Critics of Nassau's contracting methods Monday praised County Executive Edward Mangano for forming a new panel to examine the system, but cautioned that it would be up to elected leaders to enact any reforms.
Mangano, a Republican, said Monday that the panel will be independent and nonpartisan, and will look at the procurement policy with focus on "the fairness, integrity and enforcement" of its implementation.
"As time goes on, there's room for improvement," Mangano said of the process, which was largely memorialized by charter revisions nearly 20 years ago and has gone mostly unchanged since. "That's why I put this committee in place."
Frank Zarb, the first chairman of the state board overseeing Nassau's finances, will lead the panel, which also includes Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz and Robert B. Catell, a former National Grid chief executive officer.
"The panel is everything we've been fighting for," said Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), who has proposed several measures to require more disclosure from county vendors and more mechanisms for legislative oversight over contracts.
"We're looking for more transparency. I truly believe Frank Zarb will provide that," Abrahams said. "But he can't implement things on his own. That will be up to the GOP majority and county executive."
Nassau's system of awarding contracts has come under scrutiny in recent months, after federal charges against state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, of improperly influencing the awarding of a $12 million contract to a company that employed Adam Skelos. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Newsday stories also have focused on professional service contracts that don't go to the lowest bidders, fall just below the threshold for legislative approval and receive automatic approval without a vote by the county legislature.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the "key" to the Zarb panel is "whether the county executive really feels that there is something at risk here where he has to be responsive, or whether this is a panel appointed as a deflection."
"It hinges entirely on the independence of the panel," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. He said that if panel members can investigate "without fear of favor, then the public interest can be protected."
Political scientist Doug Muzzio of Baruch College in Manhattan said it made strategic sense for Mangano to get in front of the contracting issue with the new panel.
"The cynical view is that he's diverting attention," Muzzio said. "The other way to look at it is that he could be truly interested in determining if the process ought to be revised."
Acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, who in a report last month called Nassau's procurement process "a recipe for corruption," in part due to inadequate disclosure requirements, has suggested establishing an independent inspector general to investigate contracts.
"I hope that this panel adopts the comprehensive recommendations detailed in our report," Singas said Monday, calling the contract system "broken."
Legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) also said she supports the panel, and hoped that "what's good in the contracting process remains and what needs to be improved improves. Nothing is perfect." With Laura Figueroa