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For six months, Hempstead's top two leaders did not speak to each other

Supervisor Laura Gillen, left, and Erin King Sweeney,

Supervisor Laura Gillen, left, and Erin King Sweeney, the town board Republican majority leader, communicated for months through attorneys, assistants and other intermediaries. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen and town board Republican Majority Leader Erin King Sweeney said they didn't speak to each other for six months.

Instead, communication between the town's top officials flowed through attorneys, assistants and other intermediaries. The silent treatment further divided the administration of Gillen, a first-term Democrat, and a town government historically shaped by Republican rule.

Gillen said their relationship seemed to cool around the time former Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello designated King Sweeney as Republican majority leader before Gillen took office. Gillen said she had the board votes to choose her own department commissioners, but lost Republican support when King Sweeney was given the party leadership title. 

King Sweeney said Gillen’s lawsuit against the board to stop personnel moves “changed everything.”

Gillen sued the town board to overturn the union no-layoff clause and more than 190 employee moves the board made during former Supervisor Anthony Santino’s last meeting. A judge issued a split ruling in March, ordering the no-layoff clause voided, but found the personnel moves legal. Gillen said the board's personnel decision saddled her 2018 budget with $2.4 million in unbudgeted payroll.

King Sweeney said the board took the lawsuit personally after Gillen initially named each board member individually as defendants. She voted against the no-layoff clause, but voted to approve the other transfers and promotions.

“That got pretty personal pretty quickly, and I think it [the lawsuit] was unnecessary,” King Sweeney said.

Relations cooled, and communication between the two ended.

Split Board

Gillen, the town's first Democratic supervisor in more than a century, has seen parts of her agenda stymied by the Republican board. She has vowed to advocate for legislation and checks on the board by appealing for public support. Gillen said she has succeeded in pushing through limits on patronage appointments and legislation to increase transparency. 

King Sweeney, the daughter of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), is considered a rising star in the Republican Party and has emerged as an outspoken leader. She said she turned down a nomination last summer to run for lieutenant governor and denied she is seeking a future congressional run. 

“You're dealing with two women who have type A-plus personalities,” Long Island lobbyist Desmond Ryan said. “They are both bright, intelligent, articulate and publicly aggressive.”

Signs of a thaw between the two appeared recently, including the first news conferences in months featuring both Gillen and King Sweeney and the other town board members.

King Sweeney bucked her party this month by opposing a possible appeal of a court ruling favorable to Gillen in the supervisor’s lawsuit against the town board last year to overturn a union no-layoff clause. 

And the two women are talking to each other — occasionally.

“Now she's meeting with me and we're talking about issues again,” Gillen said. “So, I think that's an improvement. It's always an improvement when elected officials talk to one another.”

King Sweeney said she and Gillen communicate “as needed." She said the pair came together to draft legislation to halt sales of recreational marijuana for one year and ethics rules that prohibit town officials from hiring relatives. The two held rare joint news conferences to announce those proposals. 

She said Gillen also called, texted and emailed, offering support after King Sweeney was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

“I don’t think it’s productive to fight with the supervisor,” King Sweeney said.

Whether the thaw will survive the campaign season ahead of the November general election, in which both are running to keep their seats, is uncertain.

“I think an election year is always challenging, whether at the national level or at the local level,” King Sweeney said of the board-supervisor relationship. "There’s always a certain amount of dysfunction that's going to happen that's unproductive. But I think it's my job to minimize that as much as possible.”

At the start of Gillen's term in 2018, it appeared she might have a bipartisan coalition on the seven-member board.  King Sweeney never directly endorsed Gillen, but she said she voted for her, and asked friends to do the same.

King Sweeney had waged a bitter fight against Santino, a Republican, over an outside income cap for town board members. King Sweeney said at the time the proposal targeted her as an attorney. The issue of ethics reform united her and Gillen against a common foe.

Though they  hadn't known each other before the election, they formed a political alliance from different parties. Early in their relationship, each had the other’s family over for dinner, King Sweeney said.

Tense relationship

King Sweeney characterized her current relationship with Gillen as "professional" and "cordial."

Gillen declined to describe their relationship, noting only that King Sweeney is one of six board members she has to work with.

Some officials said the lack of communication has occasionally caused headaches in Town Hall; others said it has had no impact on the functioning of Hempstead’s government.

Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, a Republican, said board members generally don’t speak to Gillen and usually work through staff and attorneys. He said the tense relationship was further fractured when they were served with Gillen’s lawsuit.

“It’s a trust that’s been broken," D'Esposito said.

“We have different views on how the town should be operated and she has her view," he said of Gillen. "Unfortunately, that’s how government works. I think the town is functioning and getting a lot of work done every day, regardless if we agree or disagree.”

Gillen’s deputy chief of staff, Rebecca Sinclair, said town board resolutions have appeared without notice to various departments, making oversight difficult. Gillen appointed her own executive staff, but inherited most of the Republican department commissioners.

Gillen said commissioners have been subject to political pressures between working with her office and the town board. 

“We have commissioners who would really like to do the right thing,” Sinclair said. But “I think that, because of the dynamic, the smallest efforts become politicized. A lot of our efforts and their goodwill to help us are foiled in the process.” 

“That really is reflective of the board dynamic,” Sinclair said.

Proposals blocked

“I think this blue wave [of Democrats elected to office] in the last two years has been devastating to Republicans," said Laureen Harris, president of the Association for a Better Long Island, who knows both Gillen and King Sweeney personally. "I think there's probably a lot of pressure on the town board to seek the failure of the supervisor.”

King Sweeney said she has never received such pressure from her party. While she is backing Gillen’s Republican opponent, Tax Receiver Don Clavin, in the November election, it will not affect her relationship with the supervisor, she said.

“I don’t root for the person in power to fail. I think we should all be out of office if it gets to that point,” King Sweeney said.

Gillen said she has offered to have weekly meetings with the board members, but the offer was rarely accepted. She meets regularly with senior Council member Dorothy Goosby, a Democrat, and occasionally with Republican Deputy Supervisor Bruce Blakeman, Gillen said.

Despite the board blocking some of her key proposals, such as holding special elections for vacancies instead of appointments to town board seats, and adding 76 amendments to her budget, Gillen said she will continue to push for her legislative agenda.

“Anyone who wants to support good government initiatives, I’m delighted to work with them,” she said. “If they don’t want to support good government initiatives, then I’ll work around them.”

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