Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was absent from the office for days at a time or longer during his first year on the job and often was difficult to reach, said four high-level sources with direct knowledge of his schedule.
Bellone, 43, a Democrat and former Babylon Town supervisor who took office in January 2012, would spend hours at a time during workdays at restaurants, and aides who were searching for him even monitored Twitter users for reported sightings, two of the sources said.
Also, for more than a month last summer, as Suffolk wrestled with a projected three-year budget deficit of as much as $530 million, Bellone met only infrequently with staff at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, said all of the sources.
"He would not return phone calls, sometimes, for five days; it was very challenging," said one person, who like the others declined to be identified.
In an interview Wednesday, Bellone said he "was in the Dennison Building a significant amount of time" last year. "But I also took a lot of meetings outside of the office, which I like to do, because particularly here it's very isolated and the public doesn't come in."
He continued, "I reject the notion that I wasn't in the building. It's absurd." He called the people who spoke about his management style "anonymous political insiders who either have an ax to grind or are upset that I didn't spend more time with them."
Supporters, including some of the sources who spoke about his management style, noted accomplishments, including an eight-year contract with Suffolk police officers that set lower pay for new hires, as evidence that Bellone's time out of the office didn't impact his performance.
But the executive varied from "laser focus" on issues such as the police contract and the midyear layoffs of 263 employees to little day-to-day involvement in preparing the county's $2.7 billion budget for 2013, three sources said.
Bellone's management style sits in contrast with former County Executive Steve Levy, a Republican, who used to monitor legislative debates from his office and feed his aides responses via text message.
Beginning late last year with the response to superstorm Sandy, and continuing this year, Bellone has been far more engaged in daily operations, sources said. He was active in responding to the recent blizzard, and made personal appeals to many county legislators to secure emergency approval for a plan to intensely monitor convicted sex offenders. The measure passed unanimously earlier this month.
Bellone said he is "not doing anything differently than what I did when I negotiated the [police] contract . . . or reducing the layoffs by 100 people," last year, and that he's always been a hands-on manager. ". . . There's nothing going on that is of any significance that I am not aware of."
Last year, however, Bellone spent hours at a time during the week at restaurants, primarily Panera Bread in North Babylon, not far from his home, all of the sources said. At least four social media users reported sightings of him at the chain, with one saying she "always" saw Bellone there.
"He'd meet people there," one source said of Panera. "It was just unusual."
Bellone said that, "if people have seen me working at a diner or a Panera, they've seen me there late at night, seen me there on weekends, working, having meetings. Have I had meetings during the week at places? Sure. But people have seen me at night, on weekends, because I am working seven days a week, literally."
The county executive's frequent absences from the office last spring and summer came as his administration was developing the 2013 budget, which Bellone said closed nearly all of the deficit. But aides didn't regularly discuss budget particulars with Bellone, the sources said.
"You'd have to take risks, and hope that they were the right ones," said a source.
However, Bellone was involved heavily in the post-Sandy response last fall, particularly in pressuring the Long Island Power Authority to restore power faster. One source also said Bellone's style didn't hurt the county because he knew the right times to get involved: "He'd focus incessantly on a project, and when he focuses on a project, he drops off a lot of the extraneous stuff."
The legislature's Deputy Presiding Officer, Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), said Bellone "shouldn't be judged by how often he's in a building; his office is across the county." Horsley acknowledged that he also met Bellone at Panera, saying, "He has a definite management style, where he's focused heavily on one thing and lets the other issues go to the staff. It's no different from when he was supervisor. He's still doing a lot of work."
Legislative Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said that with his style, Bellone needs seasoned aides, but that most of them had little previous county government experience. "These are complex issues, and if you're not going to be around, you need depth around you," Kennedy said.
Bellone's calendar for 2012, obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests, shows his staff set aside four to five hours each week for "private" appointments. Numerous times, he met lawmakers and officials at the Palace Diner in Hauppauge or the South Bay Diner in Lindenhurst.
On May 11, he scheduled an appointment with former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi and others at the South Bay Diner to discuss a proposal to seize and resell underwater home mortgages, the schedule shows.
And twice in May and June, according to the calendar, Bellone's office set meetings with top aides at Panera locations.
A record of Bellone's security card entries into the Dennison Building, also obtained through a FOIL request, shows that Bellone's card logged only seven entries in 2012 -- four in January and three in December. However, the county noted in its FOIL response that Bellone "would rarely be required to show or use his access card."
Public policy experts said elected leaders who are often out of the office must rely more on their staffs, and while they can be more effective than micromanagers, they are also at greater risk of not catching mistakes before they happen.
"They tend to act more like a CEO or chairman of the board -- their real work gets done on strategic issues," said Angie McGuire, an assistant professor of public administration at Rutgers University and director of the school's Center for Executive Leadership in Government. "You might be much further removed if you have a strong team . . . but if you don't [have competent aides], morale could suffer."
Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science and public affairs at Baruch College, said voters want a leader who is hands-on and effective, but that they'll accept "hands-off and effective." He said Bellone's "style certainly opens him up to attack. You can see an opponent pointing out, 'Where was he?' or ads about 'the disappearing county executive.' He may have done the big stuff, but what about the little stuff?"
Those who are familiar with Bellone's schedule emphasized that he has become far more involved in day-to-day matters this year. He has spent significantly more time in the office, said two of the sources, since the January departure of chief deputy Regina Calcaterra, an intense, hands-on manager who now is executive director of the state's Moreland Commission investigating utilities' storm responses.
Calcaterra was replaced by Dennis Cohen, Bellone's childhood friend, who was Babylon and Suffolk County attorney.
"I have to tell you, it's such a dramatic change, it's mind-boggling," the source said of Bellone's presence at the office.