Riverhead Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force will receive more oversight from the Riverhead Town Board moving forward, according to board members, after the task force’s previous leadership was removed and replaced last week without the group’s input. The Town Board shrunk the membership of the task force from 15 to 11 people, removed five existing members and appointed three newcomers.
The Town Board appointed Noreen LeCann, a longtime member and former vice chairperson of the task force, to replace Cindy Clifford and Michele Lynch, two longtime members of the task force who have led the group for the last two years, as the task force’s leadership. Both Clifford and Lynch were not reappointed to the group.
Clifford said she and Lynch were outsted for their views. Both women are prominent Democrats in Riverhead and spoke against the town’s executive order to bar migrants and asylum seekers sent from the border to New York City from being relocated to Riverhead, which they said could fuel hateful rhetoric and violence.
Council Member Ken Rothwell, the Town Board’s liaison to the task force who said last month the task force needed an overhaul because it lacked diversity, said Clifford and Lynch’s views had nothing to do with the Town Board’s decision not to reappoint them. All five members of Riverhead’s Town Board are Republicans, and Rothwell previously mentioned party affiliation as a reason for why the task force lacked diversity.
“Political views or opinions have nothing to do with it,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s about having people in the community and giving people a different chance.”
The task force, made up of volunteers, was reestablished in 2015 after years of inactivity following a string of violent muggings targeting Hispanics. The task force’s goal is to “assist this government in identifying issues related to prejudice or bias and to advise the Town Board of the task force recommendations as to the direction the Town can take in combating bias and improve social conditions for all and further a proactive means to eradicate various forms of social oppression,” according to the 2015 resolution.
But on Tuesday, LeCann resigned as chairperson and resigned from the task force altogether. The person appointed vice chairperson last week, Mark McLaughlin, a local musician and legislative aide to Assembly Member Jodi Giglio, will become the new chairperson.
LeCann said in a phone call yesterday that she sent an email to town officials thanking them “for the opportunity to reexamine my personal philosophy and to be at peace as we all move forward,” the email said.
“Sometimes you look at something… whether it’s something you volunteer for or it’s a job, and it’s not where your heart needs to be. It should be where you always thought it was,” LeCann said in an interview explaining her statement. She had been a member of the task force for eight years. “I’ve never been a terribly political person. I just wanted to do what was right. And I examined the situation and it looked like we were walking through some morass or something. It was not right.”
Rothwell said he had been looking forward to LeCann’s leadership. “It’s sad that she’s not going to be able to continue, but I appreciate all the work she has done,” he said yesterday.
Rothwell said in an interview last month that the group’s membership lacked the diversity — ethnically, racially and politically — to function properly.
The new makeup of the task force is more diverse, Rothwell said in an interview this week, and brings new ideas to the table. The Town Board appointed many of the same members of the previous task force, with six new members, according to the resolution. The resolution passed unanimously by the board also appoints members of the task force in staggered terms, allowing the appointment of new members annually, rather than biennially.
But Rothwell said that isn’t the only reason new leadership to the board was appointed. He said the communication between the task force and the Town Board was poor under the previous leadership — and that needs to change.
“I think that they have had wonderful programs over the years,” Rothwell said. “I think one thing that has been lacking more recently is the communication with the Town Board, so that the programming that is going to be given must be vetted through the Town Board. We need to know what the objective is of the program. what is the outline of it, who the speakers are. We have not received that for some of the last few [programs].”
Rothwell’s statement and the ousting of several prominent members of the anti-bias task force raises an important question: What should the task force’s relationship with the Town Board look like?
“Some of the least successful of the anti-bias task forces over the years were those where they the Town Board and town government took the task force away from the community and decided to make it under their auspices and direction only,” said Steven Moss, the former co-chair of the Suffolk County Inter-Faith Anti-Bias Task Force who helped establish local anti-bias task forces across the county. “That is not, in my mind, a healthy situation, because then it truly is only political.”
Until now Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force has acted mostly independent from the Town Board. The group picked its own members and elected its own officers, with the Town Board consenting and formally appointing members of the group in resolutions. That changed with the appointments last week.
Moss said the relationship between the government and an anti-bias task force needs to be a partnership, to help the task force enact its goals. “There needs to be, definitely, communication between the task force and the town government, certainly. Whether every single thing they do has to be okayed? To me, that might be a little extreme,” he said.
Under Clifford’s leadership of the task force, the group helped organize regular programs at the Riverhead Free Library, participate in community events, and host events to bring the Riverhead Police Department and the Riverhead community closer together. The majority of its activity was holding programs like documentary viewings and guest speakers at the Riverhead Free Library surrounding days and months of cultural significance, such as National Coming Out Day, Hispanic Heritage Month, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Town officials have had a place in the group at least since its revival in 2015. Police Chief David Hegermiller is an active member of the group, and the Town Board has always had a liaison appointed to the task force. Both the chief and the liaison, who for the last few years has been Rothwell, are voting members.
In an interview this week, Clifford said the task force should be acting separate from the Town Board. “It takes the politics out of it,” Clifford said. “I mean, look at what’s happened now. They decided who was going to be on the task force. They decided who from the town is going to represent the entire town to try to mitigate any kind of prejudice or misunderstanding. They decided who’s going to run that task force.”
Rothwell said the task force should be subject to the Town Board’s overview so its members can participate and attend different programs, and because the group serves in an “advisory” capacity to the Town Board. Rothwell said the task force will have to put in writing an explanation of the program, a list of speakers, the format of the program and whether any town employees need to be present.
“If you’re putting something under the great seal of the Town of Riverhead and saying that the Riverhead Town Anti-Bias Task Force is holding this program, well then there is an assumption that it has been approved by the Town Board,” Rothwell said. “And so we want to make sure that it is an appropriate venue and appropriate event.”
Clifford said the task force tried to involve the Town Board by asking them to publicize events when she became chairperson, but the process took too long. Nobody from the Town Board told her events need to be approved by the town until after RiverheadLOCAL published an article last month on Rothwell’s comments saying the task force needed to be changed, she said.
“We didn’t receive any kind of pushback at all” about the task force’s programs, Clifford said.
It won’t be known until the task force is running how independent it will be from the Town Board. Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in an interview on Monday the group is not independent and should operate “under the direction of the [Town] Board.”
“The key word here is collaboration — and the removal of politics,” Aguiar said.
McLaughlin, the new chairperson, said the anti-bias task force, at this point, needs town officials’ help to grow the group and its programs.
“I welcome the guidance because, at the end of the day, the minute I’m the smartest one in the room, it’s time for me to leave the room,” McLaughlin said. ”So I always want to learn for the betterment, but I do believe in standing on your own feet when it’s time.”
Moss said the independence of an anti-bias task is important for it to be effective within a community. He said a task force could be a mixture of political appointees and community members, but should optimally be built up through a grassroots effort. A town government appointing all of its members, he warned, could have damaging consequences.
“Let’s say, for instance, something is going on in the town that needs to be addressed regarding bias, prejudice, racism, whatever. If the members of the anti-bias task force are simply appointees of the same politicians — some of whom might be the participants in these unfortunate activities or actions — how do you call them out? How do you bring it to their attention?” Moss said. “You have a conflict of interest. And so it’s best if it’s not all 100% appointed.”
Rothwell said he would not tell the task force how to run its programs, but said he would favor not allowing the task force to host a program under certain circumstances.
“I would only see not allowing a program if I felt — and I am only one person — if I felt that it was inappropriate or was going to, in any way, hurt somebody…” Rothwell said. “If the programming isn’t there to share and help, I can’t see why we would not approve of something. But if something’s controversial — and I think that somehow, if any type of program is going to stem hatred — then it’s not appropriate in the Town of Riverhead, or if it’s going to create anger. But if it’s creating harmony and unity, of course we’d want to do that.”
An anti-bias task force, established with the purpose of being a bastion of social justice, is a prime place for the discussion of issues that have been, or are currently, controversial. Riverhead’s task force has tackled controversial ideas with its programs since its revival in 2015, including implicit bias workshops and a candlelight vigil to protest detention camps at the southern border. The anti-bias task force also openly spoke against a proposal to change the town’s rental housing code, which opponents called discriminatory against immigrants. These and other social justice issues, such as the rights of LGBTQ people, carry heavy political ties, with many Democratic politicians promoting social justice and prominent Republican politicians disavowing them.
Rothwell said the programs would be analyzed on a case by case basis and would not give an example of what he would not approve of the task force doing. When asked whether a program on the Black Lives Matter movement — a prominent social justice movement that has been criticized by many conservative politicians and voters — would be controversial by his definition, Rothwell said the issue is so prevalent in society and warrants a discussion.
“It’s okay to talk about controversial things, ideas, something that we don’t agree with,” Rothwell said. “But you know, we just want to make sure that when programming is scheduled that the goal is a positive goal, to connect and unite.”
Clifford said members of the task force were being careful not to put on “controversial” programs and upset the Town Board. “We weren’t trying to be confrontational or contentious,” she said. “We were never trying to pick a fight with anybody. The closest we’ve come to that is this asylum program.”
The anti-bias task force had scheduled its meeting this month at the library as a program examining the asylum seeking process. Lisa Votino, a town resident, organizer and someone who has worked with asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border, was set to present the information.
Clifford, Lynch and Votino have all spoken out against Aguiar’s executive order declaring a state of emergency in Riverhead, originally intended to bar migrants and asylum seekers sent from the border to New York City from being relocated to Riverhead.
Although Clifford and Lynch weren’t speaking on behalf of the task force, Clifford said the opposition to the executive order was likely one reason the two women did not get reappointed to the task force.
“I think it’s an embarrassment to them. I think it’s more of an embarrassment because we’re on the task force,” Clifford said.
Both Rothwell and Aguiar said Clifford and Lynch’s opposition to the migrant executive order was not a factor in their decision not to reappoint them to the committee.
“I wanted a more diversified Task Force. I wanted other people to have the chance to speak and participate. And as I said, I want it to be multicultural — and I’ve said that to them for a long time,” Rothwell said. “Their personal beliefs are perfectly fair, they’re entitled to that. It wasn’t part of the decision, from my side, from my vote.”
The migrant executive order, Clifford said, “called for some sort of a program to illustrate to people, to inform all these people who are angry… to give them a different perspective.”
Clifford said it is also clear her affiliation with the Democratic party, as well as her criticism to Town Board members during meetings, had an influence in the Town Board decision not to reappoint her, because of Rothwell’s comments to RiverheadLOCAL last month. Rothwell said the task force members are “all Caucasian women in the Democratic Party. I’m not looking to make it political,” he added. Both Clifford and Lynch are white.
Clifford is active in Democratic Party politics, having previously worked in Town Hall under former Democratic Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. Lynch ran for council member on the Democratic ticket in 2017 with Jens-Smtih, but lost.
Rothwell said politics was not a factor in the decision not to reappoint Lynch and Clifford — he didn’t know Clifford’s politics, he said. Other Democrats remained on the task force, Rothwell said, pointing at the membership of Marjorie Acevedo, a longtime member and former chairperson of the Riverhead Democratic Committee.
While the asylum process information program is the most blatant slight from the task force’s previous leadership on the Town Board, Rothwell and Aguir cited a program planned for next month surrounding domestic violence awareness month as what they took issue with. The anti-bias task force planned to show a documentary about domestic violence survivors “And So I Stayed,” which examines how the legal system treats women who kill their abusers. The anti-bias task force planned to have a discussion with two individuals about domestic violence after the film.
“[W]e have our own domestic violence program that we were going to launch,” Aguiar said. “And that’s a perfect example of not collaborating, not speaking to the liaison, not speaking to all the board members. And that’s not how you cannot act independently.” Aguiar did not say what “domestic violence program” she was referring to.
But what Rothwell took issue with was one of the individuals the anti-bias task force was hosting for the discussion afterwards, Serena Liguori. “I think if you Google her, you will be in the same position I am to review our background,” Rothwell said. He would not elaborate further about his objections to Liguori.
Liguori is the executive director of New Hour for Women and Children Long Island, a non-profit that helps women and children impacted by incarceration. When Liguori was 19, she aided her mother in killing her 17-year-old sister in what was described by another sister who witnessed the murder as an attempt to perform an exorcism, according to the New York Times. After her sentence, she became an advocate of legislative initiatives focusing on helping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, including policies opposed by Republicans like the Clean Slate Act.
McLaughlin, the new chairperson, seems to want to take the anti-bias task force in a different direction with its programming. He said he wants to bring a program he calls “community balance,” which would be a mentoring program for young entrepreneurs.
“From what I hear, there’s a few minorities that wish they could have more ownership,” he said.
“I’m boots to the ground, so I get a chance to hear people from all walks of life and different backgrounds and different cultures actually express their ideas, but they don’t know how to,” McLaughlin said. “So my thing would be — which I’m very happy to be a part of the anti-bias task force — is to provide resources to people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, to where they feel like they have an opportunity to become part of community balance.”
McLaughlin said he would also like to create forums for people of different cultures and backgrounds to learn more about each other. We can have little experiences where people could come with samples of their food, samples of their culture, samples of their background, and we share in discussion and get to know each other,” McLaughlin said.
The primary reason Rothwell said the task force needed an overhaul is to increase its diversity. Under Clifford’s leadership, the group was majority white, with one Latino member and no Black members. Clifford said Black members of the committee had left because of personal commitments. Clifford said she and Lynch were actively recruiting new members who are people of color. “We were to some degree successful, but not successful enough,” she said.
Although still a majority white, the group now has more people of color, Rothwell said, although he declined to specifically say the ethnic and racial makeup of the task force. “Clearly there are people on the committee that are of Spanish descent, Polish descent, African American, Protestant, Jewish, Catholic,” he said. “Just looking at the list, all walks of life. So I just think it’s much more diversified and I think that was the long term goal, and I’m proud of that decision.”
McLaughlin, a Black man, said nobody ever asked him to become a member of the anti-bias task force until recently. To grow the group’s membership, McLaughlin said, the anti-bias task force needs to grow its programing, be present on social media and be actively inviting people to attend meetings.
“I look forward to community betterment. I look forward to people knowing that, if they ever come across something that may seem disappointing based on their beliefs or who they are, they can make a call and we’ll be right there,” McLaughlin said. “And I want to say a special thank you to the Town Hall and all the elected officials that helped make this happen and believe in the anti- bias task force, believe in the new members and new leaders. And we appreciate them and thank them, and we will lead by example — and you better believe we’re not going to let them or anyone else down.”
As for the Anti-Bias Task Force programs already planned by its previous leadership for the Riverhead Free Library, Clifford said they will go forward with the programs, though not under the auspices of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force.
“We will continue to do what we can in the community, because if it really matters to you you’re really going to keep doing something,” Clifford said.
Votino, the volunteer at the southern U.S. border set to speak at the asylum event next week, was the only prospective task force member suggested by Clifford who was not appointed by the Town Board last week.
“I will do it anyways,” Votino wrote in an email of the event, “and make sure people know [the] Town of Riverhead pulled their support for someone giving accurate information on a topic they are hyping up like rabid dogs for votes.”
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