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Suffolk public campaign finance system is still a work in progress

Suffolk Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) sponsored a public

Suffolk Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) sponsored a public campaign financing bill. Credit: James Carbone

A Suffolk law creating a system to publicly finance county campaigns is supposed to be up and running in a little over three months.

But a three-member campaign finance board, which was supposed to start meeting last Jan. 15 to hammer out myriad rules and policies and get the new system off the ground, has yet to hold its first meeting or begin work.

In fact, only two board members, selected by legislative leaders, have formally been named — retired GOP County Court Judge Jack Toomey and Lisa Scott, president of the Suffolk League of Women Voters, a Democrat. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is interviewing several potential appointees for his pick, an aide said.

While the first elections that would affected by the new law do not take place until 2021, bill sponsor Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the deputy presiding officer, said the new system has to be ready to go the day after this Election Day because that’s when the campaign finance cycle for the next election begins.

“We have to have structure in place when this campaign cycle starts,” Calarco said. “We’re long past waiting for the third appointment.” He added he will ask the two appointed members to begin meeting this month to move things along.

However, neither Scott nor Toomey could assess how long their work would take. “It’s really uncharted territory at this point. We’ll just have to work our way through,” said Toomey.

Some officials say the problem arose when both Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and the executive office had initially wanted to name author and Stony Brook University political science professor Helmut Norpoth, who was not aligned with any party. Hahn later supported Scott as Bellone wanted to name Norpoth, but Norpoth later declined, citing other commitments.

Since the law bars either major party from having a board majority, Bellone now must choose a minor party or unaligned member. “The county executive takes this selection process very serious and is committed to fulfilling the … intent of the law in establishing a … nonpartisan board,” said Jason Elan, Bellone’s spokesman. “It’s more important to select the right individual rather than rush it.”   

Bellone last year also successfully pressed for a waiver to allow the hiring of Nicole Gordon, founding executive director of New York City's campaign finance board, for up to $30,000 to help develop plans. Elan said Gordon has worked with the executive office and Hahn “to help develop plans as how the system would function, the structure of the board and staffing roles.” But Toomey and Scott said they have seen none of that work.

The new system would allow legislative candidates running for election to get as much as $50,000 in a 4-to-1 public match to contributions of $250 or less from residents in a legislative district. Starting in 2023, county executive candidates could qualify for as much as $1 million, while donations would be capped at $25,000. Legislative candidates taking public funding would be limited to spending $100,000 and the county executive candidates, $2 million.

Comptroller John Kennedy, Bellone’s GOP opponent in November, said, "I’m not surprised he hasn’t followed through on his responsibility … that’s been his track record for the last eight years.” He also said he opposes public campaign financing. “It’s a gross misuse of public funds. We need to balance the budget not squander taxpayer money.”

Kennedy added that county records show Gordon has filed no bills for her work. And, he added, her yearlong contract lapsed at the end of July. Billing now, he said, “would present challenges.”

Correction: The name of Suffolk County Court Judge Jack Toomey was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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