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Suffolk GOP lawmakers chafe at rules barring questioning witnesses at police hearings

Suffolk Republican legislators bridled this week at being denied the opportunity to ask questions during public hearings on the county’s police reform plan, saying the meeting format prevented them from discussing the issue with speakers and gathering information.

Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), who set the rules for the three special public hearings that were to conclude Thursday night, said he wanted to ensure speakers could comment in a timely manner, particularly since residents tend to drop out of online meetings the longer they last.

"This was an opportunity to hear from the public directly and not to engage in debate, which it often ends up being," Calarco said.

But minority Republicans said the hearings should have followed the usual protocols that allow legislators to ask questions.

Calarco denied a request by the GOP to allow questions at the final public hearing Thursday night.

"As a member of the [police reform] task force, I can say the people of Suffolk County are far better served when questions are asked of the public before we are called to vote," Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said.

The hearings focused on Suffolk’s Police Reinvention and Reform Task Force Draft Report.

An order signed last June by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis requires local governments with police departments to develop reform plans by April 1 or risk losing state funding.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the plan drawn up by a special county task force seeks to change the department’s culture through expanded community policing, more civilian oversight and widespread use of body cameras.

Community activists who have testified at the hearings said the plan did not go far enough in addressing racism and bias in policing, or creating accountability for officer misconduct.

Cuomo’s order requires municipalities to seek public comment on their plans, but does not mandate public hearings.

State Open Meetings Law does not govern the format of public hearings or require public participation, said Shoshanah Bewlay, executive director for the state Committee on Open Government, which issues advice on open meetings and other issues.

In Suffolk, public hearings typically are set in a legislative vote, but Calarco set the police reform sessions in a letter, legislative counsel Sarah Simpson said.

"Because it was set separately and only is set for the narrow purpose of hearing public input, I don't think we have to allow for legislators to engage back and forth with the individuals," Simpson said Tuesday.

But Paul Sabatino, Suffolk's legislative counsel from 1984 through 2003, said legislative rules don't allow the presiding officer to set public hearings on his or her own.

Rules permit the presiding officer to cancel a public hearing if the underlying resolution has been withdrawn, but say nothing about whether he or she can order a hearing, Sabatino said.

Rules also give the presiding officer authority to, "decide all questions of order."

Sabatino said in the case of the police hearings, "there's absolutely a right to ask questions."

Nassau County legislators were permitted to ask questions during hearings on the county's police reform plan.

"All of our colleagues on the legislature are welcome to provide their viewpoint on this important issue," said Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park).

A motion by Suffolk County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Legis. Anthony Piccirilo (R-Holtsville) to suspend the rules and allow lawmakers to speak failed Tuesday.

Calarco said Tuesday that county lawmakers were free to contact speakers after hearings.

Calarco noted legislators will debate the police reform plan on March 30, when a vote on the proposal is scheduled.

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