At 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 12, the Town of Riverhead, acting on a search warrant, conducted a surprise inspection of the Wading River Motel on Route 25, where Suffolk County’s Department of Social Services is paying to house some 30 homeless families, including 59 school-age children.
A contingent of police officers and code enforcement officers converged on the motel, conducted inspections of each room, asked residents to show identification and took photographs of the IDs they produced.
Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass, who wasn’t contacted by the town beforehand or during the inspection, sharply criticized the action, calling it “a raid” and releasing a press statement describing the warrant as “fueled by the reprehensibly unprincipled behavior of town officials.”
In an interview with Patch this past Thursday evening, Blass continued his criticism, calling the raid “a horrible incident,” and promising that “the last thing I’m going to do is be quiet.”
He said that a search warrant should apply only to situations in which violations are suspected but an owner refuses to cooperate with authorities, saying this had never been the case with the motel’s owner, Anthony Marino.
On Friday morning, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter fired back.
“Greg Blass does not have the facts," Walter said during a briefing in his office. "Greg Blass has been shooting from the hip. He doesn’t understand what is going on."
“We have to protect the residents,” Walter continued. “If we hadn’t done anything and there was a fire, the blame would have been on us.”
Walter explained that a search warrant was needed because the town had recently been told of fire code and building code violations that may not have existed in April when the town, along with an official from the county’s health department, conducted an inspection that was announced in advance.
“In the absence of doing the warrant, we weren’t going to get a true picture of what was there,” said Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz. “And what was there back in April, I believe, is different from what we found when we executed the warrant.”
Displaying photographs taken during the inspection, Kozakiewicz said violations included make-shift stove tops improperly mounted and wired, which he said are not even allowed by state law in rental rooms measuring only 175 square feet, the size of most rooms at the motel.
He also said that police and code enforcement officers found a furnished basement apartment with obstructed entrances and exits in case of a fire.
Blass responded that Kozakievicz was mistaken in suggesting the stove tops posed a potential fire hazard.
“The small stoves were unusable,” he said. “I saw them myself. Our inspectors saw it. The health department saw it. They have been disconnected at the circuit breaker.”
The same point was made by Marino, who, along with his lawyer, John Zukowski, spoke to reporters in the hallway outside Walter’s office.
As for what’s next, Walter said that he would ask code enforcement to issue summons to the owners, returnable in Justice Court. He said he would also ask the county to pull residents out of the motel while the alleged violations were being corrected.
“If they’re not going to do that, we’ll move in Supreme Court,” Walter said. “We would sue to have the tenants removed from the premises.”
Asked about a potential lawsuit, Blass said, “We would prefer to see this litigated in front of a court that is objective and not connected so closely with the town and will abide by its decision.”
He said use of the motel and 11 other motels around the county was necessary because of the growing numbers of families made homeless by the economic downturn.
“We are at a terrible point of saturation,” he said. “To put 30 families into the mix of seeking shelter at a time when our numbers are spiking would be irresponsible and callous.”