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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Hempstead board’s ethics discussion turns into a free-for-all

The Hempstead Town Board held a contentious public hearing on an ethics reform proposal and its 12 amendments on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (Credit: Newsday / Stefanie Dazio)

That was one for the ages.

That, of course, being Tuesday’s Hempstead Town board meeting, where council members slammed each other for, well, for just about everything.

The topic was supposed to be ethics reform.

Ha.

Instead, it turned into a series of, goodness, perhaps it’s better to demonstrate by sharing:

There was an effort — which was voted down — to mandate that town officials divulge relationships, sexual or otherwise, with other employees.

There was sniping about transparency, which, at one point, led Supervisor Tony Santino and Council member Bruce Blakeman to read from each other’s list of political contributors.

It was like watching a tennis match, in which the players served up everything they had, at anyone they wanted.

There was name calling — including residents who labeled the Santino-supporting block of board members, which included lone Democrat Dorothy Goosby, as “puppets.” And then came a time when Blakeman blasted Santino by name for trying “to screw” himself and council member Erin King Sweeney with a measure that capped outside income — a move that effectively smothers the opportunity for lawyers, or any other high-income professional, to seek public office in Hempstead.

There was humor — as when town residents, channeling Maxine Waters, who went viral for “reclaiming her time” during a Congressional hearing, insisted that the town’s time clock for speakers stop as town officials stumbled in trying to answer their questions.

At one point, town attorney Joseph Ra was asked a reasonable question on whether any other municipality in New York state with part-time elected legislators capped outside income. He had no answer, other than New York City, where the council is full time.

There was ridiculousness — as when the town comptroller asserted that hiring an independent inspector general to look at contracts could result in Wall Street bond rating agencies lowering Hempstead’s rating. Which is just, well, ridiculous, considering that bond rating agencies recently have cited the existence of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority — which is supposed to be a financial watchdog — as a positive in Nassau County’s ratings.

And then there were, um, let’s call these “Blanket Statements Most Politicians Usually Try to Avoid” when discussing policies involving ethics reform. “If no one is stealing money, why are we going away from [an existing] three-person ethics panel making nothing,” Goosby said, to, as proposed by Blakeman and King Sweeney, an inspector general position, which would have to be funded.

Council member Edward Ambrosino, who has pleaded not guilty to federal tax-related charges, took it even farther, with this: “Despite the press and the chatter, there is no corruption in the town of Hempstead.”

Lost in all of this is the meat of the matter, which is ethics. The board, with Ambrosino, Blakeman and King Sweeney objecting, passed Santino’s reform measures, including the $125,000 cap on outside salary. The board also passed an amendment that would allow lawyers to seek a waiver from a provision that would require them to disclose not just their clients, but those of every lawyer in their firm (and, yes, you read that correctly).

King Sweeney and Blakeman both said they would sue over the new measure. “I’m not going away,” King Sweeney said Wednesday — to which Santino, via a statement, responded: “If you have nothing to hide, you should have no problem disclosing all of your sources of outside income.”

Which means that, for Hempstead, the debate over ethics reform will go on.

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