Unprecedented public discord appears to be growing on the Republican-controlled Hempstead Town Board even after Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello and former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato urged unity at a recent Republican fundraiser.
Republican Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, who had a dispute with Republican Supervisor Anthony Santino last year over staff raises, has abstained from voting on town-funded contracts since Republican Councilman Edward Ambrosino was arrested on federal tax evasion charges in late March.
King Sweeney says she wants more vetting of possible conflicts in town-funded contracts. Ambrosino, who was not charged with town-related wrongdoing, has pleaded not guilty.
Republican Councilman Bruce Blakeman offered a bill two weeks ago to create a town inspector general’s office to review contracts. His proposal, supported by King Sweeney and Ambrosino, was rejected for procedural reasons, but Blakeman promised to keep pushing for it.
Sources say Santino’s relationship with Blakeman and King Sweeney became so strained that he directed top staff not to talk to them — an assertion town spokesman Michael Deery called “categorically untrue.”
Deery noted that at Santino’s direction Friday he reached out to King Sweeney to ask whether she wanted to be included in a news release the supervisor was issuing that afternoon about a proposed development contract in downtown Baldwin, which is in King Sweeney’s district, but she declined.
King Sweeney said Friday that she had just received the documents.
“I’ll spend the weekend reviewing the contract to confirm it is in the best interests of the residents of Baldwin, who undoubtedly deserve progressive and forward-thinking downtown development,” she said. “I remain committed to transparency and inclusion of all board members in the process.”
She and Blakeman both declined to comment on their relationship with Santino.
Some note that Santino, who took office as supervisor in January 2016, has not caucused with the five Republican board members for a year, breaking decades of tradition. Past Republican town supervisors, including Mondello and D’Amato, met with GOP members before and after board meetings to hash out disagreements — and arguments sometimes grew loud and heated.
While acknowledging past squabbles behind closed doors, Mondello and D’Amato told attendees at the fundraiser last month that the party always should present a united front in public.
Deery said Santino has not refused any board member’s request for a meeting. He said Santino “meets with all of the members of the town board from time to time within the confines of the open meetings law.” Political caucuses, however, are exempt from the open meetings law.
“He’s the first supervisor in the history of the town to have the town board’s chief of staff included in his staff meetings so there can be a clear line of communication between the supervisor and the board,” Deery said.
Past town boards often have had their own attorney, separate from the supervisor’s counsel and town attorney, for independent advice. But the position has not been filled since November 2012, when then-board counsel Michael Venditto was elected to the county legislature and Santino was still a councilman.
“That’s entirely within the board’s control if they wish to hire a counsel,” Deery said. “That’s their responsibility.”
With Stefanie Dazio