Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has
County Executive Edward Mangano and lawmakers have not gone far enough in reforming the county contracting system, either by statute or by making the most of their powers.
Last week Democrats in the county legislature complained that there had been no public airing of Mangano’s decision to renew the county’s contract with its NICE bus operator. The renewal came, quietly, all the way back in December 2014, when Mangano decided — three years into an initial five-year contract — to extend it to 2021.
The administration notified lawmakers of the extension, according to a Newsday report, in September 2015 — via a copy of Mangano’s renewal letter tucked in a 466-page budget amendment. But Democrats said they didn’t notice it until a member of the Long Island Bus Riders Union advocacy group brought the renewal to their attention — two weeks ago.
Mangano acted within the provisions of the original 2012 contract — approved by lawmakers — which allowed for renewal sans public hearings or legislative scrutiny. But the move illustrates the lack of transparency that county reforms, post-conviction of former State Sen. Dean Skelos, are supposed to address.
Are the changes working? Judge for yourself.
Exhibit A: The county, as per the county attorney, now posts contracts online that divulge less public information than contracts posted, then pulled offline, six months ago.
Exhibit B: Mangano two weeks ago announced the appointment of an investigations commissioner — who will have subpoena power to probe suspicious contracts from any department.
Sounds great, except that the commissioner reports to the county executive — which makes the appointee beholden to the executive to keep the job. And as for subpoenas, the county legislature already has the power — which it has used zero times since Nassau’s contracting system came under scrutiny last year when Skelos, and his son, Adam, were charged with federal corruption-related crimes, including influencing a $12-million county contract award.
Exhibit C: Nassau’s new law — supported by Republicans and Democrats in the legislature — requiring vendors to disclose political campaign contributions to county elected officials. The law doesn’t cover donations to political parties, other companies in which a vendor has an interest, or people living at the address of the vendor’s principals — such as spouses. And it applies to contracts let only after April 1. That makes disclosure in Nassau significantly weaker than New York state’s, which requires all of the above, and reaches back several years.
Mangano, in an interview, said he has put systems into place to make the system more transparent than in other municipalities. On the bus contract, he said, Democrats are complaining now about not doing their due diligence when the extension letter was provided. On online contracts, he pointed out that lawmakers made the change. On the investigations commissioner, he said lawmakers have the authority to push for a charter change to provide for a more independent contract monitor — or they could hold hearings themselves.
And on campaign contributions, he pointed out that it is against the law to award contracts based on vendor contributions — although federal investigators are said to be probing allegations of contracts being steered to a friend of a deputy county executive.
In defending the county’s moves, officials say Nassau’s doing more than it ever did before.
But that hardly means it’s enough.