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Nassau Dems seek overhaul of county contracting process

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, seen in a

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, seen in a file photo from Friday, June 12, 2015, has appointed a panel led by Frank Zarb, the first head of the state board overseeing Nassau's finances, to examine longstanding contracting procedures. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Nassau Democrats are renewing calls to overhaul the county's contracting process in the wake of findings that hundreds of recent pacts have been awarded just below the threshold for legislative approval.

Newsday reported Monday that Nassau has entered into nearly 400 agreements since 2011 for between $24,000 and $25,000, the maximum amount allowed for specialty work before triggering scrutiny from the county legislature. Many of those contracts -- which make up nearly 10 percent of the county's total -- were issued to politically connected vendors without competitive bidding.

In response, acting District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, shared findings Tuesday from her office's ongoing review of county contracts that show that $24,900 was the most common amount in a sampling of nearly 2,000 pacts.

"There does seem to be an awareness or effort" to set contracts below $25,000, it said.

Meanwhile, County Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said she supports a referendum to revise the county charter and make all contracts subject to legislative review. The $25,000 threshold was set by a 2000 referendum.

"It is time to ban these no-bid, no-review contracts going to politically connected insiders and companies at the expense of those that live, work and pay taxes in our community," DeRiggi-Whitton said.

County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, has appointed a panel led by Frank Zarb, the first head of the state board overseeing Nassau's finances, to examine long-standing contracting procedures. "We expect to advance reforms after reviewing the independent analysis," Mangano said.

Zarb has had initial talks with legislative leaders and Jon Kaiman, current chairman of the state control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. "We definitely look forward to making changes," Kaiman said.

In a July report, Singas said Nassau's largely paper-based system made it difficult to flag potential conflicts of interest. She also suggested the county name an independent inspector general to probe contracts.

The report mentioned that Singas was placing "special emphasis" on contracts just below the legislative approval threshold. Her office said Tuesday that it randomly sampled 1,863 contracts since 2012, and found that no amount appeared more often than $24,900, with 68.

Of those $24,900 contracts, 95 percent of them, Singas said, went to vendors deemed by the county to be "sole source" providers, meaning the requirement to obtain at least three bids was bypassed. Singas said different officials gave different justifications for not seeking bids, and the system doesn't allow investigators to easily identify discrepancies.

"Our ongoing review of Nassau's contracting process continues to reveal troubling patterns that underscore the need to overhaul this process with better technology, greater transparency, and an independent inspector general to provide ongoing oversight," Singas said.

In addition to the panel Mangano named, he said his administration is working on establishing a more updated, searchable database that would address some of Singas' concerns: "The vast majority of documents are publicly available."

On DeRiggi-Whitton's call to have lawmakers approve all contracts, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said: "The Democrats previously praised the creation of [Mangano's] contracts panel; you'd think they'd wait to hear what they had to say before proposing a power grab."

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