Posters on the walls announced "Vote YES for a new arena Monday Aug. 1." In boxes were stacks of fliers and bumper stickers advising a yes vote on a referendum proposed by County Executive Edward Mangano to borrow up to $400 million to build a new Coliseum for the Islanders and a minor-league baseball stadium.
A Mangano aide said the county is running an informational campaign about the referendum in the room at One West Street, but others question whether Mangano has crossed the legal line from educating to advocating.
"You can't use public funds or public resources to advocate for or against a public referendum," said former Suffolk Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino, now a private attorney. "Saying 'Vote yes' is advocating for it."
The New York Constitution essentially bars public money from being spent for political ends. The Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that it is "unassailable that the use of public funds . . . to pay for the production and distribution of campaign materials for a political party or a political candidate or partisan cause in any election would fall squarely within the prohibition."
Hofstra Law Professor Eric Lane said that interpreting the ban is a question of degree.
"The general rule has been that you can use governmental money for educational purposes but not for campaign purposes, which is a thin line to draw," Lane said. "The more they're saying, 'Vote Yes,' the more it becomes a pitch. The less it's an explanation, the more problematic it becomes."
However, Mangano aide Brian Nevin said, "There's nothing illegal or improper going on in there. They're calling people about the informational meetings," referring to a series of meetings planned in different communities to explain the issue. "They're not advocating one way or another."
Nevin said county employees Michael Martino and Ray Thomas are supervising a team of unpaid interns to inform residents about the plan.
Asked about the boxes of promotional materials, Nevin said the Islanders had paid for everything but a foldout flier, which he called informational.
Nevin on Tuesday said he directed staff and interns to take down the posters and "not to hand out any materials that indicate a way to vote." Wednesday, the posters had been replaced by the county-paid flier and all other materials were gone from the room.
But Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, which opposes the referendum, said he wants an investigation.
"You cannot under any circumstances utilize taxpayer money, government resources, government employees and a government facility to effectively impact the outcome of the referendum," he said. "I think the district attorney should look into this immediately as should the attorney general."