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Brookhaven bill redefines hearing officers

Fed up with losing more than $500,000 last year due to what Supervisor Mark Lesko calls too-lenient hearing officers, Brookhaven Town is considering legislation establishing qualifications for the posts.

The town keeps a roster of seven hearing officers, who are responsible for listening to residents' pleas about parking tickets and other infractions. The job pays $500 per night, and the hearings are typically held twice a month, town officials said.

The town -- which has struggled with declining revenue in recent years -- collected only 32 percent of about $730,000 in tickets issued last year, officials said.

Lesko, a former federal prosecutor, said the town is losing revenue due to hearing officers who are "much too lenient," and requiring that judges, prosecutors and former police officers hold the posts would result in a better collection rate.

"We've all gotten tickets, we've all challenged a ticket. The town shouldn't be dismissing two-thirds of its tickets," Lesko said. "I'd like to have professional people in those positions to make the right decisions."

Lesko's proposal would require hearing officers to have:

five years of experience as a judge, magistrate, hearing officer or court attorney referee in the New York court system, or in the federal court system for eastern or southern New York districts, or

10 years experience as a police officer or peace officer, who must be retired, or

five years experience as a prosecutor.

The town board voted Tuesday to host a March 29 public hearing on the legislation at town hall in Farmingville.

One councilman, Daniel Panico, said the town should first determine if it is losing revenue because of the way the tickets are written.

"The goal of any traffic violations bureau is justice, not the pursuit of revenue," he said.

The town is currently only using two of its seven hearing officers, Lesko said. Those two might meet the proposed qualifications, but the town will have to "look at their performance" to determine if they will be kept on. The other five officers will not be asked to return to their posts, a town official said on background.

The purpose of the legislation is "establishing minimal qualifications for judicial hearing officers," which do not exist now, according to documents filed at town hall.Lesko declined to say what he thinks is an ideal rate of collection for tickets. He said 100 percent is not realistic.

The hearing officers have the ability to reduce fines and can also waive late fees, Lesko said.

"There are no standards for that service and that's a pretty important job," he said. "We want to make sure we have people with the right background for that type of job."

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