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Compromise could come in Islip supervisor power grab

Trish Bergin Weichbrodt, a Republican, is an Islip

Trish Bergin Weichbrodt, a Republican, is an Islip Town councilwoman. (Jan. 29, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

Embattled Islip Town Board members who touted a plan to strip power from Supervisor Tom Croci said they are actively negotiating an amicable end to the political imbroglio.

The board, which would not provide specifics of a compromise, is set to hold a public hearing Tuesday night on a pair of resolutions that would transfer control of personnel and labor relations, communications and purchasing from the supervisor to the town board -- which Croci has derided.

At a fundraiser late last week for her re-election campaign, Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt said she was "very confident" the board would reach a "positive resolution" that would satisfy everyone.

"I don't have the pieces in place, so I don't want to unveil the whole plan," said Bergin Weichbrodt, whom Croci stripped of her title as deputy supervisor amid the board fracas. "Sometimes you have a difference of opinion, and it's healthy to debate. Unfortunately for us, when you have a family bump in the road, it's public."

Last month, the board's four GOP and one Conservative members introduced a pair of resolutions that would take away Croci's responsibility for hiring and firing, and negotiating union contracts.

Town sources said the flap was over Croci's unwillingness to cave to Islip Republican Committee chairman Frank A. Tantone's demand for patronage hires. Tantone has denied the charge.

"A squabble within the family is always more interesting," said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant. "This is the type of thing where they'll never get the toothpaste back in the tube. If they all kiss and make up and move on, they'll have to start moving on with some new initiatives to get everybody's attention."

Observers are divided over whether the resolutions would hold up under legal scrutiny. Croci, who has sought legal opinions from both the state attorney general and comptroller, said he has not retained an attorney and would wait until after Tuesday to weigh his legal options. Officials from both state agencies have declined to comment.

Paul Sabatino, former counsel to the Suffolk Legislature and a former deputy county executive, said approved resolutions would require an automatic referendum. He cited state Municipal Home Rule Law that requires a public vote when a local law "abolishes, transfers or curtails any power of an elective officer."

"I'm not going to second-guess the motivation of people, but to the extent that the majority of the Islip Town Board believes that they need a new working model to run the town, they have to submit the bill to a mandatory referendum," said Sabatino, a Republican.

Robert L. Cicale, the Islip Town attorney who drafted the proposed legislation for the board, countered that because the duties that would be shifted were granted by the town board through a change to the town code in the 1970s -- not through state law -- they are not automatically subject to a referendum.

Assemb. Thomas McKevitt, a Nassau Republican and attorney, agreed. "The Municipal Home Rule Law gives a lot of leeway to the town to really structure the government any way they choose," he said. "How far can they actually go? It may very well have to be litigated."

Lori A. Mithen, an attorney at the Albany-based Association of Towns, declined to comment on the Islip resolutions, but said that generally, "towns have broad authority to make changes" to government structure.

Former Brookhaven Supervisor Brian X. Foley, who faced similar circumstances in 2008 when his town board took control of the economic development and public relations departments, said it was "extremely difficult" to get things done after what he described as the "coup d'état."

"It was a battle every day," he said. "When it comes to the administration of services, you have to have one person in charge. The buck has to stop with a person, as opposed to a group."

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