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Split decision in Hempstead supervisor's suit against town board

A judge ruled against a no-layoff clause passed just before Supervisor Laura Gillen took office, but found the personnel transfers legal.

Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen sued the town board

Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen sued the town board last year. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A judge issued a split ruling Tuesday in Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen's lawsuit against the town board, ordering that a no-layoff clause for union workers passed by the board be annulled, but that 197 board-approved personnel transfers were legal.

The order comes close to a year after Gillen, a Democrat, brought her Article 78 petition against her colleagues on the Republican-controlled town board, as well as against former Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino and the Civil Service Employees Association.

In the suit, Gillen argued that the no-layoff clause and personnel transfers passed in December 2017, shortly before she took office, were meant to protect patronage employees and to hamstring her authority as supervisor.

In a statement Tuesday night, Gillen called the order "a decisive victory for the taxpayers by reversing the purposely illegal and unethical actions of the prior administration."

"I am emboldened to continue challenging the old regime and status quo by speaking up and rooting out unethical conduct and illegal behavior," said Gillen, who was represented in the suit by attorney Matthew Didora.

Ronald J. Rosenberg, an attorney for the town board, said in a statement that the court "correctly recognized the rule of law as it relates to the lawful transfer of town employees, but ignored and misapplied the same statutes and law in the other elements of the court’s decision."

"While we are closely studying the decision to determine what available courses of action should be undertaken,  the important fact is that the Supervisor’s lawsuit was frivolous and a waste of taxpayers' money," he said.

The suit also named certain "resident-taxpayers" as petitioners. Their attorney, Roni F. Epstein, said the decision "establishes important limitations on the ability of an outgoing elected official to usurp the power of a future elected official or their administration and provides the public critical redress to challenge undue manipulation of the political process."

Santino's attorney, Andrew K. Preston, said: "It is the policy of my office not to comment on pending litigation."

The CSEA could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

In the order, Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Randy Sue Marber found that the no-layoff clause to the town's collective bargaining agreement with CSEA should not have passed, as Santino and current town Councilman Anthony D'Esposito should have recused themselves from voting on it.

Both Santino and D'Esposito had relatives who worked for the town, Marber wrote, making their failure to recuse themselves a violation of the town's ethics code. 

"The mere appearance of ethical impropriety warranted abstention by any affected Board members, and its disregard was an error," she wrote.

Without their votes, the measure — which was approved 4-3 — would not have passed. The resolution approving the memorandum of agreement that contained the clause "must be annulled and vacated," Marber wrote.

The court found Gillen's claim persuasive that "the sole motive behind the [memorandum of agreement] was aimed at preventing the incoming Supervisor from eliminating certain employees and Commissioners the outgoing Supervisor [Santino] sought to protect," the order reads.

Marber dismissed Gillen's contention that the 197 personnel transfers approved by the town board at the same meeting had been illegal, however.

"This Resolution on its own does not expressly violate any applicable Town Law or provision of the General Municipal Law," the order reads.

Marber wrote, however, that the "Court's determination in this regard does not mean that the far-reaching measures undertaken by the former Supervisor and the Board to protect personal appointees is condoned."

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