By Chris Mellides
Before the Huntington Town Board met to discuss proposed budget cuts to certain departments at an October work session several years ago, Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia visited a local florist with a plan to help make a point on how the cuts would affect the town.
She picked up four red geraniums in a pot and headed to Town Hall for the meeting. She grew anxious about her idea on the drive there, but when she gazed upon the flowers she just bought, she felt more at ease.
Entering the meeting hall, Raia waited for her time to speak before presenting the attendees with the potted flowers in one hand and a pair of sharp scissors in the other.
“I kept trying to tell the supervisor at the time that what he was cutting was money I was given by the state that he couldn’t cut,” Raia said. “He left me no choice.”
With scissors in hand, Raia pointed at the crimson petals of the four flowers and began cutting them at the stem to demonstrate how cuts would prove detrimental to improving the functionality of town hall and the services it provides its residents.
“This flower represents the town attorney’s office, we will no longer be able to provide research for them in a timely fashion,” she told meeting members in the midst of snipping the flowers.
“These two flowers represent the other town departments and the town board members, and finally, this flower represents the town supervisor,” she added, cutting the very last geranium as she did the other two.
“This is to show that I am not cutting services to residents of the town. It’s just not fair.”
At the time, the supervisor did not understand that a major cut was to a budget line that involved direct funding from the state so that money could not be reallocated under law, according to Raia. She says the flowers were just her way to better illustrate the severity of those cuts.
This brazen act demonstrates Raia’s passion for the position, which now extends nearly 34 years. Earlier this month, she became the longest-serving town clerk in the Town of Huntington’s 362-year history.
Raia, 75, grew up in Brooklyn, but remembers summer visits with family to Huntington very fondly. She was “a city girl going to the country.”
Raia said first cousins would take her sightseeing, and in Greenlawn, she worked and played on her cousin’s seven-acre estate, tending to the cows, collecting chicken eggs and removing beetles from the asparagus crop.
Before moving to Huntington, Raia worked at Herman Schwabe Inc., a leader in die-cutting machinery for the footwear industry. She says that her nine-year experience there and the skills she developed helped prepare her for public office.
“When I worked there at Herman Schwabe, they put me in charge of a lot of things, so it’s hard for me to say what my official title was,” Raia said. “I was left in charge of production, I worked in importing and exporting and I helped with company finances in accounting.”
“That job helped give me a broader background,” she added.
In the late 1960s, Raia and her husband bred German shorthaired pointers, and their veterinarian at the time happened to be the vice chairman of the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce.
“He was very involved in politics, so I remember he had asked me if I would help him out. He ran for supervisor and he was defeated. He ran for councilperson and he was defeated. But I found it interesting learning more about how politics works in government,” Raia said
It was later that former Huntington Councilman Jack Dolan suggested Raia run for town clerk, knowing that the clerk at the time, Kathleen Ferraro, was leaving the position to run for town board.
“He spotted me from the sidelines at the St. Patrick’s Day parade and explained to me what he had heard and suggested that I run for town clerk. I proceeded to tell him that he was crazy,” Raia said.
Following a divorce and a need to go back to work, Raia decided to run for the position and won. She started her first term in 1982.
In the years following, Raia has consistently won every bid for reelection.
Her son, New York State Assemblyman Andrew Raia, remembers his younger years, when he took notice of his mother’s work for the town and the pressures that came along it.
“I think I was in ninth grade when she first got elected to office...and even back in the day she was the only government official that had her phone number publicly listed,” the assemblyman said. “She kind of served as the yellow pages back then for town services.”
Andrew Raia says he remembers his mother sitting at the kitchen table late into the evening and into the early morning working on various grant proposals, and how she didn’t always have the ability to spend time with him and his sister.
Despite what he and his sister dealt with in their youth while having a busy mother engrossed in town business, Andrew Raia grew up and sees the good work his mother did and continues to do for the town.
“She was always very successful with getting grant money to build the archives and really make sure that the town clerk office was really state-of-the-art and the best,” he said.
Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone, who has held his position for 22 years, has known Jo-Ann Raia since before he got into office.
“She takes not only her professional responsibility seriously, but she takes her community responsibility seriously,” Petrone said.
Previously, the longest serving Huntington town clerk was Moses Rolph, who died in office in September 1838. His nearly 34 years in office set a record that stood until last week, when Raia’s tenure surpassed his.
Among Raia’s proudest moments was when she initiated a program in 1982 to issue commuter parking permits at the town’s four railroad stations, which was later updated to a fully computerized renewal-by-mail system that gained the approval of town commuters.
Her latest accomplishment is spearheading a town-wide project commemorating the 150th year anniversary of the end of the Civil War, with programs this year that include exhibits, poetry and music events.
“Other town clerks are administrative and work from an empty office. I always feel that Murphy’s Law stops at my feet and I want to make sure that things continue when I’m not in office,” Raia said.
“I like that the residents appreciate the fact that we provide as much services as we can,” she continued. “And I hope that the next person is as passionate about this work as I have been.”