Conversation: Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith on first year in office

2018 marked a lot of firsts for Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, beginning with the very first day of the new year, when she was sworn in as the town’s first female supervisor in a ceremony at Pulaski Street School. 

More than 500 town residents attended the event that frigid January day, where Ms. Jens-Smith declared, “I believe in Riverhead, and all those standing before you here, we all believe in Riverhead. We truly want to make our town better, and we all need to help each other and work together … to move Riverhead forward.”

We sat down with the supervisor recently for a podcast discussion about her first year in office and to look ahead to what might be coming up in the near future. The following was excerpted from the interview. Listen to the entire 36-minute “Conversation” in the stream above.

Laura Jens Smith on election night 2017. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

NR: One thing I notice with you is that you ran for office the first time and lost, but you kept coming back to Town Board meetings as an audience member. You don’t often see that. What did you learn in those two years?

LJS: It gave me a good base to start when I came into office, because I was very familiar with what had gone on for the past three or four years. While I had a lot to learn, I at least had that knowledge coming in.

NR: Did your opinions on issues change during that time?

LJS: I don’t know that it reshaped my priorities. I knew the hot-button issues that needed to be attended to right away. Running for office and door-knocking is what really shaped my priorities, because I was very familiar with the concerns of people.

NR: It is a thankless job, isn’t it?

LJS: Two years is very fast. That was one of the things I tried to change when I came into office, to make it a four-year term, but I was not successful. It is difficult, especially in your first term when 365 days goes by quickly. And after your first year, you’re basically running again.

NR: What’s the biggest misconception about being town supervisor? Something that people might not realize is as big a challenge as it is.

LJS: The biggest challenge is you’re walking in to not just the policies and any local laws you want to change, but you’re also running what is basically a small city. We have our own police department, we have our own sewers, we have our own water. So you have to attend to all of those things and there’s a quick learning curve with all of those issues.

NR: You’re in the political minority on the Town Board. I’m sure there’s been a lot of disappointments because of that. What’s the biggest one?

LJS: I think the disappointment is when politics is put over decision-making, because some of the decisions seem based on party line instead of a conversation back and forth to come to some sort of compromise.

NR: I’d imagine EPCAL has been a disappointment for you. Did you think you would be able to find that third vote along with you and Catherine Kent to vote against the ‘qualified and eligible’ for Calverton Aviation and Technology?

LJS: What we were hoping to bring along was Calverton Aviation and Technology to answer the questions we had asked them and to be able to tell us what they plan on building out there. I am hopeful that they are going to do what they say they are going to build and bring high-tech and aviation there and bring some good-paying jobs here. That becomes my new challenge, moving forward, is to get the property to close and then to start getting good-paying jobs there and hold them to what they said they were going to do.

NR: I found it incredibly offensive what was said to you following a contentious meeting when Nader Ghermezian said, ‘You have to hug us. You have to kiss us.’

LJS: It was a very odd thing to say to somebody and really out of place and inappropriate.

NR: Was there ever any apology?

LJS: No.

NR: What happened to CAT’s Daniel Preston? Has he been in any meetings? When’s the last time you even saw him?

LJS: I have only met the gentleman once. He has not come to any of the meetings, but he is still part of the operating agreement and that is one of the things that as part of the contract he must remain as a partner in this. If he does step out that will be an issue we’ll have to deal with … I also never see any activity where his shop is.

NR: Do you anticipate someone else on the Town Board running against you next year? Could you see Jodi Giglio running against you?

LJS: She hasn’t said anything to me in particular, but I have heard from people that she is interested in running. She hasn’t announced anything though, so until someone announces you don’t really know.

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