Town Board will overhaul Anti-Bias Task Force because it lacks diversity, Rothwell says

Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force is due for an overhaul, according to Council Member Ken Rothwell, the Town Board’s liaison to the task force.

The group’s membership lacks the diversity it needs to function properly, Rothwell said in an interview Friday.

He was responding to a request made by Anti-Bias Task Force Chairperson Cindy Clifford at last week’s Riverhead Town Board meeting. Clifford stepped to the podium to ask the board to fill two vacancies created by the death of two longtime members: Sr. Margaret Smyth, who died in December, and Louise Wilkinson, who died in March.

The task force, which currently has just 10 of its 15 seats filled, wants to name three new members — Lisa Votino, Meagan Bamberger and Pam Greinke — as well as a liaison from Temple Israel, Harley Abrams.

In fact, though, the members of the entire task force are all hold-overs; their terms all end at the same time every two years, and they expired at the beginning of 2023.

By Town Board resolution adopted in February 2021, the Anti-Bias Task Force is required to have 15 members who will each serve a term of two years. The board in the same resolution appointed 14 voting members to serve on the task force, all for a term of two years. Now, every member of the task force is a holdover — serving without reappointment — and Rothwell, who supported the resolution in 2021, said he believes their terms should be staggered.

“I think that half the members should be appointed for one year and the other half should be appointed for two years” to accomplish having staggered terms on the task force. “You shouldn’t be reappointing an entire board every time,” he said.

Rothwell also believes a shake-up, of sorts, is in order.

“Right now it’s not a diversified task force and it needs to be more diversified,” he said. “There are no Spanish—speaking members, no African-Americans.

“Spanish-speaking people who want to meet with the task force should be able to meet with someone that can speak their language, give them a level of comfort,” Rothwell said. “If it’s a religious-bias incident, and it’s geared towards a particular religion, the person with that — anybody that makes a complaint should have a level of comfort. Right now, it’s not a diversified task force. And that’s what I believe that it needs to be — more diversified,” he said.

“The people [task force members] who come to our meetings are all Caucasian women in the Democratic Party,” Rothwell said. “I’m not looking to make it political,” he added.

Clifford in the past was active in Democratic Party politics. Vice Chairperson Michele Lynch ran for council member on the Democratic ticket in 2017. Marjorie Acevedo is a longtime member and former chairperson of the Riverhead Town Democratic Committee.

The is a Latin American Spanish-speaking member of the task force, Clifford noted. Roberto Ramos was recruited by Sr. Margaret, who ran the North Fork Spanish Apostolate for many years until her passing just before Christmas.

Several African-American residents volunteered and were appointed to the ABTF after the former town attorney’s wife posted racist comments on social media in October 2017. Community members attended an Anti-Bias Task Force meeting to demand action against the town attorney. Officials at the time said disciplinary action against an employee for something his spouse said was not appropriate. However, the ABTF and the Town Board agreed to expand task force membership to include residents who wanted to get involved in the task force as a result of the incident.

Those four individuals have since decided to step down, Clifford said. Another African-American member who was on the task force before the incident stepped down in 2021.

Clifford said it’s not easy to get people involved in the ABTF. It may be outside some people’s comfort zones, she said, because being out-front on bias issues may be difficult, especially for immigrants or people in a minority group.

Rothwell said he’s been approached by people who are interested in getting involved, who sent him their resumes but have not had time to meet with him yet this summer.

Another benefit to staggering terms is the continuity it will bring, Rothwell said. Every member being reappointed at the same time creates uncertainty, he said. “It’s hard to plan any programs in spring, when there might be a whole different group of people on the task force,” Rothwell said.

But the main thing, he said, is “diversification.” The task force should look like the town as a whole, Rothwell said.

He agreed that should be the aim of the Town Board in naming people to every town committee. Membership on town committees is mostly white and older.

Clifford and Lynch brought the need for Town Board action on task force appointments to the board at its July 27 work session. At that time, Rothwell and Council Member Tim Hubbard brought up the subject of diversifying its membership and Rothwell suggested that the board create staggered terms for the task force.

With no resolution forthcoming, Clifford went to the podium at last week’s regular board meeting to inquire about it. Her interest was piqued, she said, when she saw the board was making a number of advisory committee appointments. Clifford said she did not see any of those vacancies posted by the Town Board in an effort to solicit applications.

“Given that the Anti-Bias Task Force has been advised that all committee openings go to [the] personnel [department] and then are posted on, then interested parties submit application forms and resumes,” Clifford said, she questioned why one appointment before the board — to fill a vacancy on the Recreation Advisory Committee — was being made, according to the resolution, because the person “expressed an interest in serving” on the committee.

“And if that’s all it takes to become a member of a town committee, then Pamela Greinke, Lisa Votino and Meagan Bamberger, who have not only expressed an interest in serving, but have submitted applications and resumes, attended every meeting and events since January, and will be presenting upcoming engaging public events, should be appointed to the Anti-Bias Task Force right now,” Clifford said.

Clifford also suggested that the individual the town was about to appoint to the Recreation Advisory Committee should not be considered by the board both because she is already a member of an advisory committee — the Business Advisory Committee — and because she is currently suing the school district.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar pushed back on Clifford’s comments. “We do not bash people who want to volunteer, you know, claim other stuff. That’s not acceptable for a member of the community to bad mouth another member and they’re not here,” Aguiar said.

“We’re going to take care of the anti-bias,” Aguiar said. “I don’t think we’ve seen any resumes,” she said.

Clifford said every member of the task force submitted resumes back in January.

“You have your liaison. You should be working together with him on that,” the supervisor told her.

Clifford: The Riverhead anti bias Task Force is here to guard against the impacts of bias to support and to assist anyone whose appearance, beliefs, lifestyle or heritage poses a threat to their well being, and to encourage the understanding that for as we all may appear to be different, we’re all very much the same.

The board also appointed four nonvoting advisory members, including Police Chief David Hegermiller, who has been the police department liaison to the task force, a town council member liaison, a town designated liaison from the Recreation Advisory Committee, and a liaison from the Riverhead Central School District.

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