Islip Supervisor Tom Croci returned from a year in Afghanistan to find what he called a broken system that allowed illegal dumping and fractured confidence in the town government as a result.
"Some say, 'out of the frying pan, into the fire,' " Croci, 42, said during an interview last week soon after his return from a tour of duty with the Navy. He holds his first board meeting since his return Tuesday.
Not only must he grapple with a criminal investigation by the Suffolk County district attorney's office into the dumping of contaminated debris in a town-owned park, Croci must also contend with a strapped budget, a struggling municipal airport, and a tense relationship with his town board.
Public trust 'paramount'
District Attorney Thomas Spota's investigation into how thousands of tons of tainted fill came to be dumped in Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood is the biggest item on Croci's agenda. He characterized the dumping as a failure of leadership at the town level.
"I'm getting the sense that for this to have occurred, something was broken," he said. "I'm angry that this happened, period."
His top priority is restoring the trust of Islip residents with their government, Croci said.
"The most important thing is for residents to have trust and confidence in their government and the integrity of public officials. It has to be paramount," he said. "I've lived in a failed state, Afghanistan, where the people for so many years lost confidence in the national government and resorted to surviving any way they could. They had no faith in their elected leaders. So I'm conscious of the fact that . . . we can't ever give the appearance of impropriety, or any special favors."
Soon after landing at the town-owned Long Island MacArthur Airport, Croci announced new measures to tighten accountability at the town level: He ended the system of assigning board members as liaisons to town agencies such as the parks department; he bolstered the ethics code with stiffer penalties for political activity conducted by town employees during work hours; and he prohibited the town board from directly participating in the sale of public property. He also announced that he intended to examine every action the town board took in his absence.
During his deployment, the board approved a change of zone application on an East Islip town parcel that the town had sold to a developer in 2012. The sale of public property was part of an initiative headed by Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt and unanimously approved by Croci and the board. The town ethics board reviewed the sale of the East Islip parcel to a neighbor and campaign contributor to Bergin Weichbrodt and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Croci said his measures are a reaction to complaints from residents, and represent his commitment to transparency. One town board member, however, said decisions had to be made in the supervisor's absence and second guessing them now is unfair.
"I can speak for the whole board -- we've been working our butt off doing his job for him," said Councilman John Cochrane, a Republican like Croci. He pointed out that Croci had voted in favor of selling the East Islip parcel and was the creator of the department liaison system.
"You can't just throw blame out there like that and not communicate with us," he said. He called Croci's accountability measures a move to strip power away from board members.
Looking for reset button
As he was being deployed in June 2013, Croci appointed deputy supervisor Eric Hofmeister to be a nonvoting acting supervisor. The board, however, balked at Croci's attempt to transfer some voting rights to Hofmeister.
"Ultimately the town board made it clear that they were the elected members and they would exercise the ultimate authority in this town in my time away on deployment," Croci said. "As I do the review of the different resolutions from every town board meeting, I'll have a better sense of exactly what was behind some of the thinking in these decisions."
As for his measure to limit board members' role in the sale of town property, he said, "There were great questions about it while I was away and I was informed about that as I have returned."
Addressing Croci's review of the board's actions, Cochrane said, "The board's unified that we should have a reset button and we're waiting for the supervisor to tell us when that reset button is going to happen."
Late Friday, Bergin Weichbrodt and the other board members issued a statement through the town's public relations consultant, Todd Shapiro, saying the board "looks forward to working with the supervisor to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of town government."
Top issues include:
Long Island MacArthur Airport: The town-owned airport in Ronkonkoma lost two airlines in the past year. "I was very deeply disturbed when we lost them because I know how happy we all were and how good those relationships were before I left, so I'm looking forward to doing the review of that as well, to see the state of the airport," Croci said.
Loss of key personnel: The town board replaced the planning commissioner and deputy airport commissioner, and Croci's chief of staff Lynda Distler left her position. "Part of my reviews are going to be reviews of the personnel decisions made," Croci said.
Town budget: Islip was already facing a $11.3 million deficit before the need in Clemente Park for cleanup and remediation. The board has voted to sell up to $6 million in bonds to pay for the work. "So this is the worst possible time for this to happen and the worst possible place, because it's a cost that the town couldn't afford on a good day, but really can't afford now," he said.