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Disclosure issue prompts Riverhead Town Board to halt executive sessions, for now

Members disagree over what information is confidential and should remain behind closed doors after a councilwoman discussed a potential hire for the water district.

The Riverhead Town Board will not hold executive sessions until they get legal advice on what can and cannot be disclosed outside of those closed meetings. A heated debate over executive session disclosure rules arose at the board's Feb. 7 work session at Riverhead Town Hall after it came to light that Councilwoman Jodi Giglio discussed the potential hiring of an employee for an unspecified town department outside of a previous closed-door meeting. (Credit: Newsday / Jean-Paul Salamanca)

The Riverhead Town Board said it will not hold any closed executive sessions until members get legal advice on what can and cannot be disclosed outside of those meetings.

Board members said at the board’s Feb. 7 work session that they were angry that Councilwoman Jodi Giglio had discussed the potential hiring of an employee for an unspecified town department outside of a previous closed-door meeting.

“When we’re in executive session, I’m assuming that I need to be professional and not discuss personnel items outside unless those are items that are discussed in here, and I think as a board member we need to know,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent.

Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said after the meeting that information regarding personnel — be it hires, disciplinary matters or health issues — should be discussed behind closed doors and kept private because of the sensitivity of the information.

Town Hall officials declined to specify which department or job candidate sparked the debate. Giglio said Friday that the position is a new superintendent for the town’s water district. The board authorized a help-wanted ad for the position at its Nov. 7 meeting.

Giglio said she wanted to speak to a previous candidate for the position, who had said they were no longer interested in it, about reconsidering. 

"I don't understand what the grandstanding is," Giglio said. "It's simply politics. The only things we should be talking about in executive session are litigation, legal matters, HIPA matters with an employee’s well-being, disciplinary actions and things like that. But when it comes to hiring someone with one of the biggest positions in the town, I want to make sure we’re hiring the best possible candidate.”

Councilman James Wooten told Giglio that he also disagreed with her sharing information outside of the closed meeting.

“There are certain things that happen in executive [session] that I don’t like, but I don’t go around and screech it to the world,” Wooten said.  

“Yes, you do,” Giglio replied.

“No, I don’t,” Wooten responded, pointing to the board’s bench, where they sit and vote during regular meetings. “I vote up there, I let my vote speak for me, but I don’t try to undermine the process.”

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz told the board that he wrote in a January 2018 opinion to them that “just because something is discussed in executive session doesn’t make it confidential.”

Kozakiewicz said Riverhead's ethics code states it would be a violation of ethics to discuss “privileged” information outside of executive session, such as a legal matter that could fall under attorney-client privilege. He added that none of the executive items on Thursday’s agenda, including the potential hires, falls under the “privileged” category.

The board had at least three matters for executive session on the “potential hiring of an employee” on its Feb. 7 agenda. Jens-Smith said after the meeting that she is still waiting on a clear answer about what can be discussed outside of executive session.

“I think before we keep going into executive session, we need some clarity on that,” she said.

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