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Nassau Democrats push for referendum on county contracts

Nassau County Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams is

Nassau County Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams is shown in this photo taken on Monday, May 9, 2016 in Mineola. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau Democratic lawmakers have begun collecting signatures seeking a November ballot referendum that would allow voters to decide whether to create an independent inspector general’s office to vet county contracts.

But even if Democrats collect the required 2,000 signatures, it’s uncertain if the majority Republicans — who contend the county already has a robust system for reviewing proposals by outside vendors — will allow the measure to get before voters.

The prospective referendum comes as Democrats, seeking to force the GOP to create the inspector general in the aftermath of recent federal corruption investigations, continue to block much of the borrowing needed to fund the county’s $275 million capital budget. The GOP has refused to budge, declining to call for a vote on a previous Democratic bill to create an inspector general.

Bonding requires 13 votes; the GOP majority has 12 members to the Democrats’ seven.

“The GOP majority has ignored us for too long,” said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport). “But they can’t ignore the will of the people.”

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said Democrats are bringing government to a halt — blocking sewer and road projects — to advance a political agenda.

“The Democrats are trying to divert the public’s attention from their reckless disregard for public safety by asking for duplicative bureaucracy, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year,” Gonsalves said.

Republican County Executive Edward Mangano contends an inspector general is unnecessary because Donna Myrill, Nassau’s new investigations commissioner, has oversight of contracts. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said Myrill, who started in the role last month, “has all of the powers of an inspector general.”

Abrahams said Myrill, who previously led the Queens district attorney’s drug treatment court programs, has the qualifications to serve as inspector general. But Abrahams said Myrill lacks necessary independence because she reports directly to Mangano.

The ballot petition circulated by Democrats states that the inspector general would have a six-year term, an employment contract and could be removed only for cause by a supermajority of the legislature. The inspector general would have subpoena power and be provided a budget to hire a staff.The county charter states that local laws can be submitted directly to voters in the form of a ballot referendum, if supporters collect 2,000 signatures, including at least 50 from registered voters in each of 19 legislative districts. Petitions must be filed by Sept. 9 — 60 days before the Nov. 8 general election.

But the plan faces significant hurdles.

County Attorney Carnell Foskey must first determine if the local law is legal. If the petition is verified by Foskey, the law would be referred to the Rules Committee for consideration.

But if the GOP-led committee votes down the measure — or tables it — the referendum would never get before voters.

Nassau’s procurement practices have come under scrutiny since last year when former state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was convicted of federal corruption charges that included influencing the award of a county contract to a firm that employed his son, Adam. Dean and Adam Skelos are appealing.

Federal prosecutors have also opened an investigation into Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker, for a contract awarded to a firm that donated to Walker’s political club on the day he finalized the deal.

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