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Republican Politics In Riverhead

Denise Civilleti

A new smoking ban was adopted in Riverhead last night. But that didn't stop the smoke coming out of Councilman James Wooten's ears, as he noted during a scuffle among board members over personnel appointments at the town board meeting.

Wooten wasn't the only board member with smoke coming out of his ears last night.

Tempers flared as an argument heated up over two personnel transfers involving the highway department and buildings and grounds division — with Supervisor Sean Walter once again accusing Riverhead Republican Committee chairman Mason Haas of inappropriately meddling in town board business through party caucuses held the night before regular town board meetings.

The closed-door caucuses, Walter says, result in board members changing their minds on matters discussed and decided in open meetings. The supervisor says he stopped attending party caucuses earlier this year because the closed-door discussions attended by a quorum of the town board, often dealt with town — rather than party — business and, in his opinion, violated the open meetings law.

"It never ceases to amaze me," Wooten said from the dais last night. "I don't know what transpired between executive session on Thursday and today —"

"Can I explain that?" Walter interrupted. "Caucus."

"Well, I don't know what happened with this, but it's not good government, I can tell you that," Wooten said.

The shuffle that might have been

With Councilman George Gabrielsen absent due to knee surgery, the board split 2-2 and failed to approve three personnel resolutions that last week a majority had agreed to adopt, according to Walter and Wooten.

There are currently two vacancies that need to be filled: an equipment operator in the highway department, vacant due to the termination of an employee last month; and a custodian in the buildings and grounds division, vacant due to an employee's retirement.

One of the failed resolutions aauthorized the transfer of a cook at the senior center, Eric Shaw, to the highway equipment operator post.

The other failed resolution authorized the transfer of a highway department employee, George Mottern, to the vacant buildings and grounds custodial position.

Each transfer would have created a new vacancy in the transferred employee's current departments. A third resolution that also failed would have appointed a temporary call-in cook to replace Shaw in the senior center kitchen.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman John Dunleavy voted against both resolutions, with Walter and Wooten voting yes.

Giglio said she "was always a no" on the resolutions. She said the town should hire new employees to fill both vacancies, because their starting salaries would be much lower.

Dunleavy said he changed his mind because he hadn't been clear on all the facts during Thursday's meeting.

Clarification for Dunleavy apparently occurred at a meeting he and Giglio had Monday night with the Riverhead Republican party chairman.

"I might have said something to him [Mason] about it," Dunleavy acknowledged after last night's town board meeting, when asked "Did you discuss these personnel shifts with Mason Haas?"

Dunleavy said he hadn't known that the person being transferred to the highway department was currently a cook at the senior center. That would leave the senior center with only one cook, forcing the town to hire a temporary cook to fill in immediately, since the remaining cook was about to go on vacation, he said.

The temporary call-in cook was going to be Melissa Muller, who has previoulsy been employed as a senior center call-in summer worker and who has volunteered at the senior center, according to Wooten. She also happens to be the daughter of newly retired custodian Ricky Muller, whose position would have been filled last night had the transfer resolutions passed. Giglio and Dunleavy also voted against the resolution hiring Melissa Muller as a call-in temporary cook.

Giglio said the town's real objective was to employ the daughter of a town worker.

"It's all one big circle, she said."

Wooten: Giglio is 'absolutely wrong'

Wooten, who serves on the personnel committee with Gabrielsen and conducted the interviews that led to the hiring recommendations, said that Giglio is "absolutely wrong."

First, he said, the town's collective bargaining agreement with the Civil Service Employees Association requires the town to post job openings internally before calling for a civil service list from the county. If three qualified employees express interest in an open position, they constitute an internal list and the town board is required under its contract to hire one of them.

Second, Wooten said, the highway worker being transferred to an open position on the buildings and grounds crew is credited with his current number of years of service, as required by the CSEA contract. But the change in title actually results in a pay cut for him. A brand new hire would be paid less under the contract's salary schedule, Wooten said, but the labor contract requires the town to hire from within if three existing qualified employees are interested.

"So we don't even have the option of a new hire, who would start at the provisional step," at a lower salary, he said.

Third, the cook moving to the highway department will be making $10,000 less than the highway department employee who last held the post — a man who was terminated last month, Wooten said.

"So there's a $10,000-a-year savings in the highway budget and it's a wash at B and G," Wooten said.

Last but not least, the still-angry councilman said, it's preposterous to think all these machinations were gone through just to hire somebody's daughter in the senior center kitchen.

"We didn't even hire her," Wooten said. "We didn't even fill that position." The resolution would have authorized using her as a fill-in, something she's done before, he said. Muller is a culinary school graduate with a degree in nutrition and would be well-qualified for the job if she applies for it, Wooten said.

"But if Jodi didn't want to hire her as a temp, why didn't she just vote against that resolution?"

Politics at play?

Wooten said he was baffled by how transfers "wanted by department heads to effectuate their duties and better serve the people" had come undone.

The councilman said he suspects politics is at play. He said Giglio told him over the weekend that "the committee's upset that you didnt go through them for hirings."

Dunleavy said he didn't know anything about that, but acknowledged, "there was a phone call that was instituted by somebody. But it had nothing to do with me," he said.

Wooten said the party committee should have no role in decisions to fill civil service jobs.

"This isn't an appointment to the ZBA or planning board," Wooten said. "I will turn to the party for... things like that. But I don't need to go to the party for this. You've got to call for the list and hold interviews. It has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with politics," he said. "It has to do with qualifications and eligibility."

Dunleavy and Giglio insisted that Monday night's meeting with the party leader was not a party caucus and politics had nothing to do with their votes.

"It was just John and I, so there was no caucus," Giglio said in an interview after last night's meeting. "There was only two members of the town board there, so it was not a caucus."

The councilwoman acknowledged "there was a discussion" about the transfers in the meeting with Haas the night before.

Asked to comment on the hiring flap and whether a party caucus was involved, Haas only said, "It sounds like a personnel issue that the board needs to work out."