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Oyster Bay board members question contracts policy change

Oyster Bay Town Hall in 2014.

Oyster Bay Town Hall in 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto’s administration last year shifted the responsibility for granting extensions on contracts on millions of dollars of work from elected officials to appointed commissioners.

Several board members said they first learned of the new policy affecting so-called requirements contracts two weeks ago. Since last year, the board has approved at least $3.6 million worth of spending on contracts that were extended by commissioners.

Councilman Anthony Macagnone said in an interview that the board wasn’t informed by the administration of the new procedure that followed a review of that change by outside counsel.

“It should have been, but obviously it wasn’t,” Macagnone said in an interview.

Macagnone and Councilmen Chris Coschignano and Joseph Pinto all said they first learned about the 2015 policy change at the same time Newsday inquired about an approval of $1.5 million for road work on a contract whose board approval had expired.

That’s when town officials acknowledged that a requirements contract awarded to Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving Inc. in 2013 had been extended by Public Works Commissioner Richard Betz in July. The board has approved two allocations totaling $3 million for the work since Betz’s extension.

“There’s fault on all parts,” said Pinto. “Everybody needs to pay a little more attention to what’s going on.”

Town spokeswoman Marta Kane expressed surprise that board members could have just learned that commissioners could extend requirements contracts.

“The language was in the contract,” Kane said.

The town regularly uses requirements contracts on an as-needed basis for things like road work, sidewalk repair, tree planting and general construction. Under those contracts, which are competitively bid, the town pays set prices for types of work, rather than a set price for an individual project.

As an example, a contract awarded to Amityville-based LandTek Group in 2011 for sidewalk repair said the town expected to spend $5 million annually. Since then the town board has approved $19.5 million for that work in increments ranging from $1.5 million to $2.5 million, town records show.

Over the past five years the town board has approved more than $109 million on 12 contracts identified by Newsday that may be affected by the new policy.

From late 2012 until early 2015, the town board itself approved extensions to those contracts 30 times, mirroring the practices of Huntington and North Hempstead towns. As in Oyster Bay, the Town of Babylon’s requirements contracts allow for commissioners to approve optional extensions.

Last year the town’s outside legal counsel, Jonathan Sinnreich of Sinnreich Kosakoff & Messina LLP, reviewed all of Oyster Bay’s requirements contracts. In a July 7, 2015, letter to Town Attorney Leonard Genova, Sinnreich said that language in the contracts delegated responsibility for extensions to commissioners and said that board votes weren’t necessary.

“The proper procedure is for the commissioner, not the board, to exercise those options,” Sinnreich said in an interview.

That doesn’t sit well with Macagnone.

“I’m going to change that,” he said.

Macagnone said the town code should be changed to require board approval on contract extensions. “We’re the ones who are going to have to answer for it, we’re the ones who should do it,” he said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia, who said she recalled hearing about the issue last year, said having commissioners extend the contracts was appropriate as long as the board approves the original terms.

“We rely on our commissioners and deputy commissioners to make these decisions,” Alesia said. She added, “the extensions to me are very administrative in function.”

Councilwoman Michele Johnson said she was still considering the issue.

“Letting the board know and the board approving is definitely a good thing,” Johnson said. But, she added, “the commissioners need to have some leeway.”

Coschignano said the town’s whole contracting processes needs to be reviewed. Pinto said the town needs “to strengthen our internal controls on budgetary items.”

Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr., who is responsible for handling information requests from the public, said the process for contracts should be transparent to the public.

“It’s better to have a board resolution extending a contract so it’s available for public review,” Altadonna said.

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