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Laura Curran faces long to-do list as Nassau County executive

The Democratic county executive-elect faces several challenges, including ethics reform, county finances and stalled Hub plans.

Nassau County Executive-elect Laura Curran on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, just two days after winning a hard-fought campaign against Republican Jack Martins, talked to Newsday about what she hopes to accomplish in her first term. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Laura Curran spent the past year making promises.

As a Democratic candidate for Nassau County executive, Curran made sweeping commitments to end a “culture of corruption,” eradicate nepotism in county hiring, and restore public trust in government.

Now, after her victory last Tuesday over Republican Jack Martins, Curran must turn her election-year rhetoric into a governing agenda.

She says she has a long to-do list, including:

  • Implement a wide-ranging ethics reform agenda, including term limits for elected officials and hiring an inspector general to oversee county contracting.
  • Negotiate new deals with county public employee unions — all of which backed Martins — when current labor contracts expire at year’s end.
  • Stabilize county finances and work to end a control period imposed by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state oversight board.
  • Reinvigorate plans for the Nassau Hub around the Coliseum in Uniondale with retail, restaurants, housing and bus rapid transit.
  • Establish a transition team to determine which senior staff to keep or let go.

“There were a lot of promises made and it’s incumbent on me to carry them out,” Curran, a second-term county legislator, said in an interview at her Baldwin home last week. “And I know people will be holding me accountable. I would expect absolutely nothing less.”

But watchdogs say reforming the county’s ethics policies, in particular, may not be so easy.

“It’s always easier to talk about cleaning up government than it is to do it, partly because the implementation of the sound bite is usually more complicated than the sound bite itself,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Curran said her first step will be to deploy transition team members in every county department to evaluate the performance of senior staff.

Nonunion ordinance employees could be asked to submit resignation letters as part of the evaluation process, although Curran said she plans to keep some managers for continuity.

While Curran said she has not decided whether to keep acting Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, she will replace county Sheriff Michael Sposato, an appointee of Republican County Executive Edward Mangano. As a county lawmaker, Curran clashed with Sposato over his defense of the former jail medical vendor after a series of inmate deaths.

The transition team, she said, will include Democrats and Republicans with varying political and business backgrounds. She declined to identify members but said an announcement could come next week.

“I want to be ready so I can hit the ground running on Jan. 1,” Curran said.

Will pursue ‘small wins’ at first

Some changes may be apparent quickly.

Curran plans to remove signage in county buildings, parks and buses bearing Mangano’s name. Curran has pledged to end the aggressive self-promotion by elected officials, and says her name will be left off nearly all official county property. Mangano did not seek a third term as he fights federal corruption charges.

“You need to start with the small wins to show you’re serious about this,” she said. “The signs are an easy, small thing, but they show that you’re serious. And that will get you the credibility to go on and do the deeper, more entrenched stuff.”

Other changes could take time or may not become reality.

Curran said she can enact some ethics and transparency measures unilaterally, such as creating a searchable database of Nassau contracts or declining to hire political leaders or their family members.

But big-ticket items such as implementing term limits for elected officials or limiting the amount of money vendors can contribute to political campaigns will require approval by the county legislature’s Republican majority.

A Democratic proposal to hire an inspector general to monitor county contracting has been the biggest source of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over the past 2 1⁄2 years.

Democrats including Curran favor altering the county charter to create an independent office to review contracts for possible corruption. The head of the office would be appointed by a 13-member legislative supermajority and would not answer directly to the county executive.

Republicans say they’re concerned about an inspector general operating without limits. They say Nassau’s investigations commissioner, who answers to the county executive, can perform the same function.

“You don’t want to have corruption, but you don’t want to create a Gestapo in the county either,” said Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence).

The GOP’s objection has spurred Democrats to refuse to provide the votes needed to borrow money for tens of millions of dollars in capital projects, including road resurfacing and sewer fixes.

Deputy Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), a leading contender to take over as presiding officer next year with the retirement of GOP Legis. Norma Gonsalves, said the stalemate must end.

“She’s entitled to us working cooperatively with her,” Nicolello said of Curran. “We want to get those projects moving. We cannot go on like this. These things have to get done.”

Legislative Republicans lost one seat on Election Day last Tuesday but maintain an 11-8 majority. The last time majority lawmakers and the county executive were from different parties was in 2000 and 2001, after Democrats took control of the legislature during Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta’s final two years in office.

Agrees with Republicans on major issues

Nonetheless, GOP legislators and Curran agree on several major issues. They oppose increases in property taxes and county fees, want to reform the property assessment system, and end NIFA’s control period, during which the authority can reject county budgets that aren’t balanced.

Other challenges include the Hub redevelopment, which appears to have stalled, and labor deals with five county unions that are set to expire.

While the Nassau Coliseum reopened in April after a $160 million renovation, and Sloan Kettering has broken ground on a new cancer center, other aspects of the Hub development remain in limbo.

A proposed retail and entertainment complex next to the arena is tied up in litigation, and county officials hit the brakes on a 25-acre biotech park after Northwell Health abandoned plans for a $350 million Center for Bioelectronic Medicine, citing the cost.

Curran said she plans to seek state funds for a bus rapid transit system to connect the Mineola Long Island Rail Road station to the Hub. She also wants housing added to the site plans. Town of Hempstead zoning limits residential development at the Hub to 500 units.

Reaching agreements with county labor unions could prove to be Curran’s biggest immediate challenge.

The unions want restoration of members’ longevity pay and assurances against layoffs.

In a candidate screening during the campaign, Civil Service Employees Association president Jerry Laricchiuta asked Curran an either/or question: If she had to choose, would she back a small tax hike or layoffs of county workers? Curran said she wouldn’t raise property taxes, indicating she would choose layoffs instead.

While the unions endorsed Martins, who said he would prefer the tax hike, labor leaders say they are ready to work with Curran.

“Elections are elections, but obviously I want her to succeed and to see the county succeed,” said Nassau Police Benevolent Association president James McDermott.

Curran said she expects contract negotiations to be contentious, but said a deal can be reached that protects members and taxpayers.

“We always need to keep in mind what our shared goal is,” Curran said. “And that is Nassau County must succeed. And if we keep that as the base common denominator, I think we have a lot of room to build.”

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