Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree at his disciplinary hearing April 17. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town is seeking the termination of Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree for insubordination, incompetence and other disciplinary charges leveled against him.

During a disciplinary hearing today, the town laid out the charges against the department head, which stem from incidents including his alleged mismanagement of Riverhead’s long-delayed comprehensive plan update, and for not apologizing — after being directed to do so by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar — for comments made at a Greater Jamesport Civic Association meeting.

Aguiar, who brought the disciplinary action against Murphree on March 21, testified during the first day of the hearing. 

Murphree — who requested the hearing be open to the public — denies the charges. His attorney, Gerard Glass, reserved his opening statement for the presentation of Murphree’s case at a later date. Murphree also did not submit an answer to the charges, which is optional.

“Mr. Murphree has been charged with multiple counts of insubordination, misconduct, neglect of duty and incompetence due to his admitted lack of knowledge about the Town of Riverhead, for which he is in charge of land management issues,” Rich Zuckerman, the town’s labor attorney, said. “He is charged with his admitted lack of interest in learning about the Town of Riverhead and his actual pride, in not learning and knowing about some of the things that are most important to him and his role as the town’s building and planning administrator, at least from the town’s perspective.”

The incident Zuckerman referred to was when Murphree, as a guest at a Greater Jamesport Civic Association Zoom meeting in February 2022, said he never personally experienced the heavy traffic on Sound Avenue on a fall weekend and did not want to experience it. He said he also hasn’t experienced the town’s beaches or wineries.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead’s top planner says he’s never experienced weekend traffic on Sound Avenue or visited town beaches and wineries

“Mr. Murphree is charged with misrepresentations and failing to truthfully advise the Town Board about the status of the Comprehensive Plan and the reasons for delay after delay after delay, in terms of implementing the town’s updates to the plan,” Zuckerman continued. “Mr. Murphree is charged with causing consultants to be fired and the implementation of the plan to be interminably delayed, even though at least part of those delays were due to his own actions and inactions, to the point where he even suggested at one point that the town’s deputy supervisor, Ms. Higgins, who he knew or should have known, was not trained or qualified to do it, should take on his job in implementing the comprehensive plan.”

Riverhead Town began the update to its comprehensive in early 2020 after the hiring of planning consultants AKRF, with a target completion date of August 2021. Murphree said the work was delayed by the pandemic and an extension was approved by the town in August 2021, with a new target completion date of August 2022. In February 2022, Murphree told the Town Board the comprehensive plan update would not be completed before spring of 2023. 

The contract with AKRF was terminated in July 2022 at Murphree’s recommendation. The Town Board later hired another firm, BFJ Planning, last year at Murphree’s recommendation and after its own vetting process.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar testifying at the disciplinary hearing of Jefferson Murphree on April 17. Photo: Alek Lewis

According to the charges and Aguiar’s testimony, Murphree misrepresented the progress on the comprehensive plan update while AKRF was working on the plan, including with respect to the progress on the update’s section on transfer of development rights. He also misrepresented the town’s progress on public outreach meetings. 

The town also alleged that Murphree told Deputy Supervisor Devon Higgins that he was “tired of being beaten up by Civic groups and/or asked that she consider taking charge of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan,” according to the charges. As the town’s planning administrator, the comprehensive plan update is Murphree’s responsibility.

Murphree is also charged for his failure to apologize for the comments at the February 2022 Greater Jamesport Civic Association meeting. According to the charges and Aguiar’s testimony, the supervisor directed Murphree by email to apologize for his comments days after the civic meeting; but Murphree said he needed a few days to respond to her email. Murphree later said he was conferring with his attorney on the matter and that he would provide her with a response “shortly, but never responded to Aguiar or issued an apology.”

Murphree was also charged in connection with refusing and failing to “implement actions to resolve building inspection/planning-related issues on one or more projects including, among others, SEQRA reviews, Island Water Park, 203-213 [East] Main Street, and/or Peconic Hockey.”

During her testimony, Aguiar recalled a call she received from Ken Meyers of Island Water Park in November 2022 regarding an incident where Murphree was considering the issuance of a stop-work order for the site. Aguiar said Meyers told her that was “unprofessional” and that Murphree said to Riverhead Planner Greg Bergman: “f*** those motherf******. They think they can get away with anything in this town.” Murphree allegedly made that comment in front of Meyers.

The town also said the planning department under Murphree did not do a required publication in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Notice Bulletin for the 203-213 East Main Street mixed-use building project in time, which caused the developer to threaten pulling the project.

Under Civil Service Law Section 75, which spells out the rules regarding disciplinary proceedings of a civil servant, at the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer will determine whether Murphree is guilty of any of the charges presented by the town. The town has the burden of proof during the hearing.

If Murphree is found guilty, the hearing officer will then make a recommendation to the Town Board as to his punishment, which may consist of a reprimand, a fine not to exceed one hundred dollars, suspension without pay for a period no more than two months, demotion in grade and title, or termination, according to the law. If Murphree is acquitted, he shall be restored to his position with full pay for the period of his unpaid suspension.

The town is asking the hearing officer, Robert Draffin, to recommend Murphree be terminated. Zuckerman said Murphree would have the power to issue “pay back” to those who wronged him and undermine the Town Board if he were reinstated.

“We believe that Mr. Murphree, as the highest ranking civil servant in the town’s land management, land development sector, cannot be returned to work,” Zuckerman said. “We believe that his actions and his inactions directly reflect the public’s perception of the town’s elected officials, the town’s land use policies and how business gets done in this town or not.”

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, after receiving a raise in pay approved by the Town Board in January. The Town Board voted unanimously to approve Murphree’s suspension on March 22.

Murphree’s attorney did not cross-examine Aguiar during today’s hearing, as he explained he has not yet received all the documents sought from the town, which he said he needs in order to conduct his examinations.

The hearing will continue on June 13 at 10 a.m..

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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