Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
It was a procedural motion, not even on the agenda, and it came up near the end of this past week's late-night legislative meeting. Despite the hour, it provoked nearly 45 minutes of sometimes heated debate.
When the smoke cleared, the Suffolk Legislature voted an overwhelming 14-2 with two abstentions, to give its public safety committee subpoena power. It will have a mandate to compel disclosure of records, put witnesses under oath on wholesale Police Department changes, and determine whether such changes impact public safety.
The approval came after a cascade of unannounced departmental changes - the elimination of the motorcycle unit, word the sheriff was going to assume police warrant duties, and the end of detective standby pay. That pay issue sparked controversy when a Brentwood stabbing victim remained unmoved for nine hours.
County Executive Steve Levy later lashed out, claiming sponsor Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), the public safety committee chairman, has become "the official mouthpiece of the police union to preserve perks and raise taxes."
Eddington countered he is not looking for a "war with Levy," but the county executive has tried to "threaten and intimidate" him and other lawmakers. "I've been called a 'Levy lackey,' " said Eddington, who supported Levy on disbanding the DARE school anti-drug program. "And now, a PBA panderer." But Eddington said subpoenas are needed because "we're not getting straight talk and we're not getting straight answers."
Subpoena power has been granted relatively rarely - seven times in the county legislature's nearly half century existence. And this is the first time since Levy took office in 2004 that subpoenas will be issued.
Levy and his police commissioner, Richard Dormer, say the subpoenas are not needed and police officials have showed up whenever asked. They tout their "reforms" for increasing police presence on the street and massing resources on problems like gang violence. Levy said the police union is behind the subpoena effort to divert attention from Levy's press for $6.7 million in concessions, while Dormer said it is a "backdoor bid to micromanage" and impose costly "minimum staffing" rules.
But legislative critics claim Levy and Dormer are playing a shell game, changing the way statistics are calculated and moving officers in and out of units, like the popular community policing unit COPE, while leaving other critical police functions undone.
"They've done a disservice to themselves," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), an advocate for more police. "They made their own bed. Now they have to lie in it."
In the past, subpoenas fueled probes that have led to the resignation of former Suffolk Water Authority chairman Leon Campo, an overhaul of the Vanderbilt Museum board and departure of one-time museum director Alex Brandshaft, who happened - not so coincidentally - to be then Huntington GOP chairman. In 1994, they stopped in midstream a costly $17-million contract to lease 1,700 county cars. In 1987, subpoenas disclosed Police Department cronyism and led to the hiring of the highly regarded Daniel Guido as police commissioner.
However, Paul Sabatino, a former top Levy aide and now foe, said the key to using subpoena power is to "narrowly target" documents and witnesses sought and do the tedious preparation work. "You need someone . . . who can read the material and connect the dots of what often appears to be nondescript documents to find the silver bullet," said Sabatino, a former legislative counsel involved in past subpoena probes.
Levy criticized the subpoenas because they won't lead to questioning police union officials' claims or determine if there was an organized effort to keep detectives from showing up quickly at the Brentwood stabbing.
He also drafted a proposal to bar procedural motions without full committee vetting and possible county executive veto.
Eddington said his committee will meet Thursday to compile a list of documents and witnesses sought, possibly including former top department officials. He plans to call a special committee meeting by month's end to take testimony.
"We're trying get unbiased, honest testimony, he said. "Not only on what changes can be made but which ones might endanger public safety."