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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

A (nother) quest to cull taxpayer-funded political mailings

Nassau County Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park)

Nassau County Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) is trying to curb public officials' use of government mailers around election time. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Mammogram van?

Check.

Blood drive?

Check.

Car child seat safety check?

Check.

All three subjects would pass muster under a proposal slated to be voted on Monday by the Nassau County Legislature that would ban incumbents from firing off most mass mailings within 45 days of an election.

Mailings wouldn't cut it unless they're about a public event or meeting.

OK, but what about mass mailings offering workshops on how to grieve property assessments? Republicans, after all, are making Democratic County Executive Laura Curran's countywide reassessment a key issue in her reelection campaign.

That one almost stumped Richard Nicolello, Nassau's presiding officer and sponsor of the mailings bill.

"I guess if it was scheduled before, it would be fine," Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said.

But he acknowledged that he wasn't sure.

It's likely that issue, and more, will come to the fore during the legislature's scheduled discussion of the proposal.

Just as it is likely that Nicolello, whose Republican caucus controls the legislature, has the votes he needs to pass the measure.

From there, it would go to Curran, who like all 19 county legislators is up for reelection in November.

Would she sign the mailings ban?

An emailed statement from her spokesman, Michael Fricchione, may — or may not — offer some clue.

"In the Majority’s rushed attempt to generate last-minute headlines before the election, they’ve put forward a poorly crafted piece of legislation that handcuffs the County from communicating with residents during emergencies," Fricchione said.

"Just as the county executive has used every tool available to guide our County during the pandemic and economic recovery effort, she will continue to communicate important information to residents through all available means," he said.

The saga over political mailings in Nassau stretches waaaay back.

But let's start in 2013.

That's when taxpayer-funded political mailings really began to soar, after Kathleen Rice, then Nassau's Democratic district attorney, said that under the law her office could not prove criminal misuse of government resources.

In 2015, after Rice was elected to Congress, her successor, Democrat Madeline Singas, tried to tackle the issue by recommending a different approach.

Singas suggested that the county legislature could address the problem.

Her recommendations?

A ban on all taxpayer-funded mass communications within 90 days of an election; clear rules prohibiting political and partisan messages on mass taxpayer-paid mailings; and requirements that such mailings bear "conspicuous notice" of having been "printed and distributed at taxpayer expense."

In addition, Singas recommended that mass mailings of more than 100 "substantially identical pieces" be preapproved by either a bipartisan legislative committee, or the county's board of ethics.

And then came the most significant change of all — that lawmakers establish civil and criminal penalties for violations.

Not unexpectedly, nothing significant came from Singas' effort.

In 2017, Singas tried again, this time turning directly to the Nassau County Board of Elections to take action on political mailings paid for with taxpayer dollars.

"Without clear governing guidelines, rules and protocols, public officials in Nassau County continue to waste millions of tax dollars on self-promotional mailings to improve their election prospects," Singas said in a letter to the board.

"It is unquestionably unethical and wrong … ," she argued.

Singas hit a wall there, too.

Some things did change, however, when Nicolello — one of the last two members of the legislature's inaugural class — became majority leader in 2018.

"I was looking around for things that could be done better, and I thought this was something that was needed," he told Newsday Friday.

And so, he changed the legislature's rules to bar mass mailings within 45 days of elections.

His proposed law would codify those rules as county law.

And the measure would extend the ban to the county executive and other officials elected countywide.

Curran, as a legislator, railed against tax-funded political mailings.

And earlier this year, she jumped aboard a garbage truck to decry $112,842.50 worth of what she said were taxpayer-funded mailings from GOP-run Oyster Bay Town to residents that decried her administration's work on assessment.

Curran isn't the only Democrat to call for curtailing political mailings; other lawmakers, from time to time, have done the same.

And so, when Nicolello's proposal goes up for a legislative vote, a few Democrats could come on board.

But what about consequences?

Does the proposal, in and of itself, specify any punishment for violations?

Nope.

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