Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has used emergency resolutions to push through portions of his agenda nearly 50 times this year -- a controversial practice that end-runs the extended public debate that often occurs in legislative committees.
Pitfalls associated with these "certificates of necessity" came into focus last week, when Bellone abandoned a "twilight" beach parking fee meant to bring in $90,000 in summer revenue. After the emergency measure passed June 19, strong resident and lawmaker opposition arose, and Bellone acknowledged misreading its impact.
"If we'd have known of this before, I'm positive the community would have come out, argued our point and they would have heard us," said Donato Sangemino, a Shirley resident who led a rally against the $4-a-car evening charge. "I think [the administration] wouldn't have considered it."
Since taking office in January, Bellone has used the certificates 46 times; 15 came at the first full legislative meeting in February. Former County Executive Steve Levy used them 37 times over the same period in 2011, but was also once criticized for the tactic.
Frequent use of the emergency bills, which go before the full county legislature without committee vetting or amendment, has irked some lawmakers, and is frowned upon by open-government advocates, who say the measures should be used rarely.
Two-thirds vote needed
The measures require a two-thirds vote of the 18-member legislature, and are designed for such things as accepting federal or state grants under a tight timeline, correcting errors in adopted laws or moving funds for urgent road projects. In Nassau County, a two-thirds lawmaker vote is also needed for a bill to skip committees; it has happened 11 times this year.
In April, in the wake of dozens of Bellone CNs, Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip) proposed a bill limiting the executive's power to bypass committees. He agreed to table it after the number of emergency resolutions fell in May and June.
"I think they're now clear this is something not to be abused," Montano said. "Passing legislation we see five minutes before voting is not something I'm comfortable with."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government in Albany, which advises officials and the news media on freedom of information issues, said, "in some cases, there's a real necessity" for the emergency measures. "But there are some issues that just warrant significant dialogue and public input."
Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter noted emergency requests have decreased as the year has gone on, after the administration used the measures to reshape the county economic development department and restore positions set for spring layoff.
"In the beginning, we needed particular legislative approval quickly to move forward with priorities of the administration," she said. "But we always use due diligence to make sure what we're doing is beneficial to running an efficient government."
Summer break blamed
Bellone aides said that in the case of the twilight fee, urgency was needed because of lawmakers' impending summer break. The charge was in effect for 16 days, from 5 to 8 p.m., at Smith Point County Park in Shirley and Cupsogue Beach County Park near Westhampton.
Officials estimated that the county, facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, would gain $90,000 in new revenues through Labor Day. After a public outcry, they stoped enforcing the fee on July 8.
Other emergency resolutions sparked less furor.
Lawmakers in June voted unanimously to restore 13 water-quality jobs that had been slated for termination, and in April, borrowed against expected aid to make payroll.
But another April CN -- to make nonunion workers, as of November, contribute to their health care -- failed. Lawmakers, not seeing the urgency of an item to go into effect in the fall, later approved it after committee debates.
Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) who opposed the beach fee -- on merit and because of its emergency nature -- said there have been "way too many" certificates of necessity this year.
Nonetheless, he added, "it's a new administration, and when you have people not familiar with county process, the time between meetings surprises them. We've had more of these than we should have, but it'll even out."
With Robert Brodsky
SPEEDING UP THE PROCESS
Since taking office in January, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on 46 occasions has used "certificates of necessity" -- emergency resolutions allowing bills to pass without prior vetting in committees. Some examples:
Feb. 7. Created new economic development department, folding in the planning department, and funding new leadership posts by cutting county attorneys.
March 13. Authorized borrowing of up to $90 million against expected state and federal aid so the county could make payroll.
April 24. Revised summer layoff list to reduce job losses from 464 to 315; about 230 workers ultimately were let go.
April 24. Required health care contributions from nonunion staff. The measure failed, but was later approved through normal legislative process.
June 19. Approved $4-a-car "twilight" parking fee at two county beaches. Stopped enforcing the fees following complaints from the public. -- Paul LaRocco