Suffolk needs transparency, not puffery

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy at a news

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy at a news conference at the Dennison building in Hauppauge. (May 5, 2011) (Credit: James Carbone)

Rick Brand

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Early this year, John Seaman, head of the group that spearheaded the push to create a memorial for the victims of TWA Flight 800, got a contract from Suffolk County that upset him to the point that Legis. Edward Romaine said Seaman balked at signing the agreement.

Among the provisions was the stipulation that no one from Families of TWA Flight 800 Association could talk to the news media to discuss the group's mission to raise funds for an endowment for the memorial -- unless they first got approval from the county executive's office.

The contract also had to give credit to the county executive's office: "Any such printed matter or publication shall contain the following statement in clear and legible print: 'This publication is fully and or partially funded by the Suffolk County Executive Office.' "

Also, Seaman's group "shall not issue press releases or any other information . . . to the media in any form . . . without first obtaining written approval" from the county.

Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said Seaman, who lost a niece when Flight 800 exploded in 1996, killing all 230 people on board, is not alone. Romaine noted that in March, one local weekly, the Riverhead Times Review, issued an editorial, "Do we really live in Soviet Suffolk?" after officials at Cornell Cooperative Extension could not speak to reporters about impending program cuts without county permission.

Incensed by the policy, Romaine has filed a proposed local law to bar county contracts from including language "that requires a contract agency to name or credit any individual elected official . . . or agency, in their printed material." It also would free contract agencies to put out press releases, articles and brochures without prior county approval.

Romaine said Suffolk has hundreds of contract agencies that provide services to the young, veterans, seniors and handicapped and it is inappropriate to muzzle them or single out any elected official for credit. After all, it's the taxpayers -- not public officials -- who foot the bill, Romaine said.

"I just want to make sure that we have transparency and don't make government about one person because it's all taxpayer money," said Romaine, who said he believes he has the votes for passage. "And contract agencies should be allowed to comment without being afraid of losing their contracts."

Mark Smith, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, says the contract language is boilerplate that dates to 1991. Levy first took office in 2004. "It's been in contracts for literally decades," Smith said.

Smith said the administration "does not take issue" with Romaine's effort to end the mandate to credit public officials. But Smith said, "we'd like to talk further" about lifting all controls on press releases and other published material.

"We want to maintain that type of oversight because it is public money being spent and the county has an interest . . . [in viewing] content to make sure a not-for-profit is not advocating a political agenda," Smith said. However, Smith maintained that the contracts are not meant to prevent groups from speaking to the press.

But Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he doesn't buy it. "It's ridiculous, the self-promotion just astounds me. It's all about branding the Levy name, when it should be about the services these organizations provide."