Riverhead is at a crossroads, say the signs at tonight’s primary debate at the Suffolk Theater for supervisor and two seats on the town board, but if you want to know the truth about which candidates are going to make a deal with the devil when heading down that road, you’d be hard pressed to find it when listening to the accusations flying from one end of the room to the other.
One could easily argue that Riverhead is perpetually teetering on the threshold of a turnaround, that there is always one thing keeping the town from being the place its elected officials say they want it to be: one week it’s crime downtown. The next week it’s the planning board and the ZBA. The next week it’s the tax breaks given to corporations who want to build on Route 58, further sucking the life from Riverhead’s downtown. But people running for office said the town is at a crossroads, and they now have a chance to make things better.
Two Democratic women with longstanding ties to Riverhead School — Angela DeVito and Ann Cotten-DeGrasse — are facing off in a Democratic primary for town supervisor on Sept. 10. Ms. DeVito, a former school board president with a long history in the health sciences field, is the party’s official nominee to run against incumbent Town Supervisor Sean Walter, while Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse, the current school board president and a longtime teacher in the district, is waging a primary campaign.
Incumbent town board members Jodi Giglio, a permit expediter, and John Dunleavy, a retired police officer, are running for reelection, while challenger Anthony Coates, an investment adviser and lobbyist, has launched an all-out attack on Ms. Giglio in a bid for the Republican nomination for a seat on the board. That primary will also be held Sept. 10.
Ms. DeVito and Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse talked public policy for the first hour. Ms. DeVito often appeared to have the high ground in the thoroughness of her preparation, while Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse often seemed uncomfortable or ill-at-ease, particularly in a discussion of whether the town should use the power of eminent domain to buy vacant downtown buildings owned by Sheldon Gordon which are on the market for well more than the price for which they appraise. Ms. DeVito was for using eminent domain, but Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said the town couldn’t afford the price Mr. Gordon wants for the buildings, after which Ms. DeVito asked if her opponent truly understood the breadth of the town’s taking powers under eminent domain.
Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse was highly critical of Southampton Town’s plan to build a pedestrian footbridge across the Peconic River between Riverside and downtown Riverhead, while Ms. DeVito said she’s not advocating for the footbridge, but for Southampton to clean up the blight in Riverside, which has made it difficult to keep downtown Riverhead safe.
“I do not believe a bridge to the south side is the answer,” said Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse. “What can we afford to do? Right now it should be low on the priority list…. A sewer system is a priority on the south side.”
“We need to partner with the south side and the county on a cross-river plan,” said Ms. DeVito. “The south side is still blighted, and we have prostitutes running around downtown in mid-afternoon…. Development on both sides of the river is actually what’s needed here.”
She added that she believes Riverhead’s Business Improvement District has made downtown a much more inviting place in the past decade.
“In 2004 to 2005, downtown Riverhead looked like Beirut during the civil war,” she said. “I know because I was in Beiruit during the civil war.”
Ms. DeVito added that property owners downtown pay far more in property taxes than property owners on Route 58, making it difficult for anyone to consider starting a business there.
“Start-ups cost a lot of money,” she said. “It’s simply crushing.”
Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse went on the offensive over Ms. DeVito’s role as a member of Riverhead’s Industrial Development Agency over Ms. DeVito’s votes for tax abatement for Atlantis Marine World and the Hyatt Place on East Main Street.
“The Industrial Development Agency has never seen a proposal they don’t love,” said Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse. “I am opposed to giving tax abatements that will come whether they need abatements or not. I’m opposed to abatements that are not warranted and don’t bring in jobs.”
Ms. DeVito said she stands by her votes on the aquarium and the hotel, and added that she had brought a proposal to the Riverhead School Board that allowed the school to still reap tax revenue from properties granted tax abatements during Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse’s tenure as school board president, but no one on the school board was interested.
The debate for the Republican primary for town council proved feisty, with Mr. Dunleavy sitting between Mr. Coates and Ms. Giglio, sharing his folksy take on town government while the two candidates on either side of him went at each others’ throats.
The two began attacking each other after Mr. Coates was asked to talk about his business affiliations in response to Times/Review Executive Editor Grant Parpan’s recent look into Mr. Coates’ work for John McNamara, who was convicted of a $400 millio-plus Ponzi Scheme to defraud General Motors. Mr. Coates worked as publisher of the Port Jefferson Record while Mr. McNamara owned the newspaper in the early 1990s.
Mr. Coates didn’t discuss that job, but said he was proud of the work he’s done as an investment consultant and political activist over the course of a long career.
Ms. Giglio said Mr. Coates has been going on the offensive against her since she voted against Town Supervisor Sean Walter’s proposal to hire Mr. Coates to lobby Democrats in Albany for help re-developing the former Grumman property in Calverton. She said she couldn’t justify spending $85,000 on a salary for Mr. Coates when the town had just laid off 13 workers.
“We hired a real expert to go to Albany,” she said.
“It was $65,000, and when I didn’t get the job, I did it anyway. I went to Albany,” he said.
Debate moderator and Riverhead News-Review editor Michael White asked Ms. Giglio if she’d be willing to disclose all her business relationships as a permit expeditor that might cause conflict with her role on the town board. She said she has done so every year in her annual disclosure statement in March.
She added that she’s recused herself from every vote involving a business with which she was affiliated.
“I have not represented any developers in the Town of Riverhead,” she said.
“Your disclosure statement is swiss cheese,” said Mr. Coates. “Clearly you do have conflicts of interest. When are you working for us, and when are you working for yourself?”
“I don’t work for anybody but the taxpayers of the Town of Riverhead,” said Mr. Dunleavy, quietly, as the other two candidates seethed on either side of him. “I’m glad I don’t have to get in the middle of this.”
Ms. Giglio began to make a point that Mr. Dunleavy, as a retired police officer, had the luxury of not having to work for a living, making it easy for him to not have the conflicts she has as a working mother, but her comments began to draw boos from the crowd before she finished.
“Stop,” moderator Denise Civiletti, of Riverhead Local, scolded her. “That’s out there.”
All three candidates said they’re passionate about redeveloping the Enterprise Park at Calverton, the site of the former Grumman plant. The town is considering subdividing the property into 50 building lots.
Mr. Coates said he thinks the town isn’t thinking big enough, and he hopes to use his investment expertise to convince people from New York City and the Hamptons to invest there.
“EPCAL has become the place where a good idea goes to die,” he said, adding that he believes the town has thoroughly failed to market the place because their approach isn’t to lure investors, but to ‘plant a flag and say, you wouldn’t want to come here, would you?'”
He added that the town needs to think about the possibility of making “money the old fashioned way. Steal it,” though he didn’t elaborate on quite what he meant by that remark, leading to an awkward silence in the room as attendees wondered if they’d just heard a joke fall flat.
“My passion for EPCAL brought me into this race,” he said.
Mr. Dunleavy said EPCAL is his passion too. He said there’s already a company making plastic fences there.
As far as downtown Riverhead goes, both incumbents said they’re excited about the progress that has been made in attracting businesses to open there.
Mr. Dunleavy said the town has to think one store at a time.
“It may take two years, but we’re doing it,” he said. “We have to make it into smaller stores and rezone Second and Third street for offices and apartments. We need a grocery store down here.”
Ms. Giglio said she helped change the town code so owners of downtown offices did not have to live upstairs, helping bring in real estate investment from law firms that want to have an office near the Riverhead courts and are now able to rent out upstairs apartments.
Mr. Coates said he plans if elected to “make Shelly Gordon’s life a living hell,” referring to the owner of the vacant downtown storefronts. “I think he knows our ability of eminent domain is limited. I would use code enforcement.”
He also briefly gave a nod to Ms. Giglio’s Summerwind downtown apartment complex, which is nearly built, but Ms. Giglio asked why Mr. Coates is suddenly in favor of her project, and why he is moving out of his rented downtown apartment if he’s such a fan of downtown Riverhead.
Mr. Coates then went on a rampage against Ms. Giglio over work she had done on her house for which she didn’t receive certificates of occupancy and over all the waivers of fees her development company was given by the government to build the Summerwind project.
“I’m leaving downtown because I’m moving in with a woman. It’s a serious relationship,” he added.
“Summerwind was approved before I was a candidate. Politics doesn’t have to be a dirty business,” said Ms. Giglio. “This is all gossip, bullying and name calling. He is obsessed with attacking me. It’s personal because I voted against putting him on the payroll.”
Mr. Dunleavy again said he was glad he wasn’t in the middle of it.
Debate moderators Denise Civiletti of Riverhead Local and Times/Review Newsgroup Executive Editor Grant Parpan, who have been at each others’ throats for years, were civil with one another, though their body language gave a glimpse under a subfloor of unbearable tension.
The primary is Sept. 10.