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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Lawmakers in Nassau push anti-corruption reforms in election year

Town of Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino discusses his

Town of Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino discusses his ethics reform in Hempstead on July 21, 2017, in Hempstead. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Yikes!

Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino last week joined the parade of Nassau municipalities backing reforms aimed at making government operations transparent and attempting to curb corruption.

With that, Hempstead joins the county and the towns of North Hempstead and Oyster Bay in proposing to change how too many governments traditionally run on Long Island.

Why the change? And why now?

That’s easy: Elections are coming, and residents throughout the county — and the rest of Long Island — are growing angrier as revelations of elected officials abusing the public trust continue to pile up.

Nassau County has made a few attempts at reform, although the most potent one — appointment of an independent contract monitor — has gone nowhere under Republican County Executive Edward Mangano and the legislature’s Republican majority.

In Oyster Bay, the town had little political choice other than to push transparency after corruption-related indictments from both federal and state prosecutors rained down on former town officials, including longtime Republican Supervisor John Venditto, who resigned in January.

In North Hempstead, where Democrats dominate, town officials unveiled policies on nepotism and financial disclosure after a former political leader was indicted on tax-related charges.

Santino’s announcement that he would propose a series of reforms in Hempstead came after federal prosecutors handed down an indictment on tax-related charges against town board member Edward Ambrosino, who has pleaded not guilty.

But indictments aren’t the only things pushing the county in the right direction.

In Hempstead and in Oyster Bay, town board members — in a rare breach of Nassau GOP discipline — have been publicly sniping with each other.

In Oyster Bay, council member Rebecca Alesia recently took the extraordinary step of posting to Facebook a disagreement she had with the board, saying she unsuccessfully had tried to change her “yes” vote on hiring Mangano’s former spokesman, Brian Nevin — because, she wrote, she had been “misinformed about the funding” of the job.

In Hempstead, meanwhile, board members Erin King Sweeney and Bruce Blakeman — the first presiding officer of Nassau’s legislature, which was formed in 1996 — have been battling with Santino over town matters, including whether to review contracting practices.

During a Friday news conference, Santino — standing alone, which also is a Nassau GOP rarity — pitched what he called “the strongest and most comprehensive ethics legislation of any local government on Long Island.”

Among the proposed changes are two items already covered under town code — relating to town employees who are family members — and under state law, which bars public officials convicted of a felony from keeping their posts. And there are others, including publishing contracts, contract bids and financial disclosure forms online, that experts consider to be common sense reforms adopted by many large municipalities years ago.

But there’s also one — limiting outside income earned by elected officials to $125,000 a year — that looks to be aimed squarely at Blakeman and King Sweeney.

“That one can’t be considered a serious reform,” Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy Suffolk County executive and longtime former counsel to Suffolk’s county legislature, said — unprompted — after hearing Santino’s entire list of proposals. “That one’s trying to target somebody.”

Instead of capping income, he said, the town would do better to determine whether outside work presents a conflict with an official’s duties. “You can make $5 and have a conflict,” he said.

Whatever the motivation, reform on Long Island has been long overdue. The trick, however, will be to see whether the efforts last beyond Election Day.

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