Oceanside sanitation commissioner denies making racist posts after he doesn't show at meeting

Mike Smollins for LI Herald

November 10, 2020

Originally published in Long Island Herald on November 10, 2020.

Ryan Hemsley was absent on Nov. 4 from the first public meeting of the Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 Board of Commissioners since he came under fire for alleged racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic Facebook posts last month. Officials and community leaders were set to gather Tuesday morning at sanitation headquarters to call for his resignation.

Despite his absence, Hemsley was the topic of discussion for most of the evening, as Chairman Austin Graff again called for his resignation, while noting that the board was still looking into proving the posts were all Hemsley’s.

“The board is handling Ryan’s investigation,” Graff said. “If Ryan were to show up, we would ask him the questions that need to be asked regarding the packet that we received. That’s what the investigation is going to be. It’s not going to cost the district any money.”

Hemsley became the center of controversy after the Facebook posts were unearthed in mid-October, and as a result, the board has asked him to resign several times. He has yet to step down, and said on Oct. 15 that the posts were “doctored or completely made up” to discredit him after a contentious election in September.

Then, in a series of text messages days later, he told the Herald that he had been aware of the posts for many months, but other people had posted them on his page, and Graff asked him to remove them before he joined the board. Graff has denied having seen the posts before the group Oceanside Against Racism sent a packet to him in mid-October, and noted that he was aware only that Hemsley had scrubbed posts from his page, not what their contents were. The group also sent an email of the posts to the Herald.

After the meeting, Hemsley referred the Herald to a public statement that he wrote on Facebook, where he said he missed the meeting out of fear for his personal safety, not to dodge the allegations.

“I’d like to apologize for not being able to attend tonight’s meeting,” Hemsley wrote on Facebook on Nov. 4, “but due to the harassment and threats on my voicemail, I have been advised not to attend due to safety concerns. I would like to give my apologies to the entire Oceanside community for the horrific posts with my name on them from Facebook. I take responsibility for some of the posts that were made in public groups and inappropriate comments with friends; however, things that came in this packet were doctored.”

Hemsley said many of the posts he did not create himself, but he was tagged in them, and none of the memes were directed at anyone specific. He also apologized for the language that he has used on Facebook in the past and maintained that Graff combed through his Facebook page before appointing him to the board earlier this year.

Hemsley, a sheet metal worker in Queens and a member of Local Union 28, joined the board in January after Commissioner Matthew Horowitz stepped down. Because he took over in the middle of Horowitz’s term, Hemsley had to run in the September election, in which he defeated challenger Dawn Veit.

Graff said that if Hemsley had showed up to the meeting, he would have asked him which posts he takes responsibility for and requested for him to resign. At the meeting, an emotional Graff also expressed disappointment that other community leaders have not called for his resignation.

“If there was, God forbid a million times, a swastika on this building, we would all be joining together and saying this is terrible and we need to remove it,” Graff said. “There was a swastika on Facebook . . . The community needs to stand up to this stuff. This is not a political situation. This is Oceanside.”

Elected officials, Jewish community react

Elected officials and members of the Jewish community have spoken out against the posts, including State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin. Many local Jewish community organizations condemned the posts and called for Hemsley’s resignation after what they deemed a “disingenuous” apology from him. They included the Simon Wiesenthal Center, AJC Long Island, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County and StandWithUs

“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 sentiment,” the statement read. “No one posting such harmful and hate remarks, writings, images and posts have no place in public service,” Clavin said in a statement.

Elected officials and activists planned a rally at sanitation headquarters on Tuesday morning, after the Herald went to press.

A district mired in controversy

Hemsley said the board drummed up controversy to retaliate after he disapproved of the commissioners being involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought on by Jackie Urli, the lone female employee in the district, and a pair of wrongful termination lawsuits filed by Dan Faust and Douglas Hernandez, two longtime employees whom he labeled as “whistleblowers” to the alleged harassment. All suits are pending, and the allegations came before Hemsley joined the board.

Joe Cibellis, a former sanitation employee who was embroiled in controversy after he was found to still be on the district’s dental plan even after he was no longer working for sanitation and was not paying for the benefits, spoke at the meeting and accused the board of retaliation against Hemsley. He also noted that because Graff and Co-Chairman John Mannone are lawyers, they should know that they have to prove the allegations against Hemsley to be true.

Graff said the board was not retaliating, and that the board has taken steps to prove Hemsley was behind the posts, including contacting Facebook and state Attorney General Letitia James to unearth the original posts after they were deleted. He added that they have found that they and Town of Hempstead officials have no recourse but to force Hemsley to resign, and they also contacted James to see if there was a way to do that.

Hemsley thanked the community members who have stood by him, and said he would not resign because he wants to help make a difference in the community with his role on the board and prove the allegations against him are false.ful thoughts should be representing New Yorkers in any public office.”

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin, Town Councilman Anthony D’Esposito and Assemblywoman Melissa Miller also called for Hemsley’s resignation.

“Racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-disability speech does not belong in our society, and elected officials who spew such venomous

“This board has tried to destroy many families in the community, and now it’s happening to me,” he said. “Posts from years ago don’t define who I am today. Am I racist? No. Am I homophobic? No. Am I an anti-Semite? No.”

If Hemsley were to resign, the sanitation board could appoint a new commissioner, pending approval by the Town Board. That person would then have to run next June to finish the final year of Hemsley’s term, and then again in June 2022 for a full five-year term, if he or she wished to stay on. If Hemsley stays on the board, his term expires in June 2022.