Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has chosen a Republican loyalist and Elmont fire commissioner, who three years ago was embroiled in a controversy over a Confederate flag inside a firehouse, to become his veterans affairs chief.
Ralph Esposito is a member of the Elmont North Republican Club and campaigned for Mangano during his re-election bid last year.
Esposito, 69, assumed the duties of Nassau County Veterans Services director last week but still must be confirmed by the county legislature.
In 2011, Newsday reported that the Elmont Fire Department agreed to get rid of the Confederate flag and related images after black volunteers and community residents objected. The department serves a community that is roughly 40 percent black.
"The community was incensed when they learned about this," said former Elmont school board president Aubrey Phillips.
Requests to speak with Esposito regarding the Confederate flag incident were referred to Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin. He provided a quote Thursday attributed to Esposito, which read, "I along with four other Commissioners ordered the removal" of the Confederate items, which had also been incorporated into the department's 50-year-old logo.
Esposito's appointment also bewildered several Nassau veterans leaders, who said his selection as head of an agency tasked with helping veterans readjust to civilian life came with little input from veterans groups.
"It's not the right way of doing things," said Donald Zoeller, commander of the Nassau chapter of Korean War Veterans of America and a member of the United Veterans Organization, which advises the county executive on veterans matters.
"You'd think for his own self-interest he would want to know what veterans think about his choice," Zoeller said of Mangano.
Kristofer Goldsmith, president of the veterans association at Nassau County Community College, said he's not aware of any effort by Mangano to solicit input from Nassau's growing population of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. Veterans advocates at Farmingdale State College, where about 170 veterans are enrolled, also said they hadn't been consulted.
Goldsmith said more recent veterans face challenges that are often different from those of older, more settled veterans, such as completing their education, finding housing, starting careers and learning how to cope with combat-related psychological troubles.
"It's mostly sad that this seems to be an old boy's promotion," said Goldsmith, whose organization represents about 300 veterans at the college. "I'm not sure the county is doing a great job in reaching out to the needs of younger veterans."
Nevin said Mangano's office consulted with Frank Colon, a former president of the United Veterans Organization, before announcing the appointment.
Colon said a Mangano aide told him a week before the appointment that Esposito was the executive's "leading candidate," but that no alternatives were offered. "Ralph's a good choice because he gets things done," Colon said Thursday.
Esposito, a Navy veteran, said he was a fire crash crewman aboard the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. He has been a four-time commander of Elmont's American Legion Post 1033.
"I want to address the needs of veterans," he said earlier this week. "They are going to need homes, they are going to need counseling; they have post-traumatic stress."
But although he oversees four employees who are accredited to help veterans file benefits claims, a principal mission of his office, Esposito himself is not accredited. He said he would take accreditation classes in July.
Mangano has picked four veterans department chiefs in his four years in office. All have had deep political ties to him or local Republican parties.
Ken Cadieux, a Korean War veteran and editor of the Nassau County Legionnaire, an American Legion newsletter, said frequent leadership changes hamper the county's ability to meet the evolving needs of veterans.
"It's always a concern," said Cadieux, speaking as an individual. "You bring in a new guy, and you have to start all over."