Calls for Oceanside official to resign over racist social media posts

John Valenti and John Asbury for Newsday

November 09, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on November 09, 2020.

An Oceanside sanitation commissioner has come under fire from Jewish organizations and others because of racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and sexist posts he shared on social media sites going back years.

The commissioner, Ryan Hemsley, wrote on his official sanitation commissioner Facebook page that "not once, were any of the memes posted aimed directly at someone or meant to offend anyone. I realize now that they did offend and I am TRULY sorry for that. I will continue to try my hardest to regain the trust of the community and do my best moving forward."

Hemsley, 38, who was elected to a two-year term on the board in September, said he does not intend to resign.

Austin R. Graff, chair of the Oceanside Sanitary District No. 7 commission, said it is seeking an opinion from the office of state Attorney General Letitia James on any statutes to remove Hemsley from his seat because he knows of no other legal means to force a resignation or sanction him. Board attorney John Ciampoli said residents could file a lawsuit seeking Hemsley’s removal.

Hemsley did not attend Thursday night's sanitation meeting, at which Graff called for his resignation. Commissioners postponed an investigation into Hemsley’s Facebook postings until their Dec. 3 meeting, Graff said. He said they cannot conduct any investigation or compel Hemsley to answer questions unless he attends the next meeting.

The posts were revealed when an anonymous group calling itself "Oceansiders Against Racism" mailed them to Graff and other public officials shortly after Hemsley was elected to the five-member commission.

The OAR group forwarded those posts to Newsday via email but declined to release the specifics of its membership.

The posts, almost exclusively memes, span a range of topics, including Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the gay community, Muslims, women and various immigrant groups.

Graff said although Hemsley made him aware of inappropriate social media posts before the election, he had not seen them until he received the mailing from OAR.

"I thought he had stuff like 'Go [expletive] yourself' and I said 'that's inappropriate' and I told him, 'You have to take this stuff down,'" Graff said.

Though Hemsley declined to discuss specific posts he allegedly made, he said Graff was aware of all of it — though Hemsley also said some of the items attributed to him were fabricated.

"My standpoint is he [Graff] looked through my Facebook," Hemsley said. "So, either it wasn't there or he looked at it and it was there and if it was there he saw it and didn't care — or it wasn't there [to begin with] … But they've run me into the mud and now I have to dig myself out."

At the meeting, Graff said the commission will ask Hemsley which of the posts were his and has contacted Facebook to try to determine the origin of the posts.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said Hemsley should be removed or resign. He said the board needs to take stronger action to prove Hemsley had made the posts and remove him from the board, such as joining in a lawsuit seeking his removal.

"It’s not enough for the commission to hope he confesses. In light of the appalling nature of these posts, something needs to be done," Kaminsky said.

Hemsley alleged he is being scapegoated by those trying to deflect attention from a lawsuit involving the commission.

Graff, commission co-chair John Mannone, commissioner Patrick Doherty and ex-commission chair Matthew Horowitz all are named in a federal suit brought by board secretary Jacqueline Urli and two former employees filed in U.S. Eastern District Court.

That lawsuit followed an October 2019 ruling by the state Division of Human Rights that found probable cause that the district discriminated against employees who complained Urli had been sexually harassed by Horowitz.

The suit seeks "in excess of $5 million" plus legal fees for each of seven complaints. The district declined to comment on the suit.

Graff, an attorney, said the lawsuit is irrelevant to the situation.

"It's another excuse," he said. "It has nothing to do with this."

Among those demanding the resignation of Hemsley are Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, AJC Long Island, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County and the Israel education organization StandWithUs, which earlier this week issued a joint statement.

"We are outraged at the hateful social media posts made by Oceanside Sanitation Commissioner Ryan Hemsley, which include the denigration of victims of the Nazi Holocaust, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, ableism, and anti-black, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, and homophobic sentiments," the statement said. "No one posting such harmful and hateful thoughts should be representing New Yorkers in any public office."

Hemsley and other commissioners receive a $7,500 annual stipend and health benefits once they are elected. Special District No. 7 serves about 20,000 people at 10,000 homes and businesses for garbage collection with a budget this year of $8.9 million.