Respecting the political process key for lawmakers

At Babylon Town hall, Richard Schaffer with Steve

At Babylon Town hall, Richard Schaffer with Steve Bellone on Dec. 29, 2011. (Credit: Ed Betz)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

bio | email

Reports that Steve Bellone is unhappy with longtime friend and mentor Richard Schaffer over the leadership of Suffolk's legislature ought to be a warning to lawmakers concerned about their independence.

Schaffer, head of Suffolk's Democratic Party and a former county lawmaker himself, left it to legislators to decide their pick for Presiding Officer.

They selected Democrat DuWayne Gregory of Amityville, who became the first African-American to hold that job.

Gregory leads a majority caucus of 12 lawmakers that includes representatives of the Working Families and Independence parties. The legislature also has six Republicans.

Bellone, however, had wanted a different Democrat, Legis. Lou D'Amaro of North Babylon, to lead the majority. And, according to a Newsday report, Bellone blamed Schaeffer for not using "his political capital" to help D'Amaro get the job.

Bellone was so upset that he stopped talking to Schaeffer, according to the report.

The two are talking now -- or at least they did Monday.

But it's Bellone's attempt to hamstring the selection of a presiding officer that's most troubling.

It didn't mark the first time an executive tried to interject himself into a legislative leadership selection, even in Suffolk.

But for the past 10 years, Suffolk's legislature -- which has a history of being proudly independent -- has worked together collegially.

The key word here is worked.

In Suffolk -- unlike, alas, in Nassau -- lawmakers habitually and publicly scrutinize proposals that come from the executive. And sometimes those proposals are found to be wanting.

That's happened a lot with Bellone recently.

Lawmakers, for example, pushed back on Bellone's attempt to stretch residency requirements for county jobs from Long Island into New York City.

Bellone also had to pull back a proposed change in county law that would have allowed legislator Monica Martinez -- whose campaign the county executive helped fund -- also keep her job as an assistant school principal.

Bellone also scaled back a measure that had motorists paying surcharges for non-moving infractions even if they were determined to be not guilty.

All of which makes understandable Bellone's attempt to potentially get more things moving his way.

But a feisty, independent, fully functioning legislature is a good thing. The last thing Suffolk residents want is a legislature like Nassau's, where -- under both Democrats and Republicans -- too often politics, rather than good policy, determined the fate of initiatives.

Unlike Schaeffer, Bellone never has been a county lawmaker. He's a former town council member. Like Schaeffer, he also was Babylon Town supervisor.

But where the Babylon town council more often than not went along with Bellone as supervisor, he cannot -- and should not -- expect the same from the county legislature.

Monday, Gregory said that as presiding officer he intended to stay true to the legislature's charge.

"The legislature has an important role in government and in oversight and it is something that remains intact," he said.

"That doesn't mean that we have to have an adversarial relationship with whomever the county executive is," Gregory said. "But we do have to allow the process to be the process."