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Who’s behind the new website attacking Southold ‘city’ government?

Denise Civiletti
Who’s behind the new website attacking Southold ‘city’ government?

A website called “Stronger Southold” recently appeared and piqued curiosities around town — including mine. As a reporter, I’m in the business of being curious. As a local online news publisher, I wondered if this was something that might affect my business. So I started poking around.

The posts on the website are negative rants, complaining about town government and local government officials. Written in the first-person plural, apparently to give the impression that Stronger Southold is some kind of advocacy group, the posts rail against government waste, tax increases and corruption. Preventing “Hamptification” is a recurring theme. The posts say a lot of wild things that are not factually accurate and clearly seem aimed at “stirring the pot.”

And they’re not necessarily original zingers, either. Do a Google search on some of the phrases used on Stronger Southold’s “about” page which states “Our Core Values” and “Mission.” Some examples:

  • “Instead of tending to the basics, town government has grown into a bloated conglomerate of political services that gets larger every year — with no end in sight.”  This sentence appears on dozens of Libertarian websites around the country.
  • We continue to strive to strengthen the awareness of the citizens regarding matters of city governance, and we stand ready to fight the fights necessary to continue and protect the traditions, attractions and charm of our picturesque town.”  That’s word for word from a site called BocaWatch.org covering Boca Raton, Florida.

The Stronger Southold site features some local photography. But what it doesn’t offer was the identity of whoever is publishing it.

Anonymity is always a red flag, in my opinion. Even more so when (as is often the case) the anonymous ranters are flame-throwers. Who’s hiding behind it and why?

The language used in some of the rants had an odd feel in spots. It referred to the town board as “the commission” and even referred to Southold as “the city.” Strange.

A quick check of the database of domain name registrations disclosed that whoever registered StrongerSouthold.com — on Nov. 14 — had blocked public disclosure of his or her identity.

I sent a message through the website’s contact form. No reply. So then I sent a message to the Facebook page associated with the “Stronger Southold” site.

That resulted in a Dec. 31 phone call with a man who identified himself — reluctantly — as Aaron Nevins, who told me he lives in Southold and is interested in providing a platform for discussion of issues and items, big and small, of importance to local residents.

Nevins said his initial posts centered on “taxes, trash and tourism,” which he described as the “low-hanging fruit” chosen specifically to get a conversation going. “Those are things everyone is interested in,” Nevins said.

He said he was 35 years old, grew up in “south Florida” and still spent a lot of time there, since his parents lived there.

What’s he doing in Southold?

“I married into the community,” he told me. “I met a woman from Southold,” he said. She was “a native” and “a full-time Southold resident,” he said. Nevins told me her name was Meg. He said she uses her maiden name, but declined to say what it was. He’s been living in Southold for five years, he told me.

“I’m trying to build a better sense of community. I think it’s a neat opportunity for people in town to get together,” Nevins said.

He told me he had a college degree in public relations. He and his wife have one child, he said.

“I really just want to provide a place for dialogue,” Nevins said. “I’d like other people to join the conversation,” he said.

“I’m looking to help build a sense of community.”

He wouldn’t say where they live locally, or where he “spent time” in south Florida. He wouldn’t disclose the last name of his North Fork native wife. He also used those “red flag” words during our conversation: “city” to describe Southold Town and “commission” to describe the town board.

If you care so much about a place that you’re going to put in the effort to publish a website about — and for it — you know it’s a “town” not a “city” and you know the town board is not a “commission” — right?

When I questioned that, Nevins said it wasn’t that much effort.

A Stronger Southold bumper sticker affixed to a bulletin board in the Mattituck Starbucks. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I do public relations,” he told me. “You’d be surprised how far a website, some bumper stickers and a Facebook page can go.”

I was of course now more curious about Nevins and his motives than before our conversation. Things just didn’t add up.

I do reporting. You’d be surprised how far some curiosity, an internet connection and a little time can go. It was New Year’s Eve, a Saturday, and nothing much was going on. I had all afternoon.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

The publisher of “Stronger Southold” has no local connections to be found anywhere online by searching social network platforms and public records databases.

According to public records databases, he does not have and never has had a local address. He lives in Plantation, Florida, where he and the woman he calls his wife — I was not able to confirm their marriage — are both registered to vote. Her name is Meg Lessard. While Lessard is a familiar name in these parts, the local Lessards I’ve asked never heard of her. (I know some Lessards; it happens to be my mother-in-law’s maiden name.)

Nevins, a former chief of staff for a Florida state senator, works for a public relations firm called Richardson Partners, which has its offices in Delray Beach, Florida.

Richardson Partners holds itself out as a firm that serves companies in need of “generating grass roots support” or “creating a pathway for doing business with government agencies,” according to its website.

“Whether your company needs assistance with a branding campaign, generating grassroots support from the community, opening doors to other businesses, or creating a pathway for doing business with government agencies, our team will put together a plan to address your specific needs and break through bureaucratic and political resistance.” the Richardson Partners website says.

The Stronger Southold website contains what is perhaps one tiny bit of identifying information: “R.P. Inc.” appears at the bottom of its pages.

Nevins has a consulting firm, a business he registered in Plantation, Florida called Chelsea Road Consulting. It is affiliated with Richardson; the Chelsea Road domain name points to the Richardson Partners website.

For all his lack of presence on the North Fork, where it seems clear he’s only pretending to live, he’s got lots of presence where he actually does live. His Facebook page shows a lot of activity in and around Broward County, Florida. Nearly all of the Facebook pages he’s liked are local businesses and groups there.

Nevins was the chief of staff for former Florida state senator Ellyn Bogdanoff, who lost her re-election bid in 2012. Before that he was a legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives from 2004 to 2010.

His Facebook page shows he maintains an active interest in local Florida politics: the 2016 campaigns of candidates for Palm Beach County Commission, Parkland City Commission and Parkland mayor, among others. He even made the news for his political activities in Florida this fall, when he tried to hold a road race on a major roadway on Election Day — a stunt that would have made voter travel difficult in an largely minority area, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

In contrast, Nevins’ Facebook page reveals no hint of any interest in the Southold Town elections of 2015, when the town supervisor and council members he roundly criticizes today were up for re-election. He posted a lot about rail transit plans in Florida during the fall of 2015. He posted a lot about things going on in Boca Raton. He posted nothing about anything happening on the North Fork of Long Island — nothing about Southold Town political campaigns, Southold Town issues, Southold Town events.

Actually his Facebook page reveals no interest in anything local — politics or otherwise. As of last week, he’d only liked one Facebook page with a New York connection, the Craft Beer Guild Distributing Co. of New York. (That’s a wholesale distributor that serves Westchester and Upstate, a company rep told me.) After I pointed that out to him in subsequent interview, Nevins added three North Fork “likes”: the pages for Greenport UFSD, Stirling Historical Society and Greenport, NY the “city” page generated by Facebook.

I confronted Nevins with all of this in a second interview last week and told him I do not believe he lives here as he says. I asked him point-blank who hired him to launch the “Stronger Southold” website and Facebook page, because it’s pretty clear to me he’s doing this for someone who does have some interest here.

Nevins adamantly denied he was hired to launch “Stronger Southold” for an undisclosed person or entity. He insisted he lives here and that his wife is a native. Again, he declined to say where they live, or even give the name of a road, other than to say it was “off Paradise Point.” He insisted his wife grew up here and went to local public schools. Public records databases contain nothing but Florida addresses for her going back more than 15 years.

Greenport photographer Madison Fender, whose photos appear on the Stronger Southold website and Facebook page, said last week she’d sold a couple of photos to “a PR guy from Florida.” She said they connected through a mutual fried, but declined to provide that friend’s name.

Speaking of mutual friends, I share no mutual friends on Facebook with either Nevins or Lessard. I have more than 1,600 Facebook “friends” — most of them local. When I look at Facebook profiles of local people whom I’m not “friends” with on that platform, we always have “mutual friends.” This is, after all, a small community.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who’s been singled out for criticism on Stronger Southold and its Facebook page, faults the web publisher for inaccuracies in the facts presented on the page.

“It’s not meaningful discussion,” he said. “He doesn’t take time to understand the issues or the facts. He wants to hide his identity,” Russell said. “He looks like someone who wants to hide behind a tree and throw rocks.”

The question remains why. Why would a man with no detectable connection to the North Fork launch a website attacking Southold Town government and local officials?

Every political leader, elected official, business owner, trade organization and civic leader I’ve spoken to in the past 10 days has told me the same thing: they don’t know Aaron Nevins, never heard of him and have no idea what his agenda may be.

Is it to agitate against the winery/brewery moratorium the supervisor proposed? That was the subject of Nevins’ first post to the Stronger Southold Facebook page, with the comment: “The North Fork’s war on local business continues…”

Is it to discredit the incumbents on behalf of a person or persons who will seek to challenge them in this year’s local elections? Is it to further the interests of a business or industry here?

I don’t yet know what his agenda is, but my gut says he’s got one — and it’s not “the good of the town” or “to build a sense of community.”