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Steve Bellone discusses idea of appointed sheriff in Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone presides over a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone presides over a meeting at his office in Hauppauge on Monday, June 2, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Wednesday acknowledged discussing with lawmakers a move that would make the county's elected sheriff's post an appointed one.

"We've been talking about different ideas and reforms we could do with the sheriff's office and other parts of county government," Bellone said in an interview.

Part of the discussion, he said, has involved moving Suffolk to an appointed sheriff -- who would report to the county executive.

"The sheriff's office happens to be the largest in terms of cost that is not under operational control of the county executive," he said. As for an appointed sheriff, "I think that is a subject that merits serious discussion."

Bellone, a Democrat, denied that the idea was motivated by politics, or that it was aimed personally at Vincent DeMarco -- the current sheriff, who is a Conservative Party member who has enjoyed Bellone's support in the past. "There has never been discussion about affecting Vinny's term in office, which lasts another three and a half years," said Bellone.

Bellone said the administration so far has no formal plan or proposal for making the change, which, since it involves an independently elected office, would have to go before voters in a referendum.

Bellone's behind-the-scenes discussions were first disclosed this week in a news item by Newsday's Rick Brand.

Still, DeMarco expressed anger Wednesday that Bellone had talked to lawmakers about the possibility of eliminating the elected sheriff's position before talking to him. He said he opposed the idea because, among other things, an appointed sheriff "can hide behind a county executive, whereas an elected sheriff has no choice but to face the public."

Bellone said that as the county's top elected official who controls the budget, he was concerned about two sheriff's employees alleged to have been paid for hours they did not work. One is Edward Walsh, a correction lieutenant and chairman of the Suffolk Conservative Party, whom DeMarco has moved to fire. Walsh denies and is contesting departmental charges that he allegedly charged the county for hours he did not work.

DeMarco said: "I will put my record on handling personnel up against Bellone's anytime: I was upfront with what happened, I disciplined the employees, I am trying to get them prosecuted and I will seek reimbursement."

What Bellone calls good government, some critics call political acts aimed at attempting to expand his reach over county government.

The county legislature already has approved Bellone's initiative to place a referendum on the November ballot on whether to abolish the position of county treasurer as a cost-saving measure. The office currently is held by Republican Angie Carpenter, who in 2011 lost the county executive race to Bellone.

And Bellone and Rich Schaffer, the county's Democratic Party leader, had a falling out after Schaffer allowed lawmakers to choose their own presiding officer, rather than pushing Bellone's choice.

"The fact that the county executive wants to continue to promote this effort to consolidate into one party governance is really frightening," legislative Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) told Newsday's Laura Figueroa.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) expressed concern about the idea of going to an appointed sheriff, saying, "I wouldn't want the legislature to become the tool by which we eliminate other elected officials' offices . . ."

Only three New York counties, including Nassau, have appointed sheriffs, whose responsibilities include running the county jail.

Is an appointed sheriff better than an elected one? Fruitful public discourse can begin only when -- and if -- Bellone makes it more than an idea. That may be on the agenda during a scheduled meeting Thursday between Bellone and an angry elected sheriff.

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