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Suffolk's war over Civil Service

The battle over the new county Civil Service chief has roots that go back decades. 

Suffolk’s war over Civil Service succession has roots that go back more than three decades, when just-deposed county personnel officer Alan Schneider first got his job, and former County Executive Peter F. Cohalan first got the power to fire some of his commissioners.

Back then, Cohalan, a Republican with a progressive bent, wanted to hire Schneider, who had been Islip's head of human resources when Cohalan was town supervisor.

But because county Civil Service chief George Meyer had a six-year term, Cohalan had to lure him out of his post — offering him the labor commissioner's post, which Meyer coveted because of his past labor ties. The labor job had opened up after Commissioner Lou Tempera's conviction on corruption charges.

Seven months later, Cohalan called Meyer to his office and told him he had “lost confidence” in him. Cohalan asked for the keys to his county car and had security personnel drive him home.

“Cohalan was surgical in pulling off his ouster,” said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive. “He had a creative strategy consistent with the law."

Sabatino said that in ordering Schneider’s removal Feb. 15, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone "was clumsy, using brute force, which will lead to a legal quagmire.”

Bellone says state Civil Service agrees that Jo-Anne Taormina, his choice to succeed Schneider, is qualified for the $163,699 a year post. Bellone swore her in last Tuesday.

Critics, including some county lawmakers, say that while Schneider’s term expired, he remains as a holdover until Bellone’s pick is confirmed.

Cohalan only succeeded in his move because he made a deal in 1980 with the Suffolk Legislature’s Democratic minority and five GOP lawmakers, but it changed Suffolk political history.

Democrats got a law mandating special elections when legislative vacancies occur. It also gave them equal footing in the once-a-decade redistricting of legislative lines, which helped them grow.

Cohalan got support to oust a rival — the late GOP Presiding Officer Tony Noto, nicknamed “The Ayatollah” for his brash style.

More important, Cohalan got the power to hire and fire most county commissioners, who did not have terms, although lawmakers still had to confirm appointments. Cohalan first used his new clout on Meyer.

Cohalan predecessors John V.N. Klein, a Republican, and Democrat H. Lee Dennison had to deal with commissioners appointed by a GOP-dominated county legislature. Behind the scenes, the 10 town GOP chairmen had a major role in divvying up high-paid commissioner jobs.

“The political leaders were very much into getting their hands on the selection process,” said Klein, 87, who lives in Virginia. “I used to bewail the fact some of the commissioners were beyond my touch.”

Howard DeMartini, once Cohalan’s deputy and later Suffolk GOP leader, said “I think Bellone has handled this horribly, but I understand his frustration.”

DeMartini said he does not believe Bellone can legally make an interim appointment. But Bellone still can get his way, DeMartini said.

“Bellone needed to build a case like Cohalan did that he is entitled to have his own people and then find the votes to get the appointment … rather than running [Schneider] out of his office like he did,” DeMartini said.

Bellone's moves also could create legislative backlash against Taormina.

Bellone's predecessor, Steve Levy, tried repeatedly over 20 months to win a new term for holdover Social Services Commissioner Janet DeMarzo, deemed too harsh by both Republicans and Democrats.

By 2009, Levy had given up, saying DeMarzo “got tired of the drama.”

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