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Brookhaven board member may be center of power struggle

As Brookhaven's newest town board member sits down to participate in his first board meeting Tuesday, he could find himself at the center of a struggle for control of the town's politically divided council, officials and political insiders say.

The swearing-in last week of Dan Panico - a Republican who won a March 9 special election - means Republican and Conservative members have a 4-3 edge on the town board.

However, Republican Kathy Walsh has been voting with the Democrats for months, effectively giving Democratic Supervisor Mark Lesko and his supporters a 4-3 advantage. Lesko named Walsh his deputy supervisor in April 2009.

Panico said he does not plan to vote as a bloc with his fellow Republicans, but rather to consider "each individual issue" before the board. But he added that he believed he saw Walsh "come back into the Republican fold" during his campaign, on which Walsh volunteered.

"The past is the past and Kathy is a registered Republican," Panico said. "She was elected as a Republican and remains a Republican."

Walsh disputed the idea that she is voting with the Democrats, and said "to a degree they have been voting with me." She said she considers her votes about "good government issues," not politics.

The election of Panico could spark Walsh to vote in favor of Republican proposals, such as a tax cap that Panico favored during his campaign, said Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven's Republican chairman.

But Jon Schneider, the town's Democratic chairman, said Panico's presence will not have "a lot of impact on the composition of the town board," where the Democratic caucus - with Walsh - retains its advantage.

"Dan had a lot of things to say about wanting to work in a bipartisan way with Supervisor Lesko," Schneider said. "I for one would take him at his word."

Panico, 31, is a Manorville resident and a senior deputy Suffolk County clerk who served on the Brookhaven planning board for two years. He said he plans to resign from his county job soon.

Panico handily beat Democrat Douglas Dittko in the special election, in which Panico got more than 59 percent of 6,553 votes cast. The contest was necessitated by the November death of Keith Romaine.

Panico, who will draw a prorated salary of $67,986, will participate in a ceremonial swearing-in during tonight's board meeting at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville.

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