It’s no surprise that newly hired Southold Town Justice Court director Leanne Reilly has already heard of the controversy surrounding a previous town court clerk accused of stealing thousands from bail funds. Suffolk County court clerks are a pretty tight community, she said. They share training and best practices constantly and word travels fast.
But Ms. Reilly — a current justice court director in the Village of Westhampton Beach who has more than a decade of experience — is making one thing clear: She knows how to run a court.
“You put different procedures in place to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Ms. Reilly, a resident of Manorville, said she’s excited about the change of scenery to a bigger court.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge,” she said. “The busier the better.”
Ms. Reilly’s hiring was one of three additions made to the town court system Tuesday night by the Southold Town Board after several months of discussions about changes to the courtroom.
The town created the new justice court director position in April following the resignation of senior court clerk Christine Stulsky, who was arraigned on grand larceny charges in March after she allegedly stole “a substantial amount of money” from the court. A criminal court case against her is still pending.
Ms. Stulsky’s duties have since been taken over by other employees of the justice court, town officials have said.
Ms. Reilly will begin her new role Jan. 5. In addition to the Westhampton Beach court, she’s also served as the justice court director in the villages of West Hampton Dunes and Mastic Beach.
“She comes highly recommended by the mayor [of Westhampton Beach],” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “She was interviewed by the [Southold Town] Board and Justice [Bill] Price and was found to be an excellent, take-charge individual with a background in justice court operations.”
A job description shows the justice court director is responsible for collecting, depositing and recording all justice court fines, fees and bail payments. They will also supervise the maintenance of court records, prepare monthly reports to the state comptroller and assist the town justices in helping the town supervisor prepare his proposed annual budget. Ms. Reilly told The Suffolk Times that her court in Westhampton Beach uses the same software as Southold’s court, making the transition easier.
The job comes with an $80,000 salary, which was increased from $63,000 in July to attract interest among “more qualified candidates,” Mr. Russell said.
Prior to Tuesday night’s meeting during which members approved Ms. Reilly’s hiring, one resident wrote to object to the move, suggesting the board should have hired one of its current justice court clerks at a lower salary. The letter claimed the board was being “unfair” to the employee and questioned the number of diverse employees the town hires.
But Town Board member Bill Ruland, who also serves as deputy supervisor and sat in on all interviews with board member Jim Dinizio, said Ms. Reilly is extremely well-qualified.
“I know she’ll hit the ground running,” he said. During Tuesday meeting, Mr. Ruland added, “There’s no question in my mind that in this case it’s the right decision and the right candidate for Southold.”
The new part-time court officers hired Tuesday — former New York Police Department officer George Gross and recent seasonal Southold police officer Steven Ficner — will serve under Ms. Reilly in her role as justice court director. They will be paid $29.22 per hour and work no more than 17.5 hours per week, according to the resolution appointing them. Mr. Ficner’s appointment becomes effective Friday, Dec. 5. Mr. Gross will start Friday, Dec. 12.
Southold Town’s only current court officer, Donato Cappabianca, previously announced his intention to resign but said he would remain on the job until a replacement was found. Weeks before telling the Town Board he would be leaving his part-time civil service post, Mr. Cappabianca wrote a letter to members about security concerns in the courtroom. In it, he described situations in which he needed to take knives away from defendants since there are no security checks or a metal detector prior to them entering the courtroom.
A committee of town employees has been working in recent months on restructuring the court and improving safety there.
One of the committee’s first actions was to apply for a grant from the New York State Unified Court System requesting up to $30,000 to purchase safety equipment, including a metal detector, Councilwoman Jill Doherty, who serves as the committee’s liaison to the Town Board along with Town Councilman Jim Dinizo, previously told The Suffolk Times. The committee is also entertaining the idea of moving the justice court into a separate building from Town Hall, Mr. Russell has said.
Mr. Dinizio said at Tuesday’s Town Board work session that the men hired to replace Mr. Cappabianca both have proper training and law enforcement experience.
“They have the command,” he said. “They have the experience we’re looking for.”