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Nassau and Suffolk election boards avoid staff cuts suffered by other departments

Republican Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota is seen in

Republican Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota is seen in this undated photo.

The Nassau and Suffolk election boards, staffed primarily by political patronage employees, have escaped the workforce cuts that have hit nearly every other department in the county governments in the past five years, records show.

The Nassau County Board of Elections has added 32 full-time positions since 2011 — a 25 percent increase — while the county’s overall number of employees dropped by more than 1,000, about 12 percent.

In Suffolk, board staffing has held steady as the number of county positions decreased by about 1,100, or nearly 11 percent.

The boards, which administer elections at the federal, state and local levels, and review the nominating petitions that qualify candidates for ballots, are required under state law to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, to ensure fairness.

As a result, political party chairmen, who directly appoint the two commissioners who run each elections board, have significantly more influence over the agencies than any other county department. County executives and county legislators often have limited board requests to increase annual spending, but rarely have exercised their power to demand actual spending cuts.

In 2011, the Nassau County Board of Elections had 129 full-time employees and the department’s total budget — most of it salaries — was $13.8 million. This year, the board has 161 full-time workers and a $19 million budget.

In Suffolk, the number of full-time positions — 123 — hasn’t changed since 2011. The overall budget has grown from $12.6 million in 2011 to $18 million this year.

Election agencies in similar-sized counties in other states, such as Sacramento County, California, and Palm Beach County, Florida, often with just as many elections to monitor, have nonpartisan staffs that are a third the size of Nassau’s and Suffolk’s.

But local election officials say New York’s two-party system gives them a better chance of spotting fraud and errors because Republicans and Democratic officials jointly scrutinize ballots and petitions.

“The natural abrasiveness, natural distrust leads to fair and equal elections,” said Nicholas LaLota, Republican commissioner at the Suffolk Board of Elections.

The New York State requirement for parity in hiring has led to duplicate positions for each elections board job, including commissioners down to clerks and voting machine technicians.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit good-government group, said the “antiquated” state system allows patronage hiring by local election boards to go unchecked.

“It’s absurd to have a requirement in the law that every single clerical position has to be duplicated by a Republican and Democrat,” Lerner said. “If you want to have boards led by the specific parties, then the next step toward efficiency is professionalizing your staff.”

Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk legislative counsel and deputy Suffolk County executive, said staffing cuts haven’t happened because local elected officials avoid confrontation with the boards.

“The normal execution of oversight is very difficult to extend because elected officials feel intimidated,” Sabatino said. “They feel their own political futures and fate hinges on the board’s review of their petitions to get on the ballot, and their challengers.”

Officials who run the boards in Nassau and Suffolk defend their operations and spending. For instance, they note they had to add manpower to ensure that the federally mandated transition from mechanical to electronic voting machines went smoothly.

“We are granted a lot of discretion by state law, but we don’t take that lightly,” said David Gugerty, the Democratic commissioner for Nassau’s elections board since early 2015. “We do worry about the taxpayer’s dollars.”

LaLota said he has made a point of improving staff professionalism: “I understand what the reputation of the board of elections is or might have been. It’s my job to change that.”

A review of payroll records for the Nassau and Suffolk boards of election shows that numerous positions are held by county political leaders, town, village, city and hamlet club leaders, wives and children of elected officials and other top party loyalists.

Newsday reported last month that former North Hempstead Democratic Party chairman Gerard Terry held six taxpayer-funded positions in 2015 — including counsel to the Nassau Board of Elections — while amassing nearly $1.4 million in personal tax liens.

Terry, who resigned as party leader and from the board after the disclosure, earned $75,000 plus benefits from his county elections position, but had no office and had produced no written work product, Newsday found.

Michael Torres, a top Suffolk Conservative Party official, was appointed in 2007 to a board of elections post that pays $105,800 a year, despite a past criminal conviction for gambling. Republicans fired Torres last year during their battle with Conservatives over political cross-endorsements of judicial candidates.

Michael Halberstam, acting director of SUNY Buffalo Law School’s Jaeckle Center for Law, Democracy, and Governance, said that in New York, local election boards “serve as a place to park officials. I’m not going to say they don’t do any work — some do a lot of work — but it depends on the commissioner.”

Halberstam said that compared with county election boards led by an elected or appointed supervisor and staffed with nonpolitical hires, New York’s system “

really does not have the same professionalism that you would expect from a government administration.”

Gugerty, who also spoke on behalf of Nassau’s GOP elections commissioner, Louis Savinetti, said supervisors hold all board employees accountable for their production. He said that with the transition from lever voting machines to electronic voting that began in 2010, it became necessary to hire more people with technical and computer skills.

“Our goal is to decrease the head count as soon as it is practical,” Gugerty said, predicting that could happen next year. “We don’t have the intention to just run up our budget.”

In Suffolk, which also has changed to electronic voting machines, full-time election board positions have remained at 123 since 2011. Nearly every other county department has experienced cuts during the period.

Suffolk’s Democratic elections Commissioner Anita Katz declined to comment for this story. But LaLota argued that the board’s budget for 2016 hasn’t grown much compared with the last presidential year, 2012.

“I would suggest 10 percent growth in four years is tame relative to some other department budgets,” he said. “We’re not overstaffed.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) acknowledged the board of elections aren’t “heavily debated” in the county legislature’s closed-door budget workshops. But, he said: “No department should be exempt from cuts. I’m sure if an area needs re-evaluation, we will do so.”

New York’s system of giving the two major parties control of local election boards has long been justified as necessary to ensure fair contests and maximum oversight.

States such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey also have local election boards run jointly by Democrats and Republicans. But other large states have moved away from the two-party system.

In Sacramento County, California, with a population of nearly 1.5 million — similar to the populations of Nassau and Suffolk — the only politically appointed employee is the department head, the registrar of voters, whom the elected board of supervisors typically chooses. Everyone else is hired through civil service. This year, there are 34 full-time staffers, records show.

“I like that we don’t have a political party driven department,” said Sacramento County Assistant Registrar Alice Jarboe. “I like that we’re nonpartisan — everyone is treated the same.”

Palm Beach County, Florida, with 1.3 million people, is led by an elected supervisor of elections. By county charter, the position is nonpartisan. The supervisor’s staff — 49 full-time positions — is not politically appointed, officials say.

“We don’t care about your political affiliation because we don’t do politics in our office,” said Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who took office in 2009. “We’re a purely administrative office.”

Defenders of New York State’s system say having staff from each major party overseeing election results reduces the risk of fraud and errors.

“You need two sides fighting each other,” said Nassau Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs. “I don’t want, and our democracy can’t afford, to rely on the good intentions and honesty of someone who claims to be impartial.”

Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello said it’s better to have a system in which board workers represent their respective parties — and keep checks on each other — instead of relying on staff that may be nominally nonpartisan but possibly partial to one party over another.

“The purpose of this is for those people to watch out for our side of the coin and that’s the way it’s got to be,” Mondello said. “You really see the benefit when you get those close elections where you’re counting every last absentee ballot.”

Working under a state system that gives them the leeway, the party driven county election boards have drawn criticism for the hires they make and the raises they give.

In 2014, the Democratic and Republican election commissioners in Nassau each got raises totaling $52,400 over three years. They each earn $174,216.

The following year, Terry and Julie Maier, a board special assistant who also works as Mondello’s secretary at Republican headquarters, were among the employees who received raises. Maier earns $165,000.

Other employees at the Nassau Board of Elections include Regina Corbin, wife of former Democratic County Legis. Roger Corbin, who was convicted in 2012 of public corruption charges, a $107,256 administrative assistant; Cynthia Labriola, wife of former Oyster Bay Town Clerk Steven Labriola, a $63,945 administrative assistant; Joseph V. Ra, son of Republican Hempstead Town Attorney Joseph Ra, a deputy clerk who earns $117,815 a year, and Wayne J. Hall II, son of Democratic Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall, who makes $51,875 as a registration clerk.

Unlike Nassau, Suffolk only gives raises in line with its largest employee union contract, election commissioners said. Still, its ranks are filled with politically connected.

Suffolk’s board employs Brookhaven GOP chairman Jesse Garcia as a $133,000-a-year Hispanic outreach coordinator. Kristina Ramos-Oviedo, the daughter of Democratic Assemb. Phil Ramos, is the Democratic outreach coordinator, with a salary of $134,624. Betty Manzella, a Shirley Village trustee and the cousin of the late county GOP chairman John Powell, serves as a $121,799-a-year deputy elections commissioner.

Commissioners Katz and LaLota each earn $140,418.

“The board of elections are political appointees and seem to get exempted from layoffs. We get hammered,” said Brian Macri, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, the county’s largest union.

LaLota, Suffolk’s GOP elections commissioner, noted his efforts to professionalize the workforce in his 13 months in office. LaLota, an Amityville trustee, has an MBA from Hofstra University and an undergraduate degree from the U.S. Naval Academy. He has hired Josh Price of Huntington, an election attorney, as his senior assistant commissioner.

“If there’s this question of who has staffed the positions, I’d suggest to you that two of the biggest positions were filled with merit,” LaLota said.

Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said the high cost of running fair elections, not political influence, is keeping the staffing level at the Suffolk BOE in a climate of budget cuts.

“No one is protecting anybody. This is what it costs to run the election,” he said. “If other municipalities can do it cheaper, I’m happy to look at that.”

But Lerner, of Common Cause, said the main problem with New York’s system of running elections is that election officials have refused to consider alternatives, dismissing them as inferior.

“Elsewhere, staffs are smaller because you’re not trying to duplicate positions and you can select for particular skill sets and experience rather than connections,” she said.

“Here we hear exactly the opposite: that the only way to protect the integrity of the vote is you have to have Republicans and Democrats,” Lerner said. “But in a large country like ours, there are a lot of different models that we could be learning from if we were willing to admit that there’s room for improvement.”

How it Works

County boards of elections are responsible for running federal, state, county, town and city elections. They are headed by two commissioners, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.

The boards provide voting machines for many village, school and special district elections. They also manage voter registration and oversee the nominating petition process that determines candidate eligibility for the ballot

Under state election law, “every board of elections ... shall secure in the appointment of employees ... equal representation of the major political parties.” Election boards have interpreted that to mandate the hiring of a Republican and Democrat for each position.

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