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Civic leader complains about town planning administrator’s side gig

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The president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association is questioning the propriety of Riverhead planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree working as a paid consultant to a developer seeking to build a 7-Eleven gas station and convenience store on the Riverside traffic circle.

Murphree, a Sag Harbor resident, is a certified planner who worked for the Town of Southampton planning department for more than a decade before he was hired by Riverhead, appeared on behalf of the developer at a March 25 Southampton Planning Board meeting.

“Our project design provides a nice transition from the traffic circle into the hamlet center,” Murphree told the planning board during last week’s meeting.

“The applicant has been asked how does the proposed development comply with the 2015 Riverside revitalization action plan? In answering this question, we believe the proposed development complies with many of the stated goals and objectives not only of the 2015 revitalization plan, but also the 2004 Flanders Northampton Riverside Hamlet plan and also the Riverside light study as well. I served as the project manager on both of these studies while I was employed with the town,” Murphree said.

“Some of the stated goals and objectives of these plans which the project achieves includes getting rid of slum and blight, removing a former dilapidated automotive repair garage, providing new small scale retail space that is accessible by the local community and removing old underground fuel storage tanks,” he said.

Jefferson Murphree, second row at right, during the March 25 Southampton Town Planning Board meeting. (Video screenshot)

Murphree detailed reasons why, in his opinion, the site is not appropriate for the type of development envisioned in the 2015 Riverside Action Plan adopted by the Southampton Town Board, which created an overlay district that allows high-density, mixed-use development on Flanders Road in the area of the traffic circle in the hope of establishing a walkable downtown community in Riverside.

He went on to note that the development vision endorsed by Southampton Town requires hookup to a sewage treatment plant, which does not yet exist.

“Property owners cannot be expected to wait indefinitely for a sewage treatment plant to be constructed,” Murphree told the board. “The primary goal of this proposed development is to get rid of an old dilapidated gas station-auto repair garage and replace it with a safe, clean use on the subject property similar to those approved in other hamlets throughout the town that will be attractively designed to encourage both vehicular and pedestrian customers,” he said.

Taldone, who attended the meeting, held via Zoom video conference, highlighted his community group’s objections to the proposal, which he had previously submitted in greater detail in a four-page letter to the planning board.

The use is “the virtual opposite” of what the Riverside Action Plan envisions for the site, Taldone said. FRNCA has also asked the town board to impose a moratorium on new gas stations and convenience stores in Riverside, he noted.

At the meeting, Taldone was under the mistaken impression that Murphree was no longer employed by the Town of Riverhead.

Taldone spoke of how closely Riverside and downtown Riverhead are aligned and said the community group works closely with the Town of Riverhead on issues that affect the two hamlets, “because we are all on the same side with the environment we want to create,” Taldone said.

“Mr. Murphree should understand that, having worked for the Town of Riverhead,” Taldone said. “Be that as it may, we all have to earn a living.”

Taldone’s comment elicited a smile from Murphree, who shook his head and appeared on the video to comment to himself, though his microphone was muted and whatever he said could not be heard.

In an interview yesterday, Taldone said he learned after the meeting that Murphree is still the Riverhead Town planning and building administrator — and he was flabbergasted.

“He spoke as a ‘planning expert’ though not identifying himself as the current planning director of Riverhead,” Taldone said. “How is that not a conflict of interest?” He asked. Riverhead Town was an interested agency in the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan, he said. “We’ve worked closely with (CDA director) Dawn Thomas. The downtown and Riverside are joined together.”

Taldone said he was “horrified” by Murphree’s statements about the proposed use conforming with the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan.

“He cited some of the obvious like the plans elimination of blight as a goal,” Taldone said. “But a nuclear power plant could eliminate the blight but would hardly qualify as a desired use for pedestrian, walkable downtowns,” he said.

Taldone attended the Riverhead Town Board meeting today to voice his complaints about Murphree representing the developer of the proposed 7-Eleven on the Riverside circle.

“I just don’t understand entirely, how it is not a conflict of interest for your staff member to be promoting walkability for you, while trying to defeat walkability by working for our developer in the same location.

“If a bad proposal had come in, I would come running to Town Hall to speak to your planning director, and to speak to your community development agency,” Taldone said. “How do I do that when the planning director of your town is a paid planning expert for the developer proposing what is the opposite of everything we’ve been working for, is sitting at that desk? I can’t do it,” Taldone said.

“So if it’s not a conflict of interest, I think you ought to consider making that kind of side job totally unacceptable for someone in such a leadership position, so that we go back to being friends and partners in the redevelopment rather than adversaries,” Taldone said.

“Okay, so why don’t you write a letter to the clerk,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar told Taldone. “It seems like your concerns are lengthy. They’re a little complicated, and we can — It’ll be forwarded to our building department and we could take it from there,” the supervisor said.

Asked by email this morning for a response to Taldone’s statements about an alleged conflict of interest, Murphree replied, “I will respond to this question after work today. When I get home.”

Murphree was hired by Riverhead Town in July 2012 to the newly created position of Riverhead building and planning administrator, to oversee both the building and planning departments. Previous to that, he had worked for a short time as director of environmental planning at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., known as VHB, a planning consulting firm hired by Riverhead Town in 2011 to prepare a development plan, subdivision map and zoning for the former Grumman site in Calverton.

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‘Jeopardy!’ guest-hosting gig brings out some of Rodgers’ quirks

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) — We are learning quite a bit about Aaron Rodgers over the course of his run as guest host on Jeopardy! We’re learning he’s not afraid to openly campaign for the job as permanent host, he’s ready to spread his wings on his Instagram page (possibly with some prodding from fiancée Shailene Woodley), and we’re hearing him talk more than ever.

While watching Wednesday’s Jeopardy! episode, morning anchor Mike Curkov noticed some of Rodgers’ quirks that he hadn’t noticed before his two week stint on Jeopardy! Watch the video for more.

Jeopardy! airs weekdays at 6 pm on CBS 58. 



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Gig Worker Classification Worsens Inequities During Pandemic, Organizer Says

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Drivers for apps like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have said that being classified as independent contractors while working during a pandemic means they face the impossible choice between paying their bills and managing their exposure risk. Cherri Murphy, a lead organizer for Gig Workers Rising, spoke with “Civic” about drivers’ circumstances.

Murphy began driving for Lyft in 2017.

“I felt that it was a godsend, because they offered this whole thing around flexibility,” she said. But that perception shifted quickly. “There’s nothing flexible about not having access to restrooms. There’s nothing flexible about having the looming threat of an accident with no coverage. There’s nothing flexible about me being in the middle of a pandemic, with not having access, particularly in the beginning, of safety equipment. And, you know, those things are really difficult.”

Uber and Lyft have both issued statements emphasizing that they are trying to support drivers throughout the pandemic. Lyft says it has provided tens of thousands of face masks, cleaning supplies and in-car partitions to drivers at no cost to them, and that Lyft does not profit off personal protective equipment it sells to drivers. Uber told Business Insider that it had allocated $50 million toward safety supplies for drivers and had provided 30 million masks and other cleaning supplies to drivers worldwide.

In March 2020, Murphy was completing a doctoral program at a graduate theological union and her primary source of income was driving for Lyft. She decided she would be able to get by without her earnings and chose to stop driving so as not to expose herself to the coronavirus. Others chose to keep working.

“There were quite a few workers that had their backs against the walls, and that were forced to work,” she said.

During that same pandemic, employment law in California changed with the passage of Proposition 22. The ballot measure categorized gig workers — people who work through apps like Lyft, Uber or Instacart or DoorDash — as independent contractors rather than as employees of those companies. Because they are not considered drivers’ and delivery workers’ employers, the companies are also exempt from providing benefits like unemployment protections, minimum wage and sick leave. Drivers and labor organizers have described that system as exploitative, because drivers lack full employee protections and earn less than they should. The Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, in an October 2019 analysis of Proposition 22, wrote that while the initiative guarantees drivers 120% of minimum wage, since it only applies when the drivers are actually en route to or transporting passengers, drivers may be paid for only 67% of their actual working time.

Murphy said that in the Bay Area, where the majority of gig workers are immigrants and people of color, the classification of gig workers as independent contractors deepens existing inequities.

“Not only are we in the middle of a pandemic, but we’re also in the middle of a movement that’s been really pivotal as relates to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. And so our perspective is that we know that economic justice and racial justice are interrelated,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, what you have is a law that continues to create a caste system, not designed to have people be economically sustainable, or work in safe working conditions.”

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Greeson: Wishing our next mayor all the best in his stressful gig leading a stress-filled city

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Tim Kelly cruised to an easy win this week to become Chattanooga’s 66th mayor.

He will be sworn in Monday, along with the nine members of the City Council, including new members Jenny Hill (who also serves on the school board and must believe running for office counts as good cardio, too), Isiah Hester and Raquetta Dotley.

For Kelly, who spent a pot of his own money to topple more than a dozen challengers in the March election and eased by Kim White in Tuesday’s runoff with a commanding 60% of the vote, the challenges are numerous, from long range to looming right around the corner. And the majority of them will not be fixed with a shovel and wheelbarrow.

Everyone will be watching how he will work with Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy. Everyone will be watching how he is able to influence the direction of downtown development — development that is splitting into unsustainable segments from the Tennessee River and North Shore to the bottom of Lookout Mountain.

There are pandemic recovery and jobs issues, affordable housing shortages and, of course, paving and pothole repair. Side note: It will be a welcome relief for our next mayor to put the brakes on the bike lane fiasco, but that’s low-hanging fruit (with apologies to the six peddlers who actually used those in the last half decade).

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is quite a long list of priorities and challenges.

Chattanooga is beginning to shake off its pandemic fatigue, and that’s great news because the Scenic City needs to stretch its legs and, more importantly, retap the tourism money spigot.

A recent online survey by LawnStarter that ranked 191 American cities from most-to-least relaxed based on 57 indicators put Chattanooga near the bottom of most-relaxed cities.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Lawnstarter.com was just a lawn care company hawking the best grass seed or the most affordable push mower.

The company also cranks out surveys ranking cities in a variety of areas, including best cities in which to get stoned.

As for the most- or least-relaxed cities, Lawnstarter crunched everything from rates of depression and high blood pressure to life expectancy and the average length of a work day. The work day averages and livability scores include traffic measurements as well as walking and biking scores. Hey, Lawnstarter, did y’all count our bike lanes?

Sunnyvale, California, was listed as the most-relaxed city in the survey; Kansas City is the least relaxed/most stressed. As for Chattanooga, we ranked 186th among 191 cities studied, right behind Cleveland, Ohio, and just ahead of Clarksville, Tennessee. We’re dealing with a lot of stuff apparently, as we ranked 189th in mental health, 161st in physical health and 183rd in social environment.

Sources for some of the data came from organizations such as American Public Gardens, the U.S. Department of Labor, the FBI and the CDC. Not sure if they got your grade school permanent record, but the survey feels pretty thorough, even though it felt like you needed three degrees and a slide rule to crack the code of the analysis.

Still, our ranking is a bit confounding, because in the realm of interweb reviews, Chattanooga is the LeBron of lists.

On his website, our mayor-elect says, “Chattanooga succeeds when we work together in the spirit of transparency and common purpose. We must act with urgency to seize our opportunity to become the best city in the country.”

Kelly’s “First 100 days” plan looks like he’s prepared to hit the ground running.

It’s going to be a stressful transition, and I wish Kelly all the luck in the world.

He’s going to need it — and we’re going to need him to have it.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.


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