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Suffolk legislators approve ballot measure to decide future of treasurer's office

The Suffolk Legislature agreed Tuesday night to let voters decide in November whether the county needs two separate elected positions to oversee its finances.

The legislature voted 12-6 to put the future of the county's elected treasurer position on the fall ballot during a contentious meeting in which members also approved a $200,000 settlement in a 2012 harassment lawsuit against the Suffolk Police Department.

Voters in November will choose either to preserve the treasurer position or fold it into the duties of the comptroller, also an elected office.

The legislature approved the measure despite the opposition of Treasurer Angie Carpenter and others who said Tuesday night that if approved by voters, it would mean fewer checks and balances on Suffolk's financial transactions. "It's one less set of eyes on the county's finances," said Carpenter, a Republican. She has led the fight to block the referendum even after language was changed so it would not take effect after she leaves office.

Bill sponsor Legis. William J. Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) said the county needs to streamline its financial systems and search for savings. The legislature's nonpartisan budget review office estimated the savings at $1.29 million over two years. Those savings would come from eliminating three top employees in the treasurer's office.

Suffolk County is the only county in New York state to have both an elected comptroller and elected treasurer, Lindsay said.

"The checks and balance functions that everyone believes exists is false. They don't exist," Lindsay said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has advocated for the merger because of the cost savings and, he said, it would help streamline government.

Bellone made a similar proposal last year to combine the offices. That bill passed the legislature, but Carpenter successfully challenged it in court based on the process used to pass the law.

While he didn't sponsor this bill, Bellone visited the majority Democratic caucus meeting on Friday to advocate for the passage of the bill, deputy county executive Jon Schneider confirmed.

Democrats and minor party candidates voted for the merger bill, except Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley). Republicans voted against it except for Legis. Thomas F. Barraga (R-West Islip).

Presiding Officer Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he'd support the bill, because it gives the public a chance to decide on the future of the offices. "I don't believe my personal opinion should obstruct the voters," he said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi, (R-Bay Shore), said he was concerned that the Bellone administration didn't do its due diligence before proposing the merger. "I'm continued to be troubled that the county executive office, through performance management team, has not spent a minute of time in the treasurer's office."

The current proposal goes into effect in 2018, once Carpenter is prevented from running for re-election because of term limits.

The legislature also approved a settlement with freelance photographer Philip Datz, who sued the county and Suffolk Police Sgt. Michael Milton for violation of his First Amendment rights. Datz was arrested on an obstruction of governmental administration charge, which was later dropped by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.

On a videotape of the confrontation, Milton is seen ordering Datz to stop filming the scene after a chase that ended on a street in Bohemia. Shortly after, Milton can be seen driving up to Datz and getting out of his Suffolk patrol car before knocking Datz's camera away and taking him into custody.

The county agreed to pay Datz $200,000 and provide First Amendment training to police officers and establish a police-media relations committee.

County Attorney Dennis Brown called it "a fair settlement to both sides."

Lawmakers also passed the Suffolk Taxi and Limousine Commission unanimously which will create the first regulation of cabs by the county. The bill will allow taxis licensed in Suffolk to travel to Nassau and requires drivers to go through a background check and submit to an annual drug test.

They had a contentious discussion over a $300,000 software agreement which the Bellone administration said is necessary to implement the new commission without adding more than two new staffers.

The administration submitted a request for proposals last year and conditionally selected Accela, a San Ramon, California company, even though the legislature had not appropriated the money yet. No contract was signed and the agreement is predicated on the legislature's action, said Sammy Chu, commissioner of the department of Labor, Licensing & Consumer Affairs.

Accela led lawmakers through a PowerPoint presentation earlier in the week.

Republican Minority Leader John M. Kennedy raised concerns over the bid process and raised the issue of Donald Rodgers, the former Suffolk IT Commissioner who was charged with official misconduct.

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