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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Needed Nassau reform: limit pay to play in county contracting

Nassau is considering hiring a headhunter to scout out replacements for a much-vaunted but short-lived contract czar, who accepted the position but then stepped away rather than explain a resume discrepancy, County Executive Edward Mangano said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Mangano and Republican-majority lawmakers are working on a proposal to lower — to $1,000 — the threshold for legislative approval of contracts.

Both moves, Mangano said, are aimed at adding transparency to Nassau’s contracting process.

But neither is sufficient to wash away public concerns that something is woefully amiss in the way the county awards contracts.

The best solution remains limiting vendor donations to elected officials, putting a dent into pay-to-play — a move respondents to a recent Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll said would help address their concerns about local government corruption.

Residents have become concerned about no-bid contracts in amounts just south of the threshold for a vote by the county legislature; contracts that don’t go to the lowest bidder and contracts with politically connected vendors.

One Nassau contract ended up center stage at as part of a federal probe of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, who, until he was convicted of federal corruption charges, was longtime dean of Long Island’s powerful Republican delegation.

That contract, and others, remain under scrutiny by the Nassau district attorney’s office.

And Nassau’s chief deputy county executive, Robert Walker, admitted under a grant of immunity during Skelos’ trial that he was under investigation in another federal probe for allegedly awarding county contracts to campaign contributors. He has denied wrongdoing.

In short, the roof is on fire.

Yes, as Mangano and other administration officials have said, this is how things worked in Nassau for years. Two prior administrations, in fact, changed Nassau’s system in efforts to clean up contract-related scandals.

And, yes, the result has been a system so cumbersome that too many contractors — especially those handling social services — are left waiting far too long for reimbursements they need to keep their agencies afloat.

But if the past shows anything, it’s that administrative reforms alone are not enough to restore public confidence in how Nassau decides which vendors get residents’ tax money.

Which is why, this time, ending pay for play must be part of the process.

Mangano said that, for now, he’s gone as far as he can go with reforms. Limiting vendor contributions might be workable but only if New York State law changes to allow statewide public financing of elections, he said.

But Mangano doesn’t have to wait for new state law, or public financing. He has the authority, now, to at the least put forward a proposal limiting vendor contributions.

It’s a needed reform that Nassau residents deserve.

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