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Brand: Critics skeptical at Belllone hiring urban planner

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attends a meeting

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attends a meeting with a group of county legislators in Hauppauge on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Call it “All in the Family,” Suffolk style.

Government liaison officer Amy Keyes works in the same Suffolk planning and economic department as her newly hired husband, Jonathan. She was the Bellone administration’s point person last spring to create the new job title for the $108,400-a-year position of chief community development and planning specialist that her husband now holds.

Appearing before the county legislature’s government operations committee last May, Keyes asked to create three new job titles for urban planners. “We’re looking to create a career ladder for folks,” Keyes said. Right now, she said, “There’s no room for growth, no room for advancement.”

But several GOP lawmakers were skeptical about the need for any urban planners in suburban Suffolk County.

Keyes pitched the idea, saying new hires in the newly merged planning and economic department were “sort of shoehorned” into general job titles because none fit the “different skill set” needed. County planners already on staff, she added, “do environmental and regulatory review.” Those in the new titles would be involved with design, overseeing consultants, and doing community outreach on downtown and transit-oriented projects as well as the planned rapid bus system.

The Democratic majority approved the new titles for senior, principal and chief community development and planning specialists. But only Jonathan Keyes, formerly Babylon’s $79,000-a-year deputy planning commissioner, was hired and installed at the ladder’s top rung two weeks ago. He got a $29,400 pay hike. Since his job was not budgeted, the Bellone administration upgraded a vacant entry-level community development specialist job that annually paid $61,337.

“When Amy Keyes said they wanted to create a career ladder, I didn’t know the Bellone administration would be using that ladder to take nepotism to new heights,” said Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), adding Bellone is “padding his staff at taxpayer expense.”

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone’s spokeswoman, said there was no connection between Jonathan Keyes’ hiring and his wife’s work to get the jobs created, indicating it was just a coincidence. “She wasn’t advocating for it,” said Baird-Streeter. “She just happened to be the person expressing the position of the county executive.” She also said as an offset, the administration is keeping the chief deputy commissioner spot in economic development and planning vacant. She said the Keyeses declined to comment.

However, critics say the job remains unneeded and unaffordable, given the county’s $180 million financial hole. “It’s appalling,” said Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who voted against the new job titles. “I get calls from constituents for more police, but no one has ever complained that we don’t have an urban planner.”

While Jonathan Keyes’ post is a competitive civil service post, he was hired on a provisional basis without taking a test because the state has not prepared an exam for the newly created job. He will have score high enough to keep the job.

The county nepotism law — requiring legislative approval — does not apply to her husband’s hiring because she is not an elected official or in a policy-making post. She ran a losing race as Democratic candidate for Brookhaven Town Board two years ago. After her loss, she was promoted to county deputy economic development commissioner. She later took a lower-level $100,589-a-year liaison job. Baird-Streeter said Keyes was moved to concentrate on a federal Fire Island-to-Montauk Point program to save the coast beaches from erosion: “We needed her skill set on that issue.”

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