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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau needs to vet sewer deal

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano with Bertrand Camus,

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano with Bertrand Camus, CEO of United Water discuss sewer privatization on Thursday, June 26, 2014 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It looks like the decision on how Nassau's far-flung sewer and stormwater system will be managed in the future could be decided by just seven lawmakers.

Not 19, which is the full contingent of the county legislature, but only the seven on the Rules Committee.

That was the expectation as of Monday as County Executive Edward Mangano pushed for quick approval of his plan. But that seems an awfully small contingent for so big a change.

Late Friday, the Mangano administration filed a hundred-plus page proposed contract that would turn over management of the county's sewer system to a private firm, United Water.

On its face, privatization is not a bad idea.

Over the past few decades, Nassau's done more harm than good in managing its sewer and stormwater system.

During superstorm Sandy, the failure of the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant was the largest of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard.

So, in many ways, the only way for the county to go is up.

But what may be a good idea at this point is being overshadowed by bad process.

As of Monday afternoon, lawmakers were considering holding a hearing on the proposal before the full legislature on July 14 -- followed by a vote of the Rules Committee that day, or possibly late in the month.

Doesn't something this big deserve better? How about a little more time for transparency and deliberation, and a vote by the full legislature?

Yes, there's support for the proposal, which Mangano, in an interview Monday, said would create significant savings for the county and substantially mitigate issues -- such as odor and accidental releases of less-than-fully-treated sewage -- that have plagued neighborhoods near county sewage plants for decades.

But there's a lot to be said for a full vetting of the proposal.

In 2012, the county hired a private manager for its bus service. That contract was approved unanimously by Nassau's entire legislature.

Swapping public for private managers for the sewer system would impact every residential and commercial establishment in a county with a population of 1,352,146, according to 2013 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, as of Monday, the vote on who is to manage one of the county's major assets, for the next two decades, was to be left to the seven Rules Committee members: Republicans Norma Gonsalves, Richard Nicolello, Howard Kopel and Dennis Dunne Sr.; and Democrats Kevan Abrahams, Judith Jacobs and Carrié Solages.

That would leave out a majority of lawmakers -- and by extension, their constituents.

Two county lawmakers, Republican Michael Venditto and Democrat David Denenberg, are running against each other for State Senate. Shouldn't their constituents know how they stand on the issue? And how would Democrat Ellen Birnbaum -- who has ignored requests that she step down for making insensitive remarks about New Cassel residents -- handle her first big vote since becoming an outcast from her own party?

Mangano, a Republican and former county lawmaker, said Monday that he would leave the decision on how to handle the matter to Gonsalves, the legislature's Presiding Officer -- although he said he would like to see the body act sooner rather than later.

Mangano said the deal with United Water would help the environment and save Nassau money.

As for customer rates, he said savings from new efficiencies would factor into how the county sets rates.

Is a private manager a good idea? Given Nassau's history, probably. But that doesn't mean the proposal shouldn't get a full airing. Gonsalves and other lawmakers said they would try to accomplish that by perhaps putting off a committee vote until the end of the month.

Even then, they didn't say it would go to the full legislature.

But it most certainly should.

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