Nassau County Executive-elect Laura Curran has selected Helena Williams, former Long Island Rail Road president, as her chief deputy county executive — a position in which she can manage all aspects of county government, from parks and assessments to the revitalization of Nassau Coliseum property.
Curran, a Democratic county legislator from Baldwin who takes office Jan. 1, envisions Williams, 62, of Garden City, as an “orchestra conductor,” overseeing a breadth of operations while serving as her eyes and ears on the ground.
“Helena is a wonderful manager,” Curran said in an interview Saturday at a diner in Rockville Centre with Williams. “Her responsibility as chief deputy is to oversee the functioning of government. And Helena has exactly the right skill set and experience in both the public and private sector.”
Williams was the longest serving president — and the first woman — to head the LIRR, the nation’s busiest commuter railroad with 300,000 daily customers. Williams believes the skill set needed to run the LIRR and the county are similar.
“The railroad has to run every day and customers want to get from A to B on time with no delay,” Williams said. “Nassau County residents want their services without having to think about them. If they go to the park, they want to know the golf course is in good shape.”
The first hire of the incoming Curran administration, Williams will have an annual salary of $187,000 — nearly identical to outgoing Chief Deputy County Executive Rob Walker’s pay. Williams is one of 35 people serving on Curran’s transition team. She contributed $500 to the Curran campaign in November.
Williams plans to resign at year’s end from her current position as chief development officer for RATP Dev America, a private French firm that operates rail and bus systems worldwide.
Curran will also seek a waiver from the state Civil Service Commission to allow Williams to work for the county while still collecting her $130,000 per year state pension.
“I want to make sure it’s done transparently and properly,” said Curran. “My campaign was all about transparency.”
Williams served as a top aide to former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, the last Democrat to hold the job. Williams was Suozzi’s counsel and later deputy county executive for public safety and deputy county executive for compliance.
Williams, a lawyer who served as labor counsel to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, also previously served as president of Long Island Bus.
“Helena is smart, detail-oriented and completely apolitical,” said Suozzi, now a first-term congressman from Glen Cove.
Williams, who will oversee all county departments, will play a key role in attempting to revitalize the 77-acre Nassau Hub.
During the Suozzi administration, Williams worked with the county and then-Islanders owner Charles Wang on the Lighthouse Project to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum and build 2,300 units of housing, 1 billion square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail and a luxury hotel. The Republican Hempstead Town board killed the project, arguing it was too dense for the community.
And while the arena recently underwent a $130 million renovation, plans for a retail and entertainment plaza, along with a proposed biotech center, have stalled.
“We didn’t get it done then,” Williams said. “But it needs to get done and done the right way.”
Williams also plans to take key roles in the LIRR’s Third Track project, implementing the county’s ethics policies and fixing what she called Nassau’s “broken” property tax assessment system.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Council, who worked closely with Williams, said she can deliver results for Nassau residents.
“We didn’t always agree on everything,” Epstein said. “But she’s open to all ideas. It’s never ‘my way or the highway.’ She always listened to our concerns to the benefit of all riders.”