Plea agreement indicates probation in highway worker case

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | A Highway Department worker, after a plea deal earlier this month, will be sentenced November 18 in Shelter Island Justice Court.

Shelter Island Town Board members are continuing to deliberate the future employment of Highway Department worker Jeffrey Starzee, 47, since he pleaded guilty to a charge of endangering the welfare of a child in a plea agreement.

The victim was a 16-year-old girl when the crime was committed.

Mr. Starzee had originally been charged with sexual abuse in the third degree along with the endangering charge.

Sentencing in Shelter Island Justice Court is slated for November 18.

The crime Mr. Starzee pleaded guilty to carries a sentence of up to one year in jail. But the  plea deal — announced in open court October 3 — means Mr. Starzee will be placed on probation for three years and must comply with a stay-away order prohibiting any interaction with the victim for five years. Other conditions of the plea agreement have been accepted by both the defense and prosecution, but weren’t spelled out in the court record.

In accepting Mr. Starzee’s plea, Judge Mary-Faith Westervelt said, “I need to know that you are actually guilty.”

With that, she turned questioning over to Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney William Nash. He referred Mr. Starzee to the months of June through December 2012, asking if in that time frame he had engaged in “an inappropriate relationship with the alleged victim.”
Mr. Starzee’s one word reply was, “Yes.”

“As a result of that relationship, did you, in fact, endanger the physical and mental or moral welfare of that aforementioned victim?” Mr. Nash asked.

Again, Mr. Starzee answered, “Yes.”

With that, Judge Westervelt reminded Mr. Starzee that an order of protection remained in place and told him the court would await a pre-sentencing investigation that could further inform conditions of probation.

“Please to do not be re-arrested on any charge,” Judge Westervelt cautioned the defendant.

Although initially Supervisor Jim Dougherty said the Town Board would await the court sentencing before acting on Mr. Starzee’s continued employment with the Highway Department, on Friday, he said the issue is being discussed and the Town Board is consulting with counsel and with Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Mr. Dougherty said. He referred to trying to follow “precedent” with regard to disciplining town workers, but declined to say what the precedent was or whether it occurred during his administration.

The Ethics Code contained in the Shelter Island Municipal Code states, “Each town employee shall endeavor to pursue a course of conduct which will not raise suspicion among the public that he is likely to be engaged in acts that are in violation of his trust.”

The town’s contract with the Highway Benevolent Association makes no specific mention of disciplinary action, but the New York State Department of Civil Service Manual of Procedures in Disciplinary Actions says public sector employees can be removed for misconduct.

“Although there is increased public and judicial scrutiny in this area, the notion that public employees may be disciplined or separated from public service only under the most extreme circumstances, and solely for the gravest offenses, is utterly untrue,” the manual says.