Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Electoral gadfly Greg Fischer relishes making mischief at the ballot box.
And this year he is taking on his biggest target yet -- the Long Island Power Authority.
What Fischer, a Calverton resident, is trying to do in almost Rube-Goldberg-fashion is to turn the LIPA board of trustees -- now appointed by top Albany officials -- into a board elected by Long Island voters.
That was the way the late Assemb. Paul Harenberg (D-Bayport) had envisioned LIPA would be run when it was created in 1985. The original LIPA legislation called for an appointed board, which was supposed to set up local districts and organize elections for future board members.
However, Albany kept delaying elections until 1995 when then-Gov. George Pataki got the State Legislature to change the law to an appointed 15-member board, by threatening to withhold approval of legislative pork known as member items.
Now Fischer is using loose ends from that tortured legislative history to try to restore an elected board through the back door.
Fischer said a section of the state Election Law, which dates to LIPA's formation, still lists LIPA trustee as an elected position and candidates for that office must file financial disclosure reports. The election law also requires that an independent candidate for the LIPA board file 500 signatures to qualify for the ballot. He added that it mentions "party candidates" but sets no minimum for petition signatures. It doesn't define what a party candidate is.
So Fischer along with Roger Scott Lewis, an energy expert and a Southampton Democratic committee member, and William Jurow, an attorney from Brookhaven, filed nominating petitions with the Nassau, Suffolk and the state Board of Elections in Albany -- each petition bearing a single signature.
Fischer claims the LIPA law violates the New York State constitution and does not take precedence over the election law. He added that LIPA -- to exempt itself from utility regulation -- was described in legislation as a "municipal subdivision," which gives voters a right to elect local representatives.
"You don't find any municipal subdivision out there without elections," said Fischer. "Voters are being disenfranchised; they are paying utility rates twice as high as Greenport and a third higher than Rockville Centre."
But many officials, even supporters of LIPA elections, question Fisher's ploy.
"My position is that they are petitioning for a nonexistent office and it will be treated accordingly," said William Biamonte, Nassau's Democratic elections commissioner. He said the LIPA board is unlikely to take any action. However, Biamonte said Fischer's aim is to bring a lawsuit "to get it knocked out in court, which is easier than getting the law changed in Albany."
Paul Sabatino, former Suffolk legislative counsel long involved in the public power legislation, called it "a lawsuit to nowhere." Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, however, called the effort worthwhile because "it brings attention to the issue and having an elected board just makes more sense."
But Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who with Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) have sponsored legislation to create an elected LIPA board, doubted the court would intervene to force elections after Pataki's legislative action. While their bill passed the Assembly last year and several times in the past, Thiele said the Senate has been the main stumbling block.
"The Senate Republicans haven't wanted to create a potential farm team for future Senate candidates," he said. "But the way it is now, we have a LIPA board that is more responsive to Albany than Long Island."