Riverhead Candidates Talk Revamping Town Government at Jamesport Debate
Jamesport residents packed the pews of the Jamesport Meeting House Thursday night to hear candidates for Riverhead Town Board pitch their solutions for the town’s enduring problems.
With just one incumbent, Jim Wooten, in the mix of candidates vying for two seats on the board in November, much of the discussion focused on just what makes the current town board so dysfunctional.
Councilman George Gabrielsen is not running for re-election.
Mr. Wooten, a Republican who has been on the board for eight years and says if re-elected his next term will be his last, spent much of the evening reminding the community that he sees his role as one of a representative of the public, who has tried to sidestep the bickering that has defined the current town board.
Republican candidate Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead police officer who has served on the Riverhead School Board and ran the Police Athletic League, said his career in law enforcement has prepared him well to accept accountability for his actions and expect accountability of other members of the board.
Democratic challengers Laura Jens-Smith, a Laurel resident, former nurse and Mattituck School Board member who has been active in civic affairs on the North Fork; and Neil Krupnick, a television and film producer who helped organize the opposition to the United Riverhead gas terminal as the head of the Northville Beach Civic Association, both said they believe the current board is thoroughly dysfunctional, and the public would be best served if their entire slate were elected, giving them the majority on the board.
Moderator Georgette Keller, the president of the civic association, asked each candidate a personalized question before delving into matters of general concern.
Of Mr. Hubbard, she asked what he had to offer a board that would be comprised of 60 percent police officers if he was elected.
Mr. Hubbard said that police officers often retire earlier in life than members of other professions, giving them the ability for a second career in public service.
“I may not have a business degree, but I have common sense,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody knows the community better than a police officer,” added Mr. Wooten, who is also a retired police officer.
Ms. Keller asked Mr. Krupnick how he would be effective if he was in the minority on the town board.
“I see a lot of finger-pointing on the board,” he answered. “If you have a good idea, and you can’t everybody to agree that it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea.”
“I think the mood is changing in town,” he added. “People are tired of deals that benefit the few.”
Ms. Jens-Smith added that she believes the current board members focus too much on personality conflicts and not enough on building consensus.
Mr. Wooten said he couldn’t disagree more with Ms. Jens-Smith.
“I’ve always represented the community” on the town board, he said.
Mr. Hubbard said that his work as a police officer had helped him develop “calmness when things get pretty volatile.”
“I will play nice in the sandbox,” he said.
Ms. Keller asked Mr. Wooten about his role in the town’s deepening financial crisis, and asked why board members had not made revisions in recent years to Town Supervisor Sean Walter’s budgets.
Mr. Wooten said he hadn’t brought up any changes because he knew it would lead to more bickering and divisiveness on the board.
“To call a vote would set the stage for more bantering back and forth,” he said.
Mr. Hubbard said Mr. Walter had hurt the town by depleting fund reserves, and he would put forward an alternative to future budgets.
“The supervisor isn’t a dictator. To blame Sean for everything is disingenuous,” said Mr. Krupnick. “We all had to tighten our belts in 2008. This board didn’t do anything.”
Mr. Krupnick added that he and his running mates have a proposal for a solar farm at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) at the former Grumman plant that could have brought $18 million in lease money into the town’s coffers over the past two years.
Mr. Wooten said LIPA and PSEG-Long Island had not yet agreed to purchase the power from a solar farm at EPCAL.
Ms. Jens-Smith said she believed Mr. Wooten should have stood up for a better budget.
“Jim, if there’s one time you should fight on the town board, it should be on the budget,” she said.
She added that the town board should give the town’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) more guidance on development projects that are and aren’t suitable for property tax breaks.
Both Ms. Jens-Smith and Mr. Krupnick said they would go to Albany to lobby to allow the town to refinance its Community Preservation Fund bonds, which would save the town more than $2 million each year.
Ms. Keller asked the candidates what should have been done when Costco cleared a vast swath of land without town approval.
“There absolutely have to be ramifications,” said Mr. Hubbard. “People have to be held accountable. If I’m elected, there will be accountability.”
Mr. Krupnick said there are no community watchdogs on the town board, and he and his running mates plan to serve that role.
“If it wasn’t for the civic associations, we would have a nuclear power plant here,” he said.
Mr. Wooten acknowledged that the board “got caught with their pants down” on the Costco clearing.
“A lot of laws are closing the gate after the horse ran out,” he admitted.
Ms. Keller then asked a long, involved question, which stumped some candidates, about why the community feels disengaged from the town board.
Mr. Hubbard passed on the question because he said it was unclear.
Mr, Krupnick said developers come to Riverhead and take the town board for “chumps.” He added that when he works as an outside vendor, he is held accountable and expected to deliver projects on time.
“You can set parameters for how developers act,” he said.
Mr. Wooten said he’s aware that the public believes good ideas die on the vine in Riverhead.
“I’m the only councilman to stand before the IDA and fight against tax credits,” he said.
In closing statements, Mr. Hubbard said his commitment to public service “is not over yet. I’m just getting warmed up.”
Mr. Krupnick said voters have a clear choice in November: “You can go with business as usual or you can go with new ideas.”
Mr. Krupnick added that Republican Supervisor candidate Jodi Giglio is a councilwoman who believes she deserves a promotion after spending her career on the town board picking fights.
Mr. Wooten was quick to differentiate himself from other incumbent board members.
“If you think we go lockstep in a cookie cutter, you’re out of your mind,” he added.
“My role as a councilman is to represent the community,” he said. “It’s about what you want and how I can help you.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said Riverhead is the most indebted town on the East End, and all the board members do is “bicker and blame each other.”
“Constantly in this town, we’re taking one step forward and two steps back,” she said. “I want this town to take one step forward and keep going.”
The Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association will host a debate between Riverhead Town Supervisor candidates at the Meeting House next Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m.