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Nassau County attorney bucking contracts rule

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano speaks at the

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano speaks at the press conference after the meeting with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. (May 5, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

County Executive Edward Mangano contends his county attorney does not have to comply with a charter amendment passed overwhelmingly by Nassau voters 10 years ago that requires legislative approval of expensive professional service contracts - even though Republican Mangano actively supported the charter change when he was a legislator.

Breaking with the practice of Mangano's Republican and Democratic predecessors, County Attorney John Ciampoli said this week his hiring of special outside counsel is exempt from the referendum's mandate that all personal service contracts costing more than $25,000 be sent to the legislature's Rules Committee for approval.

Ciampoli said he will instead post the names of the attorneys he hires on his website and list them at the end of the legislature's calendar - just as former County Executive Thomas Gulotta did before the 2000 charter amendment.

"County Executive Mangano believes these actions will vigorously protect taxpayers, reduce costs and enhance transparency by providing notice and full disclosure to both the legislature and public," said aide Brian Nevin. Mangano did not return calls for comment.

But Democrats are threatening to sue, contending Mangano's abrupt policy change usurps legislative power and reduces taxpayers' ability to monitor their money. Several noted that Mangano argued for even more oversight of executive spending as a legislator.

"Mangano is a flip-flopper and ignoring what the people of Nassau County voted for," said Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). "It's illegal."

Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), who lambasted prior administrations when outside counsel began work without legislative approval, said Thursday he is reviewing Ciampoli's opinion. "I don't agree with it," Schmitt said. "I am very hopeful that the county executive and I can work this out."

Personal service contracts, which are not competitively bid, became an issue soon after the legislature began in 1996. The then-Republican majority made a deal with Republican Gulotta that he submit all contracts for professional services over $25,000 to the legislature for approval. When Democrats won control in 2000, Gulotta contended he had no deal with new Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury).

Although Gulotta relented, Democrats decided to codify the legislature's authority through a public referendum. Mangano joined in the unanimous vote.

Ciampoli asserts the 2000 referendum is trumped by a 1960s-era charter provision that allows the county attorney to hire special counsel when authorized by the county executive. That provision should have been removed if the county attorney was covered by the referendum, he said. Otherwise, Ciampoli said, the legislature could "micromanage" his office and shackle him in emergencies.

Edward Ambrosino, the former counsel to the Republicans, and who wrote the original deal, said he never intended to include the county attorney's office. Former Democratic counsel Chuck Cutolo, who wrote the referendum law, could not be reached. But Jacobs said, "Nobody at the time of passage of the law ever said that the county attorney was exempt from its provisions."

Suffolk does not have the requirement. But Presiding Officer William Lindsey said more oversight is under "serious consideration" because "we want to do everything we can to make government open and transparent so that citizens can see exactly what we are doing as we conduct government business and spend taxpayer dollars."

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