Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and the county’s powerful police union, who have battled over patrol of county highways, are squaring off for a new political gunfight over who will be the law in Long Island’s last frontier — the state’s 105,000 acre Central Pine Barrens preserve.
The five-member pine barrens commission, concerned about the loss of the county’s park police, have negotiated a proposed 10 year pact with DeMarco “to perform enforcement oversight” in the pine barrens. The area covers 164 square miles in eastern Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.
But a commission’s vote to adopt the agreement was put off last week after the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, which spends millions on political campaigns, filed a grievance. The association sent a letter opposing the agreement as an infringement on their turf.
PBA lawyer David Davis said the commission should “refrain from contracting patrol functions in the region from any county law enforcement group.” He noted that the PBA contract mandates “these functions are to be performed exclusively by . . . PBA members within the police district, including areas within the pine barrens region.”
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who favors the pact with DeMarco, said the commission negotiated with the sheriff’s office because it is the only county law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in all three towns where the pine barrens are located after the county park police merged with county police two years ago.
The county police only have jurisdiction in Suffolk’s five western towns, including Brookhaven which has about 60 percent of the pine barrens. The sheriff has jurisdiction countywide. Officials also say county police now do little if any enforcement, in those woods.
Walter, who had the PBA spend $170,000 to campaign against him last year, said he hopes that the issue can be “sorted out” with the union. “I understand union concerns about taking union work,” said Walter adding there is no attempt to take away 911 calls from county police. “It’s not really efficient to have three different law enforcement agencies enforce rules in the pine barrens,” he said.
DeMarco chief of staff Michael Sharkey said he’s surprised at the PBA’s action, saying the pact only formalizes practices that have existed for 15 years. “It’s absurd to the nth degree,” he said. The sheriff’s office, the Department of Environmental Conservation enforcement officers and county park rangers in 2015 were involved in nearly 600 pine barrens arrests or summonses including the impounding of 62 all-terrain vehicles and 52 dumping violations.
Suffolk Planning Department director Sarah Lansdale, Bellone’s commission representative, got the panel to table the pact so that the administration could work through differences. A spokeswoman later said the union would not be included. Some question the union’s grievance because the agreement involved a state created commission and the sheriff. Others say a pact may need approval from Bellone and the county legislature.
The proposed contract, which includes no payment provision, calls for the sheriff’s office to “strive to establish a visible presence” by patrolling the pine barrens as well as taking and responding to calls from the 1-877-BARRENS hotline. The public can report violations, something the sheriff is already doing on an ad hoc basis.
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine said the wrangling needs to be resolved so the pine barrens are not left unprotected. “We need a legitimate law enforcement agency to patrol the pine barrens because right now they are being destroyed,” he said.