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Riverhead supervisor's ethics bill meets GOP resistance

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, left, is shown

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, left, is shown during a town board meeting in Riverhead on Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Councilwoman Jodi Giglio is at right. Credit: Ed Betz

Riverhead Republicans heaped criticism on their party's highest-ranking elected official, Supervisor Sean Walter, at a public hearing Tuesday over a proposed ethics law that would force the town's GOP leader to choose between his political and elected roles.

Walter has proposed banning executive committee members of a political party from holding elected office, saying it would eliminate any appearance that political calculations could affect governmental decisions.

Riverhead GOP chairman Mason Haas, who also serves on the town's three-member board of assessors, said the proposal is a personal attack aimed at him and follows years of sparring between him and Walter. Haas is the only official who would have to resign one of his posts within 20 days if the law passes.

Walter lost the GOP's nomination for supervisor in May, and Haas is backing Walter's opponent, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, in a primary. Haas sought to replace Walter as the Republican supervisor nominee in 2013.

Haas, who did not attend the hearing, said in an interview afterward that the law infringes on his freedom of expression. "It's about constitutional rights in the end," he said.

Walter said afterward that the hearing did not change his opinion on the law. "It's no personal vendetta," he said. "Being mad at somebody takes energy."

Town officials said they will continue accepting written comments until July 17.

Tuesday's hearing on the law put the chaotic state of Riverhead politics on display. Several Republican committee members and candidates accused Walter of attempting to take revenge after his convention loss.

"The supervisor should not be able to abuse his authority as an elected official and try to abuse and punish those with different opinions by proposing to change the law," said Joann Waski, a GOP committee member.

Robert Peeker, a former town police lieutenant who is running for the town board on the Republican line, said the town's ethics board should help craft the law.

"We all want ethics in government, but I don't want them unethically," he said.

Charles Sclafani, who represents residents grieving their taxes through his company, CJS Tax Service, said Haas has not recused himself from voting on home assessments affecting prominent Republicans and Democrats.

"If there's not a conflict of interest there, I find, what is a conflict of interest?" said Sclafani, whose wife is Walter's secretary.

Haas said the assessors are fair and professional. "We're a board of three assessors," he said. "At some point we are going to know somebody on the other side. How do you avoid that?"

Some Democrats crossed party lines to back aspects of the law. Anthony Coates, a former paid campaign adviser to Walter who is running for supervisor as a Democrat, urged town board members to "vote for ethics reform for the right reasons."

"I feel that this is the right piece of legislation," Coates said. "It seems to be brought up at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons."


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