Nassau Legislature public forums now rare
Nassau lawmakers have the power to hold special public hearings on major issues of their choice, but have done so just once in the last three years.
Now, the county legislature's Democratic minority is calling for a revival of a system that once produced regular forums on topics as diverse as feral cats and the police department's shuttered crime lab.
From 2007 to 2010 -- a period in which both Democrats and Republicans held the majority -- the legislature each year averaged more than nine topical hearings not tied to a specific bill, according to a review of county public notices.
In 2008, Democrats called a committee hearing to discuss the possible link between vaccines and autism. They held another on the safety of "door buster" sales, following a fatal Black Friday accident at a local Walmart.
In 2010, the new Republican leadership held hearings about Cedar Creek sewage treatment plant operations and the Long Island Power Authority's disaster-preparedness plan.
In 2011, those hearings largely stopped. Not counting special hearings required to pass a budget or legislation -- such as the privatization of the county bus system -- the only one held in the last three years came in February 2012 to discuss options for the land surrounding Nassau Coliseum.
"The public always suffers if there's less information and openness in government," said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport). "But we should just be doing more hearings so people know we're going to be accountable to them and that their tax dollars are being spent appropriately."
"We don't have hearings for the sake of holding hearings," said Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow). "We're not a political body. We're a governmental body, and we need to use discretion."
Gonsalves said she has tentatively agreed with Democrats to hold a hearing in the coming months regarding repairs at the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, which was damaged by superstorm Sandy and could cost nearly $1 billion to fix.
But Democrats continue to press for public hearings on other issues, including allegations of political influence last fall that led to the resignation of Police Commissioner Thomas Dale.
Gonsalves has said the matter isn't a subject for a hearing, because investigations into parts of the incident limit what can be discussed.
"Hearings should be held when legislatively necessary, not on a political whim, and not if they are going to result in stalemates," she said.
In Suffolk, the legislature held more than a half-dozen hearings last year, including to discuss LIPA's privatization and how to expand residents' sewer access, records show.
Suffolk Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) who has held hearings on topics including state mandate relief, sober homes and the county's response to Sandy, said focused public forums educate lawmakers as much as constituents.
"It can give an issue a little more sting and a better level of attention," Browning said.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said special topical hearings offer the opportunity for political "grandstanding, but if they go about it in an honest and open way, it's still a positive, because people can never have too much knowledge."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, agreed on the benefits.
"Why not bring an issue of great public interest to a public forum?" Freeman said. "They may upset some people, but I think the job of public officials is, in part, to upset people."