just before her 2020 inauguration. Merrifield took office on Jan. 1, 2020 but resigned after just two weeks. She did not respond to a reporter’s call seeking comment at the time. Aguiar, who acknowledged she was surprised by the decision, said Merrifield had decided to pursue teaching law.

Merrifield is an adjunct professor at Touro College — Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, a position she has held since the 2020 fall semester.

Merrifield earned her law degree from Albany Law School in 1986 and a bachelor’s degree in political science, with honors, from Stony Brook University in 1983.

She is a 25-year resident of Wading River.

James Wooten, candidate for Town Clerk, speaks to the Republican committee on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Former Councilman James Wooten, who won the committee’s support in the only roll-call vote at the meeting, told the committee the position of town clerk “really is about public image.”

“It’s about meeting and dealing with the public on a one-on-one whatever their issues are, whether it’s licensing, whether it’s special permits coming in or special event permits,” Wooten said.

“It’s about record management. That really is what the town clerk is all about, record management. I love the history of this town. I love everything about this town,” Wooten said.

“It really is where I belong. I think it’s a nice fit,” said Wooten, who served 12 years as a council member before being term-limited in 2020. “I appreciate the opportunity. I won’t let you down, I promise you.”

If elected, Wooten would be the first male town clerk in Riverhead in 60 years, when Anthony Gadzinski held the position. In November 1963, Helene Block became the first woman elected town clerk.

Diane Tucci, who was defeated by Wooten in last night’s roll-call vote in which she received less than 15% of the weighted votes cast, thanked the committee for considering her candidacy. Tucci, who unsuccessfully ran for Town Board as a Democrat in 2019, told the committee she knew she had “an uphill battle” after “running on the other team.” But, she said, “I am committed to showing you all I belong here with the Republicans,” she said, promising to work to get the slate elected.

Current Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm, currently the only elected Democrat in town government, is not seeking re-election. She has decided to retire, Riverhead Town Democratic Committee Chairperson Laura Jens-Smith said.

Democrats held candidate interviews this weekend, Jens-Smith said in a phone interview this morning.

“We’ve completed our screening and will have a decision by the end of the week,” Jens-Smith said.

The town Democratic committee will not have a convention this year, she said. The committee has voted to have the executive committee, which conducted the screening interviews, to designate the committee’s candidates, she said. It’s an unusual move.

“I checked with the county [Democratic committee] to make sure we can do it this way,” Jens-Smith said.

Jens-Smith declined to say who interviewed for the Democratic committee’s backing to run for town office.

“We’ve had a lot of interest,” she said.

Fielding solid candidates to run for the three open seats on the Town Board — supervisor and two council positions — has been the Democrats’ focus, she said. It’s unusual that there is no incumbent seeking re-election in all three board positions.

Jens-Smith, who was elected supervisor in 2017, in the middle of Hubbard’s first four-year term, served with him for two years before she was unseated by Aguiar in 2019. Jens-Smith tapped Hubbard as her deputy supervisor upon taking office in January 2018.

Today, she said she believes Hubbard doesn’t have what it takes to lead the town.

“He wants to be supervisor but couldn’t get three votes to support even holding a public hearing on one of the most important votes the board faced, whether to impose a moratorium pending completion of the comprehensive plan update,” Jens-Smith said.

“Either he didn’t really try or was completely ineffective,” she said.

Jens-Smith also pointed to the $40 million sale of the town’s 1,644 acres of vacant industrial land to Calverton Aviation and Technology — a deal she has opposed from the beginning — as an example of what she called Hubbard’s failure to lead. First, Hubbard opposed the sale and after a year of hand-wringing — and a private meeting between Giglio and Triple Five Group principals in New York City, “he flipped,” Jens-Smith said.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead green-lights Triple Five land deal at EPCAL

Hubbard last night predicted a Republican sweep in November.

Aguiar said this morning, “The committee selected the most qualified and logical candidates.”

Committee members, candidates and their supporters in both parties will begin the process of gathering signatures on petitions to make their designation as the party’s candidates official. Signature-gathering can begin on Feb. 28.

All petitions must be filed with the Suffolk County Board of Elections by April 6.

In the event any of the offices are contested, the party nomination for the contested office will be determined in a party primary election on June 27.

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