In his first public appearance in a week, Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine apologized Thursday for his absence during the blizzard and blamed the town highway department for its "failure" to quickly clear town roads.
"This is something I am deeply sorry about," Romaine said. "I can understand the frustration of so many residents."
Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico has said Romaine was vacationing in Jamaica, but Romaine declined to say where he stayed or the reason for his absence before he returned Wednesday.
"A lot of people are unhappy I was away on vacation," Romaine said.
He said he was on the phone, managing operations while he was away.
"I did the exact same thing I would have done here. I don't drive a snow plow, and the highway department is not under my direct control or supervision. But I have a wonderful staff, and I gave point by point directions to the staff," he said.
Romaine declined to take questions at a news conference at town hall in Farmingville.
Romaine said he would work on solutions to the snow clearance, including GPS tracking systems on all vehicles, with the new highway superintendent, to be chosen in a special election March 5.
He defended his decision to go on vacation, saying when he left town on Feb. 6, the forecast did not show significant snowfall. "The storm turned out to be far more intense than predictions early in the week," he said.
The forecast on Wednesday was for 12 inches.
Pressed about his absence, Romaine's chief of staff, Garrett Swenson, threatened to stop the interview. "It's going to end if you're going to continue with this combative style," Swenson said.
One resident came to town hall hoping to talk to Romaine during his news conference, which was closed to the public.
Frank Poppito said he and his neighbors shoveled Ramsy Lane in Farmingville before town plows came on Monday. He said he was not impressed with what he heard from Romaine on the televised conference. "All the man had to do was stand up and be a man, and face the music."
Board members differed on Romaine's absence.
Panico defended him. "The man's entitled to have a private life," said the Republican deputy supervisor. "Public officials are like anyone else."
But Democratic Councilwoman Connie Kepert said, "people deserve to know where our supervisor was."
Independent Councilwoman Kathy Walsh, who is running against Republican state Assemb. Dan Losquadro for highway superintendent on the Democratic line, said it does not matter where Romaine vacationed. "We know he wasn't here where he needed to be," she said.
The political fallout from the blizzard continued outside of Brookhaven, as New York State suspended two transportation department officials after criticism of snow-removal efforts in Suffolk County last week. State government sources said both officials were suspended with pay "related to the storm."
Romaine said the snowfall challenged many municipalities. "Was four days enough to respond to a storm that in parts of Brookhaven dumped more than 33, 34 inches? Probably not. Could it have been done better? I don't know," Romaine said.
Town officials have said in the aftermath of the blizzard that the highway department was unprepared to handle a storm of such magnitude, citing problems with planning, seeking outside contractors, internal staffing and leadership, equipment shortages and old vehicles.
Acting highway superintendent Michael Murphy was on sick leave from Friday through Tuesday, during the blizzard and snow cleanup. He resigned Wednesday, and town officials appointed John Cappella acting superintendent.
Romaine repeatedly pointed out that the department is not under the town board's jurisdiction. And he said he has no authority to fire Murphy. "Obviously that rankles me, but that's the law," he said, as Murphy plans to return to his previous job.
The department has endured a leadership vacuum since former superintendent John Rouse resigned to become a county judge Jan. 1.
Romaine said he thinks other towns had similar problems but "they just didn't have an available scapegoat."
With Sarah Crichton