Authors Posts by Leah Chiappino

Leah Chiappino


Huntington Town Hall

By Leah Chiappino

As reported by TBR News Media, April 13, the Huntington Town Board will have two open seats in November, with Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) and Councilman Eugene Cook (R) deciding not to run for reelection.

The Huntington Republican Committee has nominated two candidates: attorney Theresa Mari, and town director of labor relations, Brooke Lupinacci. 

Democrats have put forward Don McKay, deputy commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, and Jen Hebert, program director of Kerber’s Farm School and former Huntington school board president. 

TBR News Media spoke to Mari and Hebert for the April 13 edition, and subsequently had the opportunity to sit down with McKay and Lupinacci to discuss their thoughts on the election, their background and what motivated them to run.

Don McKay

Don McKey

Running on the Democratic ticket, McKay was born and raised in Eaton’s Neck, prior to moving to Dix Hills 24 years ago.

Always interested in current events, he decided to pursue a career in journalism, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications in 1987 from Bethany College in West Virginia.

“I started reading Newsday since I could read,” he said, noting he served on his high school paper as a photographer, further fueling his passion for the industry.

After graduation he worked as an admissions officer for Bethany for a year, before returning to Huntington to launch his journalism career as newspaper reporter for the North Shore News Group in Smithtown, covering the towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Huntington.

“You just learn so much,” he said of his time in journalism. “It’s really one of the best jobs to prepare you for your future.”

Two years later, he was hired as the government reporter for The Saratogian, a daily newspaper in Saratoga Springs, through a college friend who took over as sports editor. After four years there, McKay returned to Long Island to run The Huntington News.

McKay said several local topics he wrote about as a newspaper reporter still remain unresolved.

“It’s affordable housing, it’s taxes, it’s public safety, it’s quality of life, maintaining Huntington’s outstanding quality of life, and it’s protecting the environment, our bays and harbors to preserve and protect our marine environment,” he said. “So a lot of issues back then remain constant today.”

McKay, who worked as a commercial fisherman on the weekends while working as a journalist, said the transition out of the profession came when he was getting married, and a reporter’s salary became unsustainable. Still wanting to serve, he said getting into town government was the perfect fit. He served as a legislative aide to then Huntington Councilman Steve Israel (D), and joined the staff of former Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) as the town’s public information officer.

“I’ve always enjoyed public service,” McKay said. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people, resolving issues, resolving community issues, neighborhood issues, helping people get through issues of concern.”

In 2006, he was appointed director of Parks and Recreation for the town, overseeing the expansion of Veterans Park in East Northport, Manor Field Park in Huntington Station, Breezy Park in Huntington Station and an expansion of the Dix Hills Ice Rink. 

In February 2018, McKay was appointed deputy commissioner of the Suffolk parks department where he oversees 50,000 acres of parkland, 14 major active parks and more. If elected, he said he would likely step down from the county due to ethics laws.

High taxes are among McKay’s motivation to run.

“I just think that this current administration and Town Board is not being responsive to the community’s needs,” he said. “I feel that I can bring a new perspective.” 

 Brooke Lupinacci

Brooke Lupinacci

The new Republican candidate said she is a lifelong Huntington resident, whose family has lived in the area for generations.

Originally a journalism major at NYU, she decided to go to law school after being inspired by a media law course she took.

“I had a phenomenal professor,” she said. “I was totally intrigued by the law and I wanted to write about cases and legal proceedings. It was at that time that I decided that maybe I could have a better edge in my journalistic writing, if I went to law school to get a legal background.”

Then, Lupinacci took an oral advocacy course at Touro Law Center, inspiring her to delve fully into the legal profession.

 Her first job out of law school was as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, working on misdemeanor level offenses, such as graffiti infractions, assault, bias crimes and vehicle traffic violations. She then joined the county’s Domestic Violence Unit, before focusing on white collar crimes, such as embezzlement, fraud, home improvement scams, welfare fraud and money laundering.

“I really did enjoy my time in white-collar crime because it was more than just a one witness-type case, or ‘he said, she said’ type thing, if you will,” she said “ It was a real challenge intellectually, because I got to work with forensic auditors and I had a specialized team of detectives when I was prosecuting prevailing wage cases.”

When Lupinacci had her first son in 2015, she decided to leave the county District Attorney’s Office to become a Huntington Town assistant attorney. Mentors also told her that after a decade as a prosecutor, it would be a good time to step down.

“Being a Huntington resident, I thought it would be great to be working for the town that I grew up in,” she said.

Throughout her time with the town Attorney’s Office, Lupinacci helped prosecute zombie homes, hoarder properties and squatter houses, and served as counsel to the town’s elected officials, departments and staff, her campaign said. She said she enjoyed appearing in District Court and, since she loves to write, drafting legislation.

Lupinacci now serves as town director of labor relations in the Office of Personnel, with responsibilities including negotiating collective bargaining agreements, handling complaints and managing recruitment.

“It’s very fulfilling,” she said. “I find that I’ve so far have been able to, I think, make connections between management and the employees. I’ve also been able to help the department heads in building their departments, and establishing some new titles while working with the Suffolk County department of civil service. And it’s really been great.”

For Lupinacci, public service at an elected level was the next logical step in her career. 

“I think that I’ll build on the great things that have already been started,” she said. “I know the people in Town Hall that make the wheels turn.”

One issue she said motivated her to run, was Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) proposal to build 800,000 new homes over the next decade, which requires municipalities to rezone around train stations. 

“I definitely plan to stand ground on and protect Huntington from overdevelopment and some of the initiatives that Hochul seems to be trying to put upon us,” Lupinacci said. “Local control is important. We here know our counties better than those that are far removed in Albany.”

Residents are concerned that a proposed house of worship on the property of Timothy House on Route 25A will destroy the historical integrity of the property. The property is known for its ‘allée’ of sugar maples, which have not yet bloomed in this photo. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A packed room full of Head of the Harbor residents gathered last Wednesday, May 17, for a public hearing on the application of the Monastery of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, also known as the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, that occupies the historic Timothy House, to build a church on the property.

The monastery, which purchased the house in 2018, is seeking a special-use permit for religious purposes, to build the church, which will be about 3,341 square feet.  As previously noted by the The Times of Smithtown (March 30, 2023), Timothy House, constructed in the 1800s, was once the home of former Head of the Harbor historian and architectural preservationist Barbara Van Liew, who died in 2005. The house was built by a descendant of Smithtown founder Richard Smith. In honor of Van Liew, community members passed out buttons with her photo reading, “Save Her Legacy.”

The village board listened to a presentation made by Joseph Buzzell, the attorney for the monastery along with public comments made by the community. A decision has not been made and the next meeting is on June 21. Public comment will be open until then.

Calls for recusal 

At the start of the meeting Deputy Mayor Daniel White addressed calls from some community members to recuse himself from the application, as he has a family member in the monastery. He declined to step aside.

“A grandchild of one of my aunts is affiliated with the monastery,” White said. “While I know this individual, who he is, I have not had any significant conversation or other dealings with him in the last 20 years. I am not required to recuse myself here as a matter of law. I believe I can be fair and impartial in the assessment and determination of this application.”

Village Mayor Douglas Dahlgard stood behind White, and said the village is small, and most people know each other.

Plan details

Buzzell said the Monastery has received a letter from the State Historic Preservation Office noting that the house will have “no adverse impact on the Timothy Smith house.” SHPO is requiring the monastery to take photos of the site for documentation purposes.  He added that the monks “have, do and will fully maintain the Timothy Smith house.”

The plan does not include any changes or modifications to the actual house.

“This is not an insensitive builder, demolishing a historic structure,” Buzzell said. “Part of the monastery’s proposal from the very beginning is to preserve and maintain the Timothy Smith house. It’s done so in the past, it does so now, it will continue to do so.”

Buzzell said that since the monks purchased the home, they have put over $340,000 into the maintenance of the property including structural repairs to the basement and east wing, emergency repairs to beams and front stoop, along with repairs to the roof, plumbing and sanitary systems, electrical repairs, repairs to leaks in the basement and roof and mold remediation. 

The monastery is not presently proposing to widen the driveway, or add new lighting, Buzzell said. The attorney for the monastery said the decision about the driveway came up “late during the SHPO process.”

 The foliage along 25A will also stay the same. A school is no longer part of the plan, according to Buzzell.  It is proposed the church be situated 271.5 feet from the road and that 36 parking spaces be added to the property.

The project would tie the monks to the house, Buzzell said.

“This ties into the church functionally, to the property functionally, to tie them to the property financially, all of which serves to preserve the Timothy Smith house.”

Dahlgard questioned Buzzell as to if the monastery is able to afford the construction.

“My wife and I have two old houses in the village, and we know all too well the cost and the effort that goes into maintaining these houses including money,” he said. 

 Dahlgard continued: “Building a new 3,200 square foot church at today’s prices, the way things are, you’re talking somewhere close to a million dollars.” The mayor asked Buzzell if the village could get  “assurances that [the monastery] has the ability to fund and finance construction.”

While Buzzell previously agreed to  Dahlgard’s request to have a building inspector, he said he was “not involved in the financial aspects of the project but was  sure” something could be worked out.

“If [the monks] didn’t feel that they could actually build and run that church, I would not be standing at this podium,” Buzzell said. 

Parking concerns 

Ethan Schukoske, a traffic engineer for the monastery said they host a large morning service on Sundays for approximately 35 to 40 members.

“They don’t expect a large increase of members,” he said. “Obviously they want to have some space … but it’s really a relocation of services in the Timothy House to their nicer facility on site.” 

Schukoske said the facility had at most 40 cars entering the property during their Sunday peak period, according to his study, in which he observed traffic flow. He noted a maximum of 21 parked cars on site. When projecting the traffic using industry standard data from the Department of Transportation, a standard church of the same size would generate about an additional 17 cars and 31 parked cars, if projecting a typical church of the same size.

  When trustee Jeffrey Fischer pointed out that the study was done in 2021, and it was still at pandemic levels, Schukoske said that around  20,000 vehicles travel on 25A each day, so “when you have less than 100 vehicles during the peak hour, it doesn’t have a significant impact.”

Community response

Erica Rinear, who lives next door to the   monastery, said at the meeting the monks have always been good neighbors.

“They have been nothing but the most wonderful human beings,” she said. Rinear added that she and her husband used to call the section of 25A near their home “highway to heaven,” as there are a number of churches. She welcomes another.

“My husband just died February 5 of this year,” she said. “I like to think that this church will help me get to him directly.”

Leighton Coleman III, the village historian, had a number of concerns about maintaining the historic integrity of the space. He said the SHPO representative, who penned the approval letter for the home, told him she did not make a site visit to the house. He also was concerned that should the parking lot fill up, cars will be parked on 25A, blocking the view of the house.

Natasha Acker, a neighbor, said when she recently went to work, there were three construction vehicles in front of her. Parishioners have also walked up to her fence line, she said. Finally, she was concerned her home would decrease in value after the construction of the church. 

“Say somebody here wants to retire tomorrow,” she said. “It may be years of construction before they’re able to sell their home because nobody wants to buy a home, especially a nice million-dollar historic home, next to a construction area.”

File photo by Rachel Shapiro

The Smithtown Central School District budget passed 4,236 to 2,406. The budget, at $280,642,272, constitutes a 4.8% increase from the current budget.  The tax levy has increased 2.83% from last year.

Two incumbents, board President Matthew Gribbin and John Savoretti, held on to their seats. Gribbin defeated his opponent Elena Guttieri, a middle school teacher, who ran on a ticket with Savoretti, 3,472 to 3,177.

“Thank you to the Smithtown community for the approval of next year’s budget,” Gribbin wrote on his campaign Facebook page. “I am honored to be elected to a third term on the Smithtown Board of Education.  It has been a privilege, and I am looking forward to serving our community for the next three years!!!”

Former trustee Charles Rollins, who was defeated by Savoretti in 2021, praised Gribbin in a comment responding to the post.

“A well-earned honor,” he wrote. “Your leadership and strength have served the students of Smithtown well! Your election is a message that the Smithtown voters have validated your efforts of the past 6 years!”

During the campaign, Gribbin, a physical education teacher, said he was proud of the accomplishments during his tenure as president, such as increased mental health support and partnerships with the Suffolk County Police Department and Town of Smithtown. Guttieri pushed to teach “traditional” literature and “patriotism” in schools.   

Savoretti, a realtor, defeated his opponent, Nicholas De Bello, a vice president of the AME Union, 3,343 to 3,323. De Bello had run on a ticket with Gribbin. Savoretti has pledged to continue to involve the community on the board and counted security as one of his chief accomplishments. De Bello had pushed for smaller class sizes during the debates.

Kevin Craine, a teacher, defeated Vladimir Pean, an information technology specialist, 3,361 to 3,282, for Jerry Martusciello’s seat. Martusciello did not seek reelection. Pean ran with Gribbin and De Bello, and Craine ran with Guttieri and Savoretti.

The Savoretti, Craine and Guttieri campaign also issued a social media statement, thanking the community for their support and involvement in the race.

“We knew it would not be easy,” the statement read. “Up against a well-organized machine, we relied on family and friends donating their time to spread the word. Although the race was long and our opposition stiff, we sent a message: parents’ and students’ rights will be respected, academic achievement will be prioritized, and accountability and transparency will be restored in Smithtown.”

Each trustee will serve a three-year term.

Kings Park Central School District

The majority of voters in the Kings Park Central School District approved the 2023‒24 budget of $104,039,636, a 1.76% increase over last year, with 829 voting yes and 336 no.

The tax levy will increase from last year’s $77,430,655 to $80,103,141, which is a $2,672,486 increase. This results in a 3.45% tax levy increase.

Incumbent Joe Bianco ran unopposed for school board and received 976 votes. In July he will begin his fourth term.

Commack Central School District

The Commack Central School District budget for 2023‒24 passed, 1,247 to 351. This year’s total budget is $222.110,181, up $7,464,854 from last year’s $214,645,327, which is a 3.48% increase.

The tax levy will increase from $149,681,444 last year to $152,660,104. This would be a rise of $2,978,660, resulting in a 1.99% tax levy increase.

Incumbents William Hender and Susan Hermer ran unopposed for their seats on the school board. Hender received 1,283 votes and Hermer 1,303.