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NYCLU urges state Assembly to stop Oyster Bay efforts to establish town code enforcement court 'in its tracks'

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said the

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said the town hasn't made a decision yet whether to create a Bureau of Administrative Adjudication but said "It would be simple and inexpensive ... and self-sustaining." Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Oyster Bay could follow Huntington in creating a town court to try certain code enforcement cases — without the same discovery rules followed in state courts — with the passage Wednesday of an authorizing bill in the State Senate.

The bill, which on Friday was in the Assembly codes committee, would allow the town to adopt a local law to create a Bureau of Administrative Adjudication. The State Senate passed similar authorizing legislation for the towns of Babylon and East Hampton ahead of the end of this year’s legislative session in Albany next week.

On Thursday, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent testimony to the Assembly asking legislators to oppose an Oyster Bay bureau, calling it a "misguided local attempt to roll back recent reforms that ensure full due process, including discovery rights, for all New Yorkers" that "should be stopped in its tracks."

"It raises due process questions and other serious policy concerns, and would shroud Oyster Bay’s code enforcement system in secrecy and allow residents to complain anonymously about their neighbors," the NYCLU said in its testimony.

Huntington established a bureau last year, and several other municipalities, including Yonkers and Syracuse, have established their own.

Oyster Bay’s town board adopted a home rule message — an official request from the town to the Legislature — at its May 18 meeting asking the Legislature to allow the town to pass a local law to create a bureau.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the creation of additional bureaus.

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said the town hasn’t made a decision yet whether to create a bureau but said "It would be simple and inexpensive … and self-sustaining."

Saladino said the discovery reform of 2019 could stop residents from making complaints about code violations because their names would be given to defendants.

"We believe that that might keep people from reaching out to the town," Saladino said.

Though state law does not permit the bureaus to impose criminal penalties, it is less clear whether they can try code violations that are criminal misdemeanor cases and only impose civil fines. Oyster Bay prosecutes many code violations as unclassified misdemeanors. This month, for example, the 4th District Court calendar includes misdemeanor prosecutions for violations of statutes that prohibit, among other things, allowing grass to grow 8 inches high on a commercial property or failing to maintain a fence in a safe condition.

The town’s bureau would have the ability "to pursue misdemeanors as long as it is a Code or Ordinance Violation," State Sen. James Gaughran’s office wrote in an email. Gaughran (D-Northport) is the Senate sponsor for the bill.

Town Attorney Frank Scalera said in an interview that the town was "open to reviewing" handling misdemeanor cases.

"Our intention is not to create a criminal court, it is to adjudicate town code violations," Saladino said in an interview.

Huntington spokeswoman Lauren Lembo said in an email Thursday that its bureau was only hearing civil cases. Babylon spokesman Kevin Bonner said Thursday their town attorney's office interpreted the state law as prohibiting criminal cases.

Oyster Bay-based attorney Richard Hutchinson said the bureaus could compound existing concerns about judicial independence when prosecutors and defendants disagree over interpretations of the town code.

"It’s better to have an independent judge or at least an independent body doing it, not necessarily a selection from the town of Oyster Bay supervisor’s office," Hutchinson said.

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