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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Search for Beach Hut replacement sparks friction in Suffolk

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy and County Executive Steve Bellone are battling over the process for choosing a new concessionaire at county beaches.

Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. speaks

Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters on June 30, 2017. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Aides to Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. showed up at the county parks headquarters in West Sayville on Thursday to watch the opening of bids for a new beach concessionaire to replace Beach Hut, which was convicted of failure to pay sales taxes and fees owed to the county.

Beforehand, they asked Parks Commissioner Philip Berdolt for copies of all bid and other backup documents. Berdolt demurred, suggesting they send him an email detailing exactly what they wanted so he could check with County Executive Steve Bellone and the county attorney.

Instead, Kennedy aides handed Berdolt a subpoena ordering him to hand over “any and all records including, but not limited to, a list of potential bidders, attendance sheets for site tours and copies of submitted proposals.”

The subpoenaed materials are due Thursday. County officials could face misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to three months in jail or a $500 fine if they don’t comply.

Welcome to the battle of the beaches, a political war that may last until Election Day 2019. Kennedy, a Republican, is up for election this year; if he wins, he could be a contender to run against Democrat Bellone next year.

Jason Elan, Bellone spokesman, said Kennedy “continues to engage in a disturbing pattern of ignoring the law and playing politics.”

Kennedy countered, “I can’t articulate any credible rationale for their position other than a Democratic county executive who wants to oppose a Republican comptroller who is running for re-election.”

In recent months, Bellone also has attacked Kennedy for not blocking ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota’s bonuses for top aides using asset forfeiture funds.

And Bellone lobbied successfully against a bipartisan proposal to permit Kennedy to negotiate bond sales without going to a waiver committee, which can exempt departments from bidding requirements.

Kennedy’s office uncovered the wrongdoing by Beach Hut. Its contract was canceled after the business pleaded guilty to criminal charges of failure to pay sales and income taxes and paid $1.1 million in fines.

Kennedy has launched a performance audit of the Bellone administration’s bidding process for a new vendor. He said he made the move because there are findings in a still unreleased Beach Hut audit that might be valuable to parks officials in considering a new contract.

“We don’t have any say on who they select or how they grade” proposals, Kennedy said. “But what we do is observe, recommend and make suggestions for improvements.” He noted the comptroller’s office in the past has done similar performance audits on Sheriff’s Department contracting and a homeless shelter that owed Suffolk more than $3.6 million.

Said Elan: “The comptroller is entitled to audit the procurement once it has been completed but has no authority to interfere with the process while it is still underway.”

Parks Department officials expect to pick new vendors by March 31 and finalize their contract until May 1.

Elan could not say if Bellone will seek to quash the subpoena due Thursday. “The county attorney is going to determine the appropriate legal course for that but he has made clear he will not allow the comptroller to abuse his office,” Elan said.

In Babylon, Supervisor Rich Schaffer, who terminated the town’s Beach Hut contracts, said he has named a committee including a former Internal Revenue Service agent and a Suffolk County Community College culinary professor “to get outside eyes” on the process to find a new vendor for town beaches.

Schaffer, who also serves as Suffolk Democratic Party chairman and is often at odds with Bellone, added: “We’re also considering asking Kennedy and his staff to assist us with the review.”

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