Something unusual — even rare — has been going on this week. It’s been going on right in our backyard. And hardly anybody’s noticed.
The Suffolk County Legislature has been holding committee meetings in Riverhead, the county seat of Suffolk.
Before you click away — Lord knows these goings-on are not as interesting to most people as crimes, arrests and car crashes, which draw readers like moths to a flame — consider this: our county legislature, which is dominated by western Suffolk legislators by a 16-2 count, has not held its committee meetings in the county seat in more than a decade.
That’s because the county pretty much packed up and moved county government to Hauppauge a long time ago. The county government complex in Hauppauge — technically Smithtown — is closer to the Nassau County seat, Mineola, than it is to the Suffolk County seat.
“If you draw a line on a map from Montauk Point to the Nassau-Suffolk line on the north shore and from Orient Point to the Nassau-Suffolk border on the south shore, do you know where the two lines would intersect?” local historian Richard Wines of Jamesport asked legislators at yesterday’s parks and recreation committee meeting.
They did not.
“Well, it’s right here — in Riverhead, the center of the county,” Wines told them.
The legislators on the dais didn’t show any signs of being impressed.
In fact, District 8 Legislator Bill Lindsay III of Bohemia — he succeeded his late father, the presiding officer, after his death in 2013 — actually asked speakers if Legislator Al Krupski “personally invited” them to come to the committee meetings this week.
“I know Legislator Krupski has been lobbying people to come to these meetings,” Lindsay observed with a smile.
Actually, Krupski worked hard to get the legislators to agree to hold some committee meetings on the East End. The county legislature holds six of its 15 general meetings per year in the county center in Riverside. But until this week, it held all of its committee meetings in Smithtown and only Smithtown. And committee meetings are where the real work gets done, where county bureaucrats report to elected officials, where residents and taxpayers have an opportunity to give input to lawmakers as laws and polices are being developed.
Krupski is right: East End residents shouldn’t always have to travel 60 to 90 minutes each way to speak at a committee meeting — where there’s a three-minute time limit on speakers, by the way. It’s obvious that the distances — and the time limits — work to reduce public participation in county government by residents of the eastern portion of the county.
But western Suffolk legislators say the Hauppauge (Smithtown) complex is more central and thus more convenient for the greatest number of county residents. A casual observation is in order here: western Suffolk residents seem to have no trouble finding their way to the eastern reaches of this county to visit our wineries, shop at Tanger or find the perfect pumpkin. So let’s be honest. Now that county government is firmly ensconced in Smithtown, it’s a lot more convenient — and cheaper — for county government operations to take place there. And it’s a lot more convenient for county legislators too.
So legislators last year twice rejected Krupski’s proposal to hold committee meetings on the East End for the meeting cycle prior to an East End general meeting. This year, the North Fork native got his colleagues to agree to hold two committee cycle meetings in Riverside. The first one was this week; the next is in August.
They have not been terribly well attended. But while there may be more county staffers in the audience in Hauppauge, I’m not too sure there are more members of the public there on any given day. People are busy trying to survive, many working more than one job, and committee meetings held in the middle of a weekday are not going to draw a large crowd no matter where they are.
Besides, the interest just isn’t there. And in all honesty, these things can be a bit like watching paint dry.
But that’s why you have reporters. We cover things you’re too busy to attend or too bored or apathetic to care. Just in case.
I attended as many of the committee meetings I could this week. Just because.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell sat in on the environment, planning and agriculture committee meeting Monday morning. He came for the same reason.
“We’re always complaining that they do everything in Hauppauge,” he said afterward, “so I thought that since they’re here this week, the least we could do is attend.”
Good point, Mr. Russell. Too bad other elected officials didn’t do the same. No sign of Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, or any elected official from Riverhead — and there can be a lot of grumbling heard at 200 Howell Avenue about how the county left the county seat. No sign of Southampton Town elected officials either, including Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who served on the legislature for 12 years and had to schlep from Montauk to Smithtown to do it. Or East Hampton, or any of the villages on the East End.
When the discussion next comes up in the legislature, you can be sure Bill Lindsay and the other western legislators will be hitting Al Krupski with that.
Fortunately though, local residents have made their presence known at the four meetings I was able to attend — whether they were “personally invited” by our local legislator or not.
Just as holding general meetings in Riverhead (or thereabouts, since the “Riverhead” county center is actually in Riverside, in the Town of Southampton) is the right thing to do, holding committee meetings in Riverhead for each cycle is the right thing to do. And that’s true whether or not there are fannies in every seat of the legislative auditorium.
As Schneiderman argued last year: “The East End contributes roughly one-third of the property taxes collected by Suffolk County and one-third of the $1.3 billion that comes to the county in sales taxes,” Schneiderman countered. “This area is an economic engine for the county.”
The legislators wouldn’t budge. And if Bill Lindsay’s somewhat snide questions are any indication, my guess is this legislative committee experiment will, like many other things coming out of the de facto county seat in Hauppauge, be nothing more than a one-shot, a Band-Aid that doesn’t address the bigger, underlying problem.
And then they wonder why many of us wanted — and still long for — Peconic County.
Note: There’s a full day of committee meetings on tap today: public safety (9:30 a.m.), ways and means (12:30 p.m.) and health (2 p.m.) See agendas below.
Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of RiverheadLOCAL. and SoutholdLOCAL. An award-winning reporter, including a “Writer of the Year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015, she is an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991). She lives in Riverhead with her husband and business partner, Peter Blasl. The views expressed in her column are hers alone.
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