Editorial: There is no substitute for transparency in government

Transparency in government is vital if citizens are to know and fully understand what government officials are doing with the tens of millions of dollars we pay in taxes. Very few of us are forensic accountants who have the time to obtain government records under the Freedom of Information laws and study them at our kitchen tables to see where every dollar is going.

We count on people in elected and appointed offices to do the right thing by us, and to spend money in the best — and most transparent — ways. After all, it’s our money. We gave it to them. Common sense would say that if what government is doing is really in our best interests, it should be done out in the open.

The issue of transparency in government seems to be very much the underlying discussion in Riverhead about the proposal from a company called Luminati Aerospace. Officials in Southold, Greenport and Shelter Island should be paying attention to what is unfolding there. A lesson is playing out in Riverhead on how to do business with people who want to do business with government.

Luminati is boldly proposing to return the EPCAL site in Calverton to its glory years, when Grumman built F-14 jets there. It was Grumman engineers and scientists who helped put astronauts on the moon and bring them back safely to earth. There is tremendous history at the site, harking back to the days when America’s grasp exceeded its reach.

It would seem doubtful that anything on the scale of Grumman will ever return to Calverton. Riverhead Town has certainly tried and for several years now has been tossing around ideas ever since receiving this massive and magnificent piece of property from the U.S. Navy. Those ideas have included an indoor ski mountain and other themed resorts; a racing-themed entertainment center; an industrial park; a proposal from Donald Trump for the entire 2,900-acre site for a NASCAR race track; and an equestrian park. Those ideas have come and gone.

The more than 2,000 acres that make up the site are a gem and, outside the preserved areas of the Long Island Pine Barrens, one of the largest undeveloped tracts of woodlands remaining. Perhaps in another time and place it would be a candidate for a national park and an aerospace museum.

The discussion in Riverhead now is whether to move forward with Luminati and sell the company more than 1,000 acres of land at the site. Stories in the Riverhead News-Review and those by RiverheadLOCAL have raised a number of critical questions that need to be answered by town government and fully discussed with the public. The media and candidates for town office have been the ones asking the questions.

Daniel Preston, Luminati’s CEO, has not answered a number of questions from reporters who have asked for basic, dollars and cents information about his company and his track record as a businessman. So far, he has even declined to provide a copy of his résumé, and it does not look like Riverhead has asked for key documents from a company that could end up owning this massive piece of real estate. Or, if they have important documents, have they fully and publicly vetted this information?

There are still many steps local government must take with Luminati, particularly now that a possible financier has stepped onto the stage. Hopefully, officials in other towns are paying attention to the script being followed in Riverhead.