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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brookhaven snowstorm woes caused by politics

Cars move slowly north on College Road in

Cars move slowly north on College Road in Selden. Although plowed, the packed and frozen snow creates deep ruts in the road slowing traffic. (Feb. 12, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Why were so many roads left unplowed in the Town of Brookhaven days after a major snowstorm hit?

It's not because the town highway department, which left streets unplowed for days, is inept. It's because it's more a political patronage mill than a highway department.

Think about it.

Why would Republican Assemb. Dan Losquadro be running for highway superintendent?

When was the last time a former superintendent was able to jump from that job to a Suffolk County judgeship, as Democrat John Rouse did recently?

The department for years has been a seat of political patronage and political power.

Republicans want it; Democrats want it. What major party wouldn't? It comes with an army of patronage jobs and the ability to determine who will get big paving, truck and snowplowing contracts.

It's been almost laughable to hear town officials -- from Supervisor Edward P. Romaine to town board members -- try to deflect that reality.

But Romaine went further by blaming constituents, along with the department, for the town's bungling.

This wasn't just poor road maintenance. Leaving so many roads unplowed for so long created a potential health and safety issue. That fell squarely into Romaine's lap as the town's top elected official.

He and other Brookhaven officials ought to be ashamed knowing that one resident suffering chest pains had to be removed from an unplowed street by volunteer firefighters.

In another community, neighbors had to help a woman get out of her unplowed street so she could get to her scheduled chemotherapy, according to a reader's report.

In addition, there've been emails from elderly people who felt trapped in their homes, and from town residents frustrated and angry because they couldn't get to jobs -- or to anyone at Town Hall willing to pick up the phone.

Romaine made a bad decision by staying away too long on vacation. The former Suffolk County clerk and lawmaker is smart enough to know that.

All of which makes Romaine's behavior Thursday out of character. Romaine's made a career out of being fearless, out of raising his voice, even when he stood almost alone on an issue.

But the Romaine who appeared in public Thursday for the first time since the storm rushed into Town Hall via a loading dock rather than using the front door.

He held a news conference announcing at least one planned reform -- putting GPS on town trucks -- that already is in place.

The supervisor also refused to take questions during a news conference. Later, during an interview with Newsday reporters, Romaine appeared to sit idly by while his new chief of staff castigated a reporter for being too aggressive.

The reporter's offense? Asking Romaine where he'd been and why he'd decided to stay away so long -- questions angry residents had as well.

Careers have been won and lost on how municipalities responded to snowstorms -- which means that Romaine, who is up for election in November, could be in trouble.

The most significant reform necessary in Brookhaven, however, is to let the highway department be a highway department. Broken equipment, an astonishing lack of leadership and a botched cleanup operation are inexcusable.

But in Brookhaven, it looks like patronage and politics trumped everything.

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