Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree during a Sept. 15, 2022 Planning Board meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town has suspended Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree and appointed a hearing officer to rule on disciplinary charges brought against him.

The suspension will be for as long as it takes the hearing officer to complete the hearing, which is required by State Civil Service Law Section 75. The hearing officer can impose penalties ranging from a reprimand, suspension or demotion to dismissal.

A resolution authorizing the suspension was passed unanimously Wednesday night by the Town Board in a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar absent due to her attendance at a community meeting in Manorville regarding a public water extension. The resolution authorized up to 30 days of the suspension without pay. It did not specify the substance of the charges.

Murphree was not identified by name in the resolution, which recited only an employee number, but word of the action quickly spread throughout town government and in the community.

Council Member Tim Hubbard, who declined after the meeting Wednesday night to name the involved employee, today confirmed Murphree’s identity during a phone interview. He and other town officials would not discuss the substance of the charges, however, citing employee confidentiality.

Murphree has not responded to an email sent yesterday to his personal email address.

Murphree’s suspension comes at a time when the department he oversees, Riverhead’s Department of Land Management, is reviewing a large number of major — and controversial —development applications.

In addition, Murphree is overseeing the town’s comprehensive plan update, a process begun in early 2020 and then stalled by COVID and other circumstances. The update was recently rebooted with the hiring of a new planning consulting firm to replace the original firm hired by the Town Board in 2019 and terminated last year, with officials citing lack of adequate progress.

Hubbard acknowledged that the timing of Murphree being sidelined is difficult because of everything going on in town and the workload of his department. But he said he has every confidence in the abilities and work ethic of the planning department staff to handle the workload in a professional and efficient manner.

Aguiar agreed. “There has been no interruption in the planning department,” she said in a phone interview this afternoon. “And there will be no break in continuing the comprehensive plan process.”

Riverhead Community Development Administrator Dawn Thomas would step in to temporarily oversee administration in the Department of Land Management, both Hubbard and Aguiar said.

“It’s a temporary reorganization,” Aguiar said.

Thomas was off today and could not be reached for comment.

The Town Board also plans to hire an outside planner to come in as a consultant to oversee the comp plan update process, Hubbard said.

“We have identified a prospective outside consultant with the proper credentials and experience to temporarily serve as the subject matter expert in planning,” Aguiar said. Officials declined to identify the person, because the agreement is not yet finalized.

Article V of the Riverhead Town Code, which established the Department of Land Management in 2017, states that the town building and planning administrator, the civil service title Murphree holds, serves as the administrator of the Department of Land Management. If the town building and planning administrator is absent or unable to serve, the chief building inspector shall act as the executive officer and administrative head of the Department of Land Management, according to the code. Riverhead does not currently have a chief building inspector. It has a senior building inspector and two building inspectors.

The responsibilities of the building and planning administrator, which are set forth in the code, are many, including: establishing and implementing land use and development legislation, policies and programs; coordinating the efforts of the planning department, building department and fire marshal’s office during the review of development projects and programs; leading the implementation of the town’s comprehensive plan; serving as the town’s coordinator for the State Environmental Quality Review Act; and administering, supervising, managing, coordinating and enforcing the zoning laws and applicable local laws, ordinances and regulations of the town of Riverhead and applicable building codes.

The qualifications for the job, as spelled out by civil service law requirements, are extensive. Besides a bachelor’s or master’s degree in specified fields, plus a minimum of 4 to 6 years experience, the requirements include certification issued by the American Institute of Certified Planners, or a professional engineer’s or professional architect’s license issued by the State of New York, as well as completion of the basic training program, Minimum Standards for Code Enforcement Personnel, established by the State of New York.

Murphree, of Sag Harbor, was hired by Riverhead to the newly created position of building and planning administrator in July 2012. He was then director of environmental planning at VHB, the planning firm that was working for Riverhead at that time on updating the land use plan for the Calverton Enterprise Park. Prior to his employment by VHB, Murphree was a planning official with the Town of Southampton for 13 years. His current annual salary is $137,766.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information after an interview with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar.

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