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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau contracting referendum faces deadline

We should know by Friday whether Nassau Democrats’ attempted end-run — via public referendum — around Republicans’ resistance to an independent office to monitor county contracts will work.

County Executive Edward Mangano and the Republican-majority legislature, even last week, remained steadfast in their belief that a recently appointed investigations commissioner — hired, and thus, subject to firing, by Mangano — guarantees independent scrutiny of the county’s process for awarding taxpayer-funded contracts.

That process — which county officials last year defended as transparent — continues to take a beating.

Last year, a Nassau contract was at the center of the prosecution’s case against former State Sen. Dean Skelos, and his son, Adam, who are appealing convictions on federal corruption-related charges.

Just last week, legal papers filed as part of a civil lawsuit by State Attorney General Eric. T. Schneiderman’s office against the private vendor that provides medical care at Nassau’s jail managed to raise more questions.

For one, the papers show, Mangano backed, and Republican lawmakers in 2011 approved, the contract as an emergency action, without soliciting new bids. And that Nassau’s elected officials extended the contract twice, in 2013 — with Democrats signing on — and again in 2015, in violation of the county charter, which limits the renewal terms of such contracts.

Yes, all of that was before the appointment of Nassau’s new investigations commissioner. And it preceded a change in law that requires lawmaker approval of contracts of as low as $1,000 — as a remedy to a spate of contracts sliding out, without legislative scrutiny, a smidgen under the old $25,000 limit.

But the more damaging assertion in the AG’s lawsuit is that Nassau — up until last week, and with an investigations commissioner already in place — was refusing to enforce terms of the county’s contract with Armor Correctional Health Services.

The AG’s suit alleges that the vendor repeatedly denied inmates adequate care, and defrauded Nassau taxpayers, who paid full contracted price for deficient services — allegations that the firm strongly denies.

On Friday, Nassau’s legislature finalizes its calender for a meeting scheduled for Monday.

Democrats, who last week delivered petitions with more than 4,000 signatures seeking to put the question of an independent monitor on November’s ballot, hope their petitions will be considered then. But that’s unlikely.

One issue is time.

The petitions, as of Wednesday, had yet to be scrutized to ensure that signatures are valid, and that the documents include at least 50 residents from every county legislative district, as required by charter. If the measure does not come up Monday, it’s unlikely that it will come up at all — because the legislature will go on break until September, returning too late to get the measure on the November ballot.

The other issue is politics.

In 2007, the then-Republican minority gathered four times as many signatures for a referendum to freeze assessment rates for five years. The effort never even got to the validation of signature phase, however, because the county attorney, who worked for then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, rejected it outright as illegal.

The beauty of referendums is that both sides take their case directly to voters, who decide — that is, if they’re lucky enough to get the chance.

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