Spin Cycle

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Nullifying reform? Terms, districts, and campaign finance in Suffolk

Lawmakers sworn in for their current term in

Lawmakers sworn in for their current term in Suffolk. (Credit: Ed Betz)

What voters choose may not be what they get.

This has become especially clear in Suffolk.

In 1993, the county's citizens chose to limit county elected officials to three four-year terms. Last week, a local judge ruled that under the state constitution, three of six countywide elected positions were beyond the reach of that referendum.

If the county fails to appeal the decision by Acting Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo, its leaders will have effectively allowed a chunk of its own law to be voided without challenge.

Even if an appeal proceeds, but the decision stands -- as a number of experts expect -- it will mark only the latest fizzling of what was enacted by the people or their representatives.

Proposition One of 1998, authored by then-Legis. Steve Levy, won at the November polls by a 2-1 margin. Praised at the time by a League of Women Voters official as putting Suffolk “in the vanguard of campaign finance reform,” it was going to provide public financing for most county offices if they agreed to limit spending and reject certain special-interest gifts.

That never happened. By 2002, a board to enact the new spending rules was created but in the end, no candidate received money, the board was defunded, and the law was repealed.

Regardless of whether public campaign financing was a great idea, it had won the day -- only to end up nullified.

Then there was the reform bill enacted in the name of fair legislative districts.

In late December 2010, an unlikely coalition of players held a news conference to hail Suffolk's “nonpartisan” redistricting plan.

Then-County Executive Steve Levy said Suffolk had long been “on the cutting edge.” Then-Legis. Jon Cooper called it “the latest in a long line of good-government reforms that have been enacted in Suffolk County.” Ex-New York City Mayor Ed Koch said the legislation was “probably better” than what he and allies were pushing on the state level. Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group congratulated Suffolk.

Goodbye to all that. By spring 2012, the commission was dumped in favor of the traditional partisan method of redistricting.

Not all of Suffolk's cutting-edge legislation has fallen by the wayside. County measures to promote recycling in the 1980s were widely viewed years later as trailblazing.

But other lauded reforms have been passed only to pass away.

A special grand jury report released last April by District Attorney Thomas Spota (the incumbent most immediately affected in the term-limits case) stated that the county's ethics commission “was used as a political sword to attack enemies of county officials and as a political shield to authorize questionable conduct by certain county officials.”

Here, too, things had started out with great promise. “Between 1968 and 2011,” the Spota report said, “the Suffolk County Legislature passed at least 20 resolutions that created and adjusted ethics boards and commissions to provide Suffolk County's citizens and public officials an independent body that could fairly assess and resolve ethical issues and conflicts.

The report said: “Indeed Suffolk County was a leader in New York State in ethics reform and legislation up until the last decade.”

Common sense cannot be legislated, the saying goes.

But you'd think that legislation, once enacted, would stick.

Tags: Reform , Suffolk , Suffolk Legislature , Ralph Gazzillo , Steve Levy , term limits , Ed Koch , campaign finance , redistricting , Blair Horner , NYPIRG , recycling , referenda , Joseph Spota

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