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Long IslandSuffolk

Critics slam Brookhaven leaders' absence after storm

Ed Romaine, now the supervisor of Brookhaven Town,

Ed Romaine, now the supervisor of Brookhaven Town, speaks during a meeting of the Suffolk Legislature in Hauppauge. (May 3, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine has been on vacation since Wednesday, leaving the town with what critics say is a leadership vacuum as it struggles to clear its roads after the weekend blizzard.

In addition, the town's acting Highway Department superintendent has been absent since Friday, when the storm began dumping as much as 30 inches of snow in the town.

Democratic Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld said he was told by town officials that Romaine, a Republican, was vacationing in the Caribbean.

"It's very difficult to believe that the lack of executive leadership, being on the job in Brookhaven in this traumatic blizzard, is not leading to more chaos," Fiore-Rosenfeld said.

Republican Town Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico confirmed Monday that Romaine went away with his wife on Wednesday, when forecasts of the coming blizzard began to sharpen.

Reached on his cell phone Monday, Romaine declined to say where he was or when he left, but said he has been in constant contact with town officials since the blizzard struck.

"I did not anticipate this storm, otherwise I wouldn't have left," Romaine said. "I haven't had a vacation in two years. This was the only time there wasn't a work session or town meeting."

The supervisor said the airport where he is vacationing is closed, but that he plans to fly back to Kennedy Airport "as soon as possible."

Romaine, who deflected blame for unplowed town roads to the highway department, said he expected that 95 percent of all town roads would be plowed by Monday night.

"It's the highway department's show; we are providing tactical assistance. I do not have direct authority of that department," Romaine said. "We are very concerned about this storm. The main responsibilities of roads are with the highway department."

Panico defended Romaine, who appointed Panico deputy supervisor in December.

"He's a human being. His record of public service is stellar," Panico said. "His vacation was preplanned."

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said public officials are allowed to go on vacation.

"The question is whether the public will cut him some slack," Levy said. "It can dog your entire career or end careers."

Democratic Councilwoman Connie Kepert said highway department officials told her acting superintendent Michael Murphy had been absent because of a "toothache." While praising Panico's performance, she said the highway department was overmatched.

"There was a lack of leadership and the residents paid for that," Kepert said. "That is something that I find unbelievable."

Romaine declined to comment on the absence of Murphy, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment. Several messages to John Cappella, who is running the department while Murphy is out, also were not returned.

Asked Sunday about Murphy's absence, Panico said, "One person is not the linchpin," then called back later to say, "Not having the acting highway superintendent here sure as hell hasn't helped."

Two other council members also have been away on vacation: Republican Tim Mazzei is in Florida, while Conservative Jane Bonner is in Costa Rica, according to town officials.

With Emily C. Dooley

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