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Smithtown may end tradition of officials’ names on municipal signs

Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim suggests ending the practice of putting names of new officeholders on signs at parks and beaches to save money.

A sign at the entrance to the Kings

A sign at the entrance to the Kings Park LIRR station, seen on Jan. 8, 2018, includes the names of town representatives. Smithtown is considering a new no-name policy on municipal signs. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Smithtown residents for decades have been reminded of their town leadership with every visit to a town park or beach.

The names of the supervisor and council members were displayed on hundreds of municipal signs throughout the town and reprinted every time somebody new came into office.

But Supervisor Ed Wehrheim said he wants to end that practice — which had been common in other Long Island towns as well — adopting one that is humbler and more utilitarian: No names on signs other than that of the town and the facility.

“This is an effort to both save money and offer a small gesture symbolizing that our parks and beaches belong to our wonderful community members,” Wehrheim wrote in a Facebook post last month. He said in a recent interview a no-name policy affecting as many as 400 town signs would save hours of town employees’ work and about $5,000 per election cycle.

Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug wrote in an email that the one-time cost to implement Wehrheim’s recommendation would be $5,660. The town’s operating budget is $103 million.

Those who favor keeping elected officials’ names on signs say it increases leaders’ accountability by reminding the public where to direct complaints if service or maintenance lag, at minimal cost.

But Wehrheim, who took office Jan. 1, joined at least seven other Long Island town or city leaders bucking that tradition, basing their decisions on finances and appeals to principle.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran last year called the display of names a “thoughtless exercise in vanity” and political branding in a criticism of her predecessor, Edward Mangano, whose name appeared at county parks and on buildings, buses and golf course pencils. Mangano’s spokesman called the use of names a long-standing tradition of identifying the county executive with county properties.

But newly elected municipal leaders said they were not adding their names to signs.

Glen Cove Mayor Timothy Tenke said he would follow Curran’s lead. It would be “unfair for the public to have to pay” for the printing, he said.

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith opted out of the tradition of updating signs with her name after deciding the money the town would spend on the work “would better serve the community elsewhere,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

While Southold Supervisor Scott Russell emphasized he was making no judgment on practices in other municipalities, he said his town had never put politicians’ names on town assets. At the recent dedication of the $3.3 million highway facility, “we had a bronze plaque on the wall dedicated to the workers of the Highway Department,” Russell said. “There was no reference to the Town Board or myself.”

Shelter Island Supervisor Gary Gerth said officials in the East End town posted nothing more than a small locator plaque. “We’re on a conservative budget and we look at signage as a little bit of pollution,” he said.

Southampton and East Hampton towns rarely display officials’ names outside of their Town Halls. Southampton uses temporary name plates for council members on the dais in the meeting room, a spokesman said.

Representatives for Babylon, North Hempstead and Suffolk County said those municipalities printed elected officials’ names on signs.

Officials in Hempstead, Huntington and Oyster Bay towns did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives for Islip declined to comment.

Smithtown’s practice for years was to simply name the town supervisor on signs, town historian Brad Harris said. That began to change in the 1970s, when “they began sneaking in names” of other council members, he said.

The practice evolved to the point where town council members’ names had to be printed in order of seniority. Last summer, Wehrheim asked for a small number of signs to be replaced because they listed his name out of order. He said that incident had no bearing on his proposal to simply do away with the names altogether.

Harris said he viewed the printing of names as an unnecessary expense made worse by occasional misspellings, adding that “probably the only ones who care are the politicians themselves.”

Wehrheim plans to make his nonbinding recommendation to the town council at an upcoming work session, spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said. “If the majority of the board agrees to it then the Parks Department is notified,” she wrote in a text message.

Reaction to the prospect of changing the use of names on Smithtown signs was mixed.

Former Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, who lost to Wehrheim in a primary challenge last year, called his successor’s idea “nonsense” in context of the $103 million town budget.

“People ought to know and be aware of who their elected officials are, and when they go to a park, they should know those people who are responsible for that park,” said Vecchio, for whom Town Hall is named.

Councilwoman Lynne Nowick said she would support Wehrheim’s recommendation, which she called a “good idea” that would probably save “taxpayers’ money.” Councilman Tom McCarthy went further, saying a no-names policy should be adopted statewide.

“People want to know what park they’re at, what building they’re at,” McCarthy said. “They don’t care about some elected official’s name on a sign.”

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said the debate was largely over symbolism, with the sums involved dwarfed by those spent on municipal mailings, a common avenue for political advertising at public expense.

“Symbols matter, but real performance is what will drive an official’s popularity,” Levy said. “If that’s all that the incoming new elected officials in local government do is save money on repainting a few signs, I don’t think that’s going to get it done for them for their approval ratings.”

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