At the end of a long 48-page state of the county message last week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone finally came up with a new proposal: A “top to bottom examination” of the county’s governing document, the county charter.
But the idea goes back as far as the nearly six-decade old charter itself. Until the requirement was rolled back in 2014, the county charter itself mandated the creation of a commission every 10 years to make needed changes to keep the charter up to date.
Sondra Bachety, who headed the last charter revision commission between 2007 and 2009, was disappointed that the extensive work done by her unpaid 15-member panel went nowhere, and she does not expect Bellone’s initiative to be different.
“I don’t think it will save a dime or change anything,” said Bachety, a former legislative presiding officer. “We discussed an awful lot of stuff, but nothing happened.”
Since the county charter’s adoption in 1960, four commissions have urged revisions.
John Hart, a Patchogue lawyer who chaired the 1997 commission, said his predecessor “advised me, ‘Don’t expect anything that . . . limits the power of the executive or the legislature . . . to pass’ . . . He was right.”
Over the years, proposals surfaced to make the county legislature a bicameral body; having it meet in sessions lasting several months, as the State Legislature does, rather than in biweekly meetings; and to make the sheriff an appointed rather than an elected position.
One proposal — the merger of the treasurer and comptroller’s offices — was adopted.
However, the change took nearly 15 years to become reality. Bellone and predecessor Steve Levy backed the idea. But it took court battles and in the end had to await the exit of former county Treasurer Angie Carpenter to become Islip supervisor before the merger could take place.
Another commission recommendation in the 1980s requiring that vacancies for county executive be filled within 60 days was adopted more quickly. Approval came after Republicans installed then Islip Supervisor Michael LoGrande as acting county executive for 11 months so he would be seen as an incumbent. LoGrande, however, lost to Democrat Patrick Halpin.
Bellone, a Democrat, says he wants the proposed charter overhaul to focus on ethics issues, so the “county can serve as a model of ethics for other communities across the nation.”
He also says the effort should “examine the structure of our government,” and delve into “ways to create clearer lines of accountability and authority.”
Bellone said he will put his newest deputy, Jon Kaiman, the former North Hempstead town supervisor who is new to Suffolk, in charge of the sensitive effort. Bellone also called for bringing in an outside group with “expertise in government reform and ethics” to offer recommendations directly to the public in a referendum.
Paul Sabatino, a former deputy Suffolk County executive, called Bellone’s plan an effort to divert attention from issues such as the county’s $150 million structural deficit, public anger over fee increases and his past appointment of county police Chief James Burke. Burke is in federal prison for beating a man who stole a duffel bag from his department SUV and participating in a cover-up of the assault.
“This is a classic case of creating an alternate universe . . . to avoid dealing with what has happened on his watch,” Sabatino said.
In a statement Saturday, Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said: “While professional hacks like Paul Sabatino stand in the way of true reform and file frivolous lawsuits to get their name in the paper, the County Executive is focused on strengthening public integrity in county government.”