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Hempstead supervisor announces ‘sweeping’ ethics reform plan

Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino announced a

Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino announced a "sweeping" ethics reform proposal Friday, July 21, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino announced what he called a “sweeping” ethics reform proposal Friday, advocating for an outside income cap for elected officials that one town board member said was revenge for her vocal criticism of his administration.

Santino, a Republican, said his plan was the “strongest and most comprehensive ethics reform package of any local government on Long Island,” and added he believes his proposed $125,000 outside income limit for elected officials is the first among Long Island towns.

In addition to the income cap, the package includes:

  • increased public disclosure of contracts and bids;
  • a ban on town board members voting on issues pertaining to their immediate family members — though not unmarried significant others;
  • a prohibition on town employees having “direct managerial authority” over immediate family members; and
  • a measure that would bar employees and candidates convicted of a felony from service.

The town board is to hold a public hearing on the proposed reforms at its Sept. 5 meeting.

If enacted, the income cap, which would only apply to earned income, would take effect on the first day of a councilmember’s new term. The town supervisor’s job is full-time and comes with a $160,000 salary. Town board members are part-time and make $71,000.

The other measures would take effect as soon as the new law is filed with the state.

“It is time for everyone in government to decide if they are going to put the people whom they serve before personal profits,” Santino said in a news release.

The proposed reforms would appear to potentially affect some current town board members if they ran for re-election. Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, an aviation lawyer, has said she makes more than $125,000. In March, Councilman Anthony D’Esposito voted for a raise for his mother, a secretary in the highway department, and his father, brother and sister-in-law also work for the town. Santino’s sister is a secretary to the commissioner of general services, and Councilman Dennis Dunne’s son is a plans examiner. Councilman Ed Ambrosino’s daughter was a summer seasonal employee before she resigned a year ago.

Town spokesman Mike Deery said in a statement he wasn’t aware of votes on past personnel actions relating to town board members’ relatives. The town does not currently have a nepotism law.

Friday’s announcement follows the March indictment of Ambrosino on federal income-tax evasion and wire fraud charges that were not related to the town. Ambrosino remains on the town board.

Several other towns have introduced ethics-reform measures following recent indictments, including Oyster Bay and North Hempstead. But Santino said Hempstead has “an exemplary record” on ethics and that his proposals are not “a reaction to any specific individual or any specific situation.”

King Sweeney repeatedly has abstained from votes on contracts in recent months after Ambrosino’s indictment, and has called on Santino to back her proposal to adopt ethics-reform regulations before awarding any contracts.

In a statement Friday, she said she has “never had any business dealings in any way with the Town of Hempstead,” has no relatives on the town payroll, and called Santino’s move “an attempted political hit job” to keep some council members, including herself, from running for re-election.

“I will marshal any and all resources necessary to fight this absurd proposal, which is based on nothing but a personal vendetta and not on sound policy,” King Sweeney said in a phone interview, noting that she was not ruling out legal action.

In April, Councilman Bruce Blakeman proposed creating an inspector general position to monitor waste, corruption and fraud in town government. The motion failed to get on the town’s agenda in a 4-3 vote. Blakeman and Ambrosino could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Santino said Friday he did not seek input from other town board members on his legislation. He added that while his ideas did not include an official inspector general, the posting of all contracts and bids online would mean “we’re going to have thousands of inspector generals,” referring to members of the public.

The state Board of Elections said in a statement that elections law allows for felons to run for office.

Laura Gillen, Democratic candidate for Hempstead Town supervisor, said Santino is only proposing reform to bolster his upcoming re-election bid.

“Tony Santino has been on the town board for over 20 years and he wants us to believe that just now we need transparency,” she said.

Craig Burnett, an assistant political science professor at Hofstra University, said an outside income cap could be a problem if the town salaries are not increased to compensate for it.

“That’s going to be hard for successful lawyers,” Burnett said.

In addition to King Sweeney, Blakeman and Ambrosino are attorneys.

Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy Suffolk County executive and longtime former counsel to the county legislature, said the outside income cap should be based on the nature of the paid activities of the elected official, not the amount he or she earns.

Sabatino said town board members being banned from voting on issues pertaining to their relatives is “Ethics 101” and Santino’s proposal appears to “codify common sense.”

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