Questions raised about two Nassau votes

Dennis Dunne, candidate for Nassau County Legislature 15th Dennis Dunne, candidate for Nassau County Legislature 15th District (June 24, 2011) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Questions are being raised about the validity of two controversial Nassau laws decided by a Republican legislator who voted unseen from the back room of the county meeting chamber.

Robert Freeman, executive director of New York's Committee on Open Government, said state law requires the public to be able to observe a lawmaker's vote, either in person or by videoconference.

But nobody in the audience nor any legislators could see Legis. Dennis Dunne Sr. (R-Levittown) cast the 10th and deciding votes May 21 in favor of two crucial measures: to allow County Executive Edward Mangano to unilaterally cut $41 million in expenses and also to remove requirements that restrict red-light camera revenues to pay for social services. Only Dunne's voice could be heard by microphone.

Dunne was sequestered in an antechamber after arriving by ambulance; neither reporters nor photographers were allowed to see him because, officials said, recent leg surgery made him susceptible to infection.

"For all we know, he could have been bound and gagged," said Jerry Laricchiuta, head of Nassau's Civil Service Employees Association.

State law calls for members of public bodies to be "gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing" when they take action. A 2005 state appellate court struck down telephone voting because of that requirement.

"A key element of the open meetings law involves the ability to observe the performance of a public official," Freeman said. "The public has to have the ability to observe any member of a public body who is participating and voting."

Suffolk Legislative Counsel George Nolan agreed. "Here in Suffolk, I've never seen a vote cast by a person who was not in the horseshoe [of legislative seats] or at least in the auditorium."

Both Laricchiuta and John Jaronczyk, president of the recently renamed Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said their lawyers are looking into challenging Dunne's votes. "It didn't seem right and it didn't seem legal to me at the time," Jaronczyk said. Both unions already plan to challenge the constitutionality of the law allowing to Mangano to cut contractual benefits.

Ed Ward, spokesman for Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt (R-Massapequa) and Dunne, acknowledged Nassau's rules require the 19 legislators to be present and in their seats to vote. With consent of the nine-member Democratic minority, Ward said, "they waived that to allow him to vote from an adjacent room on a microphone that was attached to the speaker on his desk."

William Muller, the legislature's Republican clerk, said he recorded Dunne's vote because of that informal waiver. "Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) generously waived [Dunne's] presence on the record and I feel it was a legal vote."

Abrahams said he told Schmitt that Dunne could vote from the back room "if he's safer back there." He added that Democrats "have no intentions of bringing this up in any type of legal suit. Our position was to let Dunne vote from the back because of his medical health."

But Freeman said state law cannot be waived simply because lawmakers agree. "A waiver cannot serve to eliminate the application of a state statute," he said.Rachael Krinsky, president of Nassau's League of Women Voters, said, openness and transparency are the league's main issues. "As such, the league would expect the Nassau County Legislature to comply with any applicable laws pertaining to voting procedures."

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