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Huntington Town rejects limiting political activity of judges

Huntington Town Board member Joan Cergol at a

Huntington Town Board member Joan Cergol at a news conference in 2020. Cergol had proposed limiting political activity of administrative judges who serve the town. Credit: Barry Sloan

A proposal to consider prohibiting administrative law judges who hear town code violation cases from engaging in political activities was rejected by the Huntington Town Board.

Town Board member Joan Cergol, who offered a resolution at the Feb. 23 meeting to hold a public hearing on the matter, said it was an effort to avoid potential political influence on judges presiding over cases on the town's recently created Bureau of Administrative Adjudication.

Political activities include holding office in a political organization, including as leader, raising money for candidates, speaking on behalf of candidates and donating money to their favorite political causes.

She said on Wednesday that she was hopeful her colleagues would see the merits of the resolution, but not surprised they did not.

"Talk of good government is cheap," she said. "I’m not giving up on turning the lights up in this court."

Cergol and board member Mark Cuthbertson, both Democrats, voted for the measure. Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci, Gene Cook and Ed Smyth — all Republicans — voted against it.

Cergol offered a similar resolution in November that included bureau staff, but that was also voted down along political lines. The latest resolution only impacted the five judges.

Smyth said the measure was an overreach mostly because the cases fall below the level of small claims court.

"The very limited jurisdiction that they have over hearing cases does not warrant stripping them of their right to fully participate in the political process," he said.

The Bureau of Administrative Adjudication hears cases including noise complaints, illegal housing, illegal business operations, illegal dumping in town waterways, and illegal sewer connections. It does not preside over cases involving violations of building and traffic codes.

Its first cases were heard in September.

Violators previously faced a judge in Third District Court. Under a state law, judiciary judges are not allowed to engage in certain political activities, Cergol said. Those rules do not apply to administrative law judges unless the local agency adopts such rules.

Joshua C. Price, a Republican, is the bureau’s director and chief administrative law judge. Price, not the town board, selects the part-time administrative law judges.

The town’s former planning board vice chairwoman Mara Manin Amendola is an administrative law judge who serves as a backup for Price.

Gregory Grizopoulos, two-time town board candidate James F. Leonick, and Tammy E. Skinner have also been named administrative law judges and will make up the board to hear appeals.

Amendola will be paid $25,000 annually; appellate judges will get $3,500 per year. Price earns $60,000-a-year in his part-time position.

Cuthbertson said at the meeting that an appearance before the court may be the only interaction a resident has with the town and it should be free of any preconceived ideas that what happens there is rigged or influenced by who you know.

"We can't have that with this code enforcement and judiciary system," he said. "It really needs to be above reproach."

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